Munster must prove they can win big games

CJ Stander

Donal Lenihan looks at three statements Munster need to make today to beat Leinster. 

Time to lay down a marker

You have to go back to the 2014/15 season, Anthony Foley’s first as head coach, for the last time that Munster did the double over Leinster.

Prior to that, it was back in the glory days of 2008/09.

It’s not going to happen this season either with Leo Cullen’s men already one up in the annual series after their 30-22 win at the Aviva Stadium back in October. Since that double four years ago, the teams have met on seven occasions with Leinster winning six. In fact, ever since that seismic Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park in 2009, a capacity audience of 82,208 people witnessed a shifting of the guard in terms of Ireland’s leading provincial power.

Leinster have remained firmly on top of the pile since that afternoon.

Given the bottomless pit of quality talent that Leinster appears to unearth on an annual basis, it’s unlikely, regardless of today’s result, that the domestic pecking order is going to change any time soon.

That said, Munster badly need to alter the trend of recent results, starting today, in order to convince themselves that, should the two sides meet again later in the season, they have what it takes to come out on top.

Leinster have been winning all the key psychological battles for some time now, most recently in their ability to overturn a 17 point deficit over a frantic last 12 minutes to rescue a fascinating contest against Connacht at the RDS last weekend.

Connacht looked home and hosed at 12-29, but Leinster refused to be beaten. It’s that type of belligerence and never say die attitude, despite the composition of their team, that has them where they are at the moment.

Munster badly need to rattle that belief today and demonstrate to themselves that they have what it takes to come out on top in confrontational derbies such as this, especially at Thomond Park.

If Munster want to end the drought when it comes to capturing silverware, they need to start winning games such as this, with home advantage offering an edge that mightn’t be on offer at the business end of the season.

Back row showdown

The depth and quality of Leinster’s back row resources was central to everything the province achieved last season on their way to a stunning domestic and European double.

With the exception of the recent outing against Bath at the Rec, when the twin poaching ability of Sam Underhill and Francois Lowe wreaked havoc, that breakaway dominance has been a constant.

Leinster No 8 Jack Conan

Bath showed that Leinster, no different to any other gifted attacking side including New Zealand, find it very difficult to function off slow ball. The Premiership side succeeded in frustrating Leinster at the breakdown in the first of their back to back Champions Cup showdowns and that, coupled with the adverse weather conditions that always favours a team delivering a punishing line speed in defence, succeeded in suffocating Leinster’s impressive attacking prowess.

Despite these hindrances, Leinster still found a way to win. Even more significant, with a better balance in the back row trio after Jack Conan was restored to the starting line up for the return fixture in Dublin, they addressed all the shortcomings that restricted them the previous week.

Today a combination of Rhys Ruddock, Jack Conan and Josh Van Der Flier, is set for a fascinating battle against CJ Stander, Fineen Wycherley — his biggest outing to date in a Munster jersey — and Chris Cloete.

While the absence of Munster captain Peter O Mahony is regrettable, Stander is a regular starter ahead of his Leinster counterpart Conan for Ireland and will be keen to press home that message.

So much will depend on the foundation laid by the respective front fives where the set piece duels at every scrum and line out will be contested fanatically. With Iain Henderson out of action for the early rounds of Six Nations action, Tadhg Beirne has a big opportunity to tie down at least a place on the Irish bench while Jean Kleyn will also be keen to show that he can compete against a quality international locking pair such as Scott Fardy and James Ryan, given that he becomes Irish eligible in advance of next year’s World Cup campaign.

It’s rare these days to see two, near full strength, Munster and Leinster packs going toe to toe which will only serve to add to the occasion. With the quality of the back line Leinster bring to this contest, Munster badly need their back row to lead the charge and put Conor Murray on the front foot.

Munster need to match Leinster’s variety in attack

The return to arms of Chris Farrell against Edinburgh in Cork last month and the eight try-scoring fest that followed (all scored by backs) prompted hopes that Munster’s attacking stock was on the rise. Unfortunately Farrell hasn’t featured since and Munster’s creativity in attack has suffered.

In their last two outings, successive away defeats to Castres and Ulster, Munster failed to score a try. Not even the sight of a line out maul or a close in Stander special after a traditional series of pick and drives. That is a worry going into this contest. Castres’s defensive line speed succeeded in putting Munster’s fledgling half-back pairing of Conor Murray and Joey Carbery on the back foot the last time they started together and Leinster will seek to do the same today.

On the flip side when those roles are reversed, Johnny Sexton’s ability to play flat on the gain line still enables Leinster to find a way to generate line breaks. It helps that Garry Ringrose appears to have found another gear this year and so often he is the one making hay from Sexton’s ability to create space for others in a cluttered midfield.

In Farrell’s absence, Munster have found it difficult to unlock teams who deliver the type of defensive line speed which Leinster are capable of. Munster need to create opportunities for Andrew Conway and Keith Earls, both in superb form, to exploit but right now have no one to match the attacking threat Ringrose carries at outside centre.

As a consequence, they need to be a bit more innovative off first phase and ask questions that Leinster might not be expecting. There has been welcome glimmers of more creativity in attack at various points this season but not against fully loaded front line opposition.

Munster’s midfield keeps changing, which doesn’t help, and today’s combination of Rory Scannell and the returning Dan Goggin must be razor sharp, both in attack and defence, to keep Leinster’s pacey back three at bay.

While Munster’s away form this season has come under scrutiny, they have remained unbeaten at home since the corresponding fixture just over a year ago.

Win today and it could well prove a launching pad towards extending that proud record for another 12 months. Lose and the nagging doubts that attach to beating the top sides at the knockout phase of big tournaments will persist.

That’s why Munster’s need for a win over their great rivals is so important today.

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