Sparks to fly as new chapter begins for grand old rivals

Old foes meet once again tonight in familiar surroundings as another season rumbles into life, but this first meeting of the campaign between Munster and Leinster promises to be far from predictable.

Of course it promises to be a titanic tussle or near Test match intensity, that is always a given when these two factions play. Yet for both provinces, a new chapter in their respective narratives is under way and this evening’s clash at Thomond Park represents the first real indication of the direction those story arcs may take.

For the home side, a year into head coach Rob Penney’s tenure, Munster are adjusting to life without Ronan O’Gara and Doug Howlett, while Leinster arrive in Limerick with a new man at the helm in Matt O’Connor and minus not just the retired Isa Nacewa but also their departed playmaker Jonathan Sexton.

No doubt there will be a television screen in the Parisian suburbs with two displaced Irish fly-halves parked in front of it as Racing Metro’s new assistant coach and No.10 settle down after their game against Grenoble to watch how their former team-mates get on with business without them.

And they will not be alone in wondering how their replacements, Munster’s Ian Keatley and Leinster’s Ian Madigan, take their first steps as the new main men.

For the new season begins in earnest tonight, with no player who is fit being kept in reserve for another day and the coaches having shown their hands in terms of early pecking orders.

Penney has been unequivocal in his belief that Keatley, at 26 and after two years as understudy to O’Gara since his move south from Connacht, deserves his chance to step out from the shadows. He could have decided to fast-track Keatley’s younger rival JJ Hanrahan but the New Zealander believes the 20-year-old, for all his potential, still has much to learn, particularly in terms of game management, before he is burdened with the responsibility of shepherding Munster around the park on a more permanent basis.

Keatley starts tonight and has already shown he can direct operations with good decision-making and he will need every facet of his skills set to get the better of a Leinster side which has won the last four encounters between the two provinces.

None of that quartet of Leinster victories was a blowout but while these close-run affairs have often turned on a moment of magic, most recently Brian O’Driscoll’s excellent and decisive try after 26 phases of play at Thomond Park in April, Munster have often been guilty of inaccuracy and indiscipline when it mattered most and those are fatal lapses in these intensely physical encounters.

The bookmakers assume this is going to be a foregone conclusion with Leinster continuing their dominance with a fifth straight win but with no Nacewa and Sexton, with O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen injured and with a coach for whom an interprovincial barnburner is a new experience, the playing field has been levelled somewhat.

Since Penney took over, and in spite of some often quite painful teething problems, Munster have shown they can move the ball about every bit as well as Leinster have done over the past three or four years. Those teething problems have often come back to bite them but a year into the project to play what they see in front of them, Munster are bedding in as a side that can play expansive rugby just as comfortably as the narrow, one-phase stuff.

Penney, speaking at Tuesday’s launch of the upcoming Heineken Cup campaign, which begins next weekend, spoke at length of Leinster’s “gifted athletes”. He waxed lyrical about back rowers Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, praised the province’s fly-half options in Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth and drooled over O’Driscoll’s “sublime” performance last weekend against Cardiff Blues.

The Munster boss will be delighted the best player of his generation will not be parading his skills in Thomond Park tonight but while he was well aware of the variety of threats that remain at his rival coach O’Connor’s disposal, he added: “BI look at our group and we’ve got a group equally capable of challenging them.”

Munster have a totem of their own in Paul O’Connell but he is making his first start of the season tonight having returned as a substitute against the Dragons last weekend from the broken arm suffered in the Lions’ second Test against Australia in June. Full-back Felix Jones is another making his first start of the campaign this evening while scrum-half Conor Murray gets his season underway off the bench at some stage.

Leinster, meanwhile have had all their big guns back in harness much sooner and that could well stand to them in Limerick. That and a bench that features firepower in the form of Gopperth, Isaac Boss and Luke Fitzgerald, and O’Connor is happy with the way he has integrated his Irish internationals into the side under the IRFU player welfare guidelines.

“It is an issue for those guys. It is an issue for combinations. It heightens the focus for those guys and gets them back into that competitive cup-winning mentality quicker than you would otherwise,” O’Connor said. “It is probably a little too intense for blokes coming straight back into rugby. But, you can’t do much about that.”

