Call it what you like, and many people have this week, but tomorrow’s derby between Leinster and Munster at Aviva Stadium never fails to capture the imagination.
Rassie Erasmus may have called Munster’s Guinness PRO14 visit to Dublin “a training match” in preparation for the European pool games ahead but even the South African must realise by now that this is an interprovincial dust-up that cannot be underplayed.
Munster’s director of rugby told radio and online reporters on Monday: “Now it’s a PRO14 game away to Leinster and after that we play Europe, so it’s going to be a great training match with physicality and intensity and pressure that we will experience. It was the same last year and hopefully we can use that going into Europe.”
If Erasmus did not appreciate the importance of this fixture when he spoke those words at this week’s Champions Cup media launch, the comments of players and coaches on both sides of Irish rugby’s red-blue divide will surely have persuaded him otherwise, not to mention ticket sales of 45,000 which will make this a near sell-out tomorrow afternoon.
Not bad for a potentially useful “training match”.
In fairness to Munster’s director of rugby, the logic and logistics of playing this Guinness PRO14 fixture the weekend before the start of Europe’s premier club competition dictate that coaches will be treating this as a preparatory first stage of a three-week block with Erasmus using it as chance to hone his selection issues ahead of a trip to Castres in nine days before Racing 92 arrive in Thomond Park the following Saturday.
Leo Cullen’s Leinster, meanwhile, must equally be looking to further shake off the rust evident in last weekend’s league win over Edinburgh before French league leaders Montpellier visit the RDS and the away day in Glasgow after it.
Nor does the re-jigged and expanded PRO14 format, which places the two protagonists in separate conferences of seven teams apiece, lend any tension to the affair at this early stage of the campaign.
Titles or even play-off berths are definitely not on the line in Dublin tomorrow.
Yet it will be nigh on impossible for any coach to expect their players to divorce themselves from the emotion of such an occasion, too much is on the line, as Cullen, who also described the game ideal preparation for the European contests ahead, conceded.
“This is when the spike happens,” the Leinster head coach said of the mindset about this first interpro of the season. “It focuses the mind for the players because of what’s at stake.
“There is probably somebody clipping at their heels (for Ireland Test selection) on both sides. I am sure there are established guys on the Munster team and up-and-comers in the Leinster team that would want to have a crack at those players because they are competing for higher honours, selection-wise.
“If you look around the world, name me a bigger game. Leinster-Munster games are fantastic occasions, great buy-in from supporters, hopefully we’ll get a great crowd at the Aviva as well because that makes all the difference, it adds to a sense of occasion. If it was behind closed doors in front of 10 people the two teams would be going hard at it, so what the supporters bring really makes the occasion.
“The players, guaranteed, will turn up and deliver intensity, it’s a great fixture.”
Nor do you have to be gunning for Ireland boss Joe Schmidt’s attention. Even the imports buy-in to sense there is more to a Leinster-Munster game than merely league points. Leinster’s New Zealand-born captain Isa Nacewa is a veteran of 16 derbies with Munster and has to miss tomorrow’s game through injury.
“It is always one of my favourites,” Nacewa said. “You know it’s going to be hard, gonna be tough, you know you’ve got to be on your game and it brings out the best in both teams. The fans really add to the occasion: the blue and red armies walking up, the chills you get on the bus driving up to the game. That’s why we play the game and that’s why the Leinster-Munster battle is so famous around the world “I love the game, I love the Leinster Munster battle, there are definite nerves from the start of the week and I always want to be involved in it.”
You suspect Erasmus feels the same way and having been on both sides of the outcome during his first campaign in charge last season he certainly gets what it means to the players. What he also understands is that the qualities this game brings out in them can only benefit his side’s approach to the Champions Cup pool campaign which follows.
“You can’t ask for a game with more pressure, intensity, speed, physicality, so win or lose; last year definitely the experiences we learned from that game we took into Europe. We’d like to win the game obviously but also what we learn in this game is also something nice to transition into Europe, so yeah, good preparation.” For all the suggestions of squad rotation form his southern neighbours, Cullen was certainly not expecting anything other than a fully-loaded Munster team when the starting line-ups were announced at noon today.
“I think both teams will be fully locked this week,” the Leinster boss said. “I think Rassie will name a strong team and I’m pretty sure we’re going to name a strong team.
“The fans that turn out will get full value for money in terms of two teams that will be fully committed to their colours and to their teams. It will be a great game, hopefully.”
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