Irish Examiner rugby columnist Simon Lewis looks forward to today’s eagerly anticipated Guinness Pro 14 clash at Thomond Park.
IF you were in Johann van Graan’s shoes right now you might be seriously tempted to invest in a lottery ticket tonight. As Munster prepare to greet arch rivals Leinster to Thomond Park for the first of three Guinness PRO14 interprovincial derbies in 11 days, the head coach’s introduction to Irish rugby could not have gone better.
For all the fears of disruption following the departure of director of rugby Rassie Erasmus midway through the season, the transition to van Graan’s reign as Munster’s main man has been as seamless as was promised.
Back-to-back Champions Cup wins over Leicester Tigers have made it four wins from four since the new head coach assumed the role fresh from his post as Springboks forwards coach. Another South African, defence coach JP Ferreira, arrived during the week to complete the new coaching ticket and the outlook for van Graan’s two-and-a-half year tenure got even better when Ireland and Lions back rows, captain Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander committed their futures to the province for the duration of their new boss’s contract and beyond.
As you would expect, though, van Graan is taking as much for granted as he is taking credit for the current feelgood vibe around Munster. An already familiar phrase from the 37-year-old after each of those victories has been “we start again at zero” and that was certainly the case when the build-up to today’s interpro in Limerick began in earnest at the tail end of last week.
Van Graan knows only too well that whenever a loss does come down the track he will find himself under pressure and as he explained, that is not the challenge, rather the way in which he reacts to it.
“Fear is part and parcel of everyday life. All of us have fears, the main thing is to know why you do things,” the Munster boss said. “To be confident about the process you follow and the people around you.
“As I said from day one, this is not about me. I don’t believe any single person can influence a group so much that you will win or lose by just being there for a week or two. Not at all. I am here hopefully for a long time. I hope to make a very good contribution towards Munster and Irish rugby.
“It’s a long season to go, so great start for me personally but it’s not always about the result. Hopefully, we will do well and get into the play-offs in both competitions at the end of the year and we will take it from there.”
To fulfil his wishes, Munster will certainly have to win games such as today’s potential Christmas cracker at a sell-out Thomond Park, when the festive spirit will be put on hold for 80 minutes of high-intensity rugby with neighbours also in the rudest of health.
Leinster have already got the better of the southern province this season, 23-17 victors at the Aviva Stadium back in October and were arguably more impressive than Munster in scoring away and home wins over their English opponents over the past fortnight, grinding them out to get past Premiership champions and current league leaders Exeter Chiefs.
Both provinces lead their European pools with four games in the books, while there is only a point’s difference between them after 10 games of the PRO14 season to date, Leinster with eight wins, Munster with seven with each second-placed in their respective conferences.
Van Graan may be new to the scene but he has done his homework on this rivalry and it has whetted his appetite for today’s clash.
“It’s the big game in Ireland. I did a bit of research over the last few weeks on this game. Watched the games last year and the game earlier this year. Obviously Leinster is the big Dublin team, quality coaching staff, a lot of quality players, a lot of squad depth.
“To go to Exeter and to win there, they lost some star players early in the game and had the composure to pull off a result is really impressive. So it will be a 50-50 game on the 26th, two quality teams going at each other.
“I’m very, very impressed with how they go about their business. I spent a lot of time watching their away game versus Exeter. If you go there (to Sandy Park), not a lot of teams win. Their composure, they looked fit as individuals. Their quality of personnel, squad depth, quality of coaches. They are a very well-oiled machine.
“We will have to be at our best to beat them, even though we are playing at home. But our common theme, go back to zero. Start planning... and enjoy the week.
“Within Ireland, I can’t think of a better game, Munster versus Leinster on the 26th in a sell-out Thomond Park against quality opposition. It’s a massive test for us.” With three tough derby games for both sides over the festive period and minutes to be managed under the IRFU player welfare rules, team selection was always going to be interesting and the respective coaches have taken different approaches for today’s showdown.
Munster’s four changes to the side which defeated Leicester 25-16 last Sunday week at Welford Road all represent returns from injury with Rhys Marshall and Andrew Conway having successfully completed their return to play protocols following concussions sustained in the previous week’s home European bonus-point win while Keith Earls and Tommy O’Donnell make their comebacks from issues suffered during the first week of Ireland camp at the start of November.
Earls starts his first game since the league defeat at Connacht on October 27, replacing Alex Wootton on the left wing, nine days after being left on the bench as his younger rival excelled against the Tigers. The Ireland star joins a back three which features Conway replacing Simon Zebo at full-back and Darren Sweetnam retaining the right-wing berth.
The rest of the backline starts its fourth successive game as a quartet with Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold in the centres, outside of half-backs Conor Murray and Ian Keatley.
Openside flanker O’Donnell’s reintroduction to the Munster back row alongside O’Mahony, making his 100th Munster appearance, and Stander follows an AC joint injury in his shoulder and comes at the expense of Chris Cloete, who gets a rest after four successive starts in the number seven jersey following his November move from the Southern Kings.
The other change sees Marshall back at hooker between props Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer, while the bench sees another return, this time from a calf injury suffered in November, for loosehead James Cronin.
Leinster will still be one of Munster’s toughest home assignments, even without the likes of Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton. Also missing among the international class are Sean Cronin, Luke McGrath and Andrew Porter, while Jamie Heaslip and Rhys Ruddock are sidelined by injury and Cian Healy is beginning a three-week suspension.
Such absences in the past would have led to much muttering among supporters that they were being short-changed. With additional seating put in place at Thomond Park and an increased capacity of 26,267 set to be fully occupied this afternoon, there will not be too many grumbling at the likely fare on offer.
For one, there is the opportunity to see Leinster’s exciting academy back Jordan Larmour make his first senior start in blue. Larmour starts at full-back as head coach Leo Cullen makes sweeping changes to the side which saw off Exeter at the Aviva last Saturday week.
The former Ireland Under-20 star forms part of a new back three for the visitors with Barry Daly returning to the right wing after an ankle injury and New Zealander James Lowe, the former Chiefs star, hoping to follow up his two-try debut against Benetton Rugby in Italy earlier this month.
There will be acquaintances renewed in midfield where Robbie Henshaw and Rory O’Loughlin start for the second time this season having first been paired in the corresponding fixture in Dublin, when O’Loughlin scored two tries. The absence of Luke McGrath and Sexton, meanwhile brings together Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne at half-back. Lions loosehead prop Jack McGrath captains Leinster for the first time from the front row, leading an all-Irish international pack, that despite the absences has the makings of being a proper handful for van Graan’s charges.
Both sides are buoyant after another successful European window but the onus is on Munster to make home advantage count and gain revenge for that October loss in Dublin. And with greater fluency in terms of selection, this is a chance to lay down a marker for the new year ahead.
MUNSTER: A Conway; D Sweetnam, S Arnold, R Scannell, K Earls; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, R Marshall, S Archer; J Kleyn, B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: N Scannell, J Cronin, John Ryan, D O’Shea, J O’Donoghue, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, S Zebo.
LEINSTER: J Larmour; B Daly, R O’Loughlin, R Henshaw, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath – captain, J Tracy, M Bent; D Toner, James Ryan; J Murphy, D Leavy, J Conan. Replacements: R Strauss, E Byrne, T Furlong, M Kearney, J van der Flier, N McCarthy, C Marsh, N Reid.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).