Munster can’t do much about the hand they’ve been dealt, and missing back rower Tommy O’Donnell is a big blow while successfully re-integrating O’Connell, Jones and Murray is a tall order in such a physical game. O’Connor will get his first taste of just how intense this fixture can be when he takes his seat at Thomond Park tonight.

How they compare: Munster v Leinster

SCRUM

Munster: The Munster pack has been going well so far this season, adjusting comfortably to the new scrum laws. Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer start in the front row and there is plenty of muscle behind them in the form of Donnacha Ryan and Paul O’Connell. 3.5/5

Leinster:If the Munster front-row are to cement their places at Test level they will have to get past the Blues’ Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross first and the Ireland trio are already firing. The scrum battle may well come down to Romain Poite’s refereeing of this, his pet area. 4/5

LINEOUT

Munster: With Ryan and O’Connell back in tandem, Peter O’Mahony offering another option at the back and Sherry throwing, Munster can really get their mauling drives going at lineout time. A potent weapon that can hurt Leinster. 4/5

Leinster:Still no Leo Cullen in the Leinster second-row but new boy Mike McCarthy has solved a big area of concern for the province. He partners Devin Toner and there are several options in the back row with Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Kevin McLaughlin all able jumpers. 4/5

BREAKDOWN

Munster: Tommy O’Donnell’s absence from the Munster back row is a blow for the home side although in Niall Ronan they possess an out and out open side to scrap it out alongside James Coughlan and captain O’Mahony. 3.5/5

Leinster: This has been the area Leinster have tended to dominate in these interprovincial dust-ups and they appear to have the edge here again with Heaslip and Sean O’Brien up and running alongside McLaughlin and Healy, to name but two. 4.5/5

KICKING

Munster: No Ronan O’Gara, of course, with Ian Keatley assuming the goal-kicking duties tonight and having established himself as a solid tactical kicker. Felix Jones’s return at full-back also gives Munster a counter-attacking threat with the boot. 3.5/5

Leinster: Ian Madigan is a place kicker of the highest calibre and with an excellent tactical nous kicking out of hand, ably supported by full-back Rob Kearney and wings Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney. 4/5

WIDE GAME

Munster: When it’s good, it’s very very good and Munster’s backline has been fizzing at times already this season. Last week against Dragons, starting fly-half JJ Hanrahan was more conservative, but the more experienced Keatley could bring better command. There’s lots of potential 12 months in to the Penney project. 3.5/5

Leinster: Following the exit of Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan gets the nod over Jimmy Gopperth at fly-half for just the second time this season and brings a spark to Leinster’s running game, which came to life with the Irishman at the helm last week. Brian O’Driscoll’s calf injury, though, levels the playing field. 3.5/5

Totals: Munster: 18/25

Leinster: 20/25

The vital stats

Recent league meetings

Saturday, April 2, 2011: Munster 24 Leinster 23, Thomond Park

Saturday, May 28, 2011: Grand final: Munster 19 Leinster 9, Thomond Park

Friday, November 4, 2011: Leinster 24 Munster 19, Aviva Stadium

Saturday, March 31, 2012: Munster 9 Leinster 18, Thomond Park

Saturday, October 6, 2012: Leinster 30 Munster 21, Aviva Stadium

Saturday, April 13, 2013: Munster 16 Leinster 22, Thomond Park

Match facts

* Munster’s only loss in their last five RaboDirect PRO12 contests came in round 3 in Treviso.

* The Munstermen have suffered just one reversal at Thomond Park in any competition since April 2012 — a 22-16 loss to Leinster in this equivalent fixture last season.

* Leinster’s only defeat in their last dozen matches in all tournaments was 12-6 at table-topping Glasgow on September 20.

* The Leinstermen have won four of their last six away games against fellow Irish provinces.

* Munster have been defeated in their last four fixtures against Leinster since Munster prevailed in the 2011 league final in Limerick.

* Leinster are going for a third successive victory on Munster soil for the first time since 1971.

Munster form guide

28/9/13: Munster 23-9 Dragons

20/9/13: Treviso 29-19 Munster

13/9/13: Zebre 21-43 Munster

Leinster form guide

27/9/13: Leinster 34-20 Blues

20/9/13: Glasgow 12-6 Leinster

14/9/13: Leinster 29-29 Ospreys

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