Munster and Leinster meet this evening for the third time since a welcome return to action in August from the first lockdown. Against all odds, given the players had no game time since last March, the quality on offer that evening at the Aviva Stadium was stunning. To add to the excitement, JJ Hanrahan had a touchline conversion at the death to draw the game but come up just short.
For Munster supporters, the sheer joy of being able to watch live rugby again was tempered after only seven minutes by the sight of giant Springbok signing RG Snyman punching the ground in frustration. Dropped from a height while competing in the line out, he didn’t require the mandatory MRI scan to confirm a serious knee injury.
When Munster were beaten more comprehensively in the Guinness PRO14 semi-final two weeks later, the portents of doom set in before the new season even started. Since then, Munster have enjoyed a wonderful run of results. One defeat in twelve games, and that away to Ulster with an understrength side, has served to make the absent Red Army somewhat giddy.
After what transpired in the Stade Marcel-Michelin against Clermont Auvergne in round two of the Heineken Champions Cup, who could blame them. Nobody, not even Munster at the height of their powers in the mid to late noughties, could contemplate recovering from a 19-point deficit after only 24 minutes in one of the great citadels of French rugby.
That win has ratcheted up expectation levels around an evolving Munster squad but, as always, the litmus test is how they perform against Leinster. With so much to play for, both individually and collectively, tonight's contest will be full-on.
Johann van Graan has led Munster into battle against Leinster eight times since his arrival from South Africa but has experienced the sweet taste of victory only once. Now that Stephen Larkham and Graham Rowntree have got their heads around the nuances that make Irish rugby players tick, the benefits are beginning to emerge.
Unusually for a game this early in the season, the outcome will have a massive bearing on who will eventually be crowned Guinness PRO14 champions this year. Given the revised format of the tournament, with the top team from each conference advancing straight to a final currently scheduled for March 27th, Munster will view this contest as a gilt-edged chance to kill the Leinster challenge off early.
Put it another way: Munster have a better chance of beating Leinster in Thomond Park tonight than in a final that could be staged at the Aviva Stadium in two months' time. If Leinster lose, they will fall even further behind Conference A leaders Ulster with a trip to Belfast still to come.
The fact that both teams have something far more tangible to play for than that meaningless bragging rights adds further spice. In any event, recording only a second win over Leinster in the last nine contests is hardly worthy of any air of superiority for Munster.
What this highly motivated group of Munster players are chasing is silverware, not bragging rights. That Heineken Cup win in Clermont was a seminal moment but needs to be built on. This game represents a big opportunity to do just that. The fact that both teams are jam-packed with frontline internationals makes for an intense encounter.
The only potential spoiler is an adverse weather forecast, not that the freezing conditions set to prevail tonight will impact on two ravenous packs of forwards to any great degree. As always, that is where the ground rules for this encounter will be set.
Much was made earlier in the week about Van Graan’s dig at Leo Cullen’s post-match comments in September surrounding Munster’s slavish devotion to the box kick. Let’s face it, when it comes to sledging opposition players or coaches, Johann is in the halfpenny slot in comparison to Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland, Michael Cheika or Steve Hansen. He is simply too nice a guy.
The bottom line is that it wasn’t Munster’s tactical approach that undid them last time out in Dublin - it was the execution of that approach. The kicks were poor and made even worse by a lack of any real chase pressure applied on Leinster’s back three.
Since then, Munster have developed their attacking game so much more with Larkham’s influence a lot more pronounced as the understanding between Damian de Allende and Chris Farrell in midfield becomes more telepathic.
An interesting sideshow to events this evening is the relevance Andy Farrell places on individual performances in the key head-to-heads taking place all over the field. The battle of the back row should be fascinating with both trios worthy of making Ireland’s Six Nations squad. That said, it’s disappointing to see that Dan Leavy hasn’t made the cut for Leinster.
Tadhg Beirne has been in scintillating form of late and must be pushing hard for a starting place in the second row for Ireland. While short of playing time recently, Dave Kilcoyne must be breathing down the neck of Ireland’s newest centurion Cain Healy for a place at loose head and will be keen to make a big impact once introduced off the bench.
Even from De Allende’s first outing in red, against Leinster last August, you could see that he was very conscious of Leinster’s class in midfield against Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. The midfield pairings go head to head for the third consecutive time in this fixture and with Munster showing more threat with ball in hand of late, that battle will be fascinating.
Munster appear in a better position to win this contest than at any time recently but they will have to perform at the top of their game. Despite my earlier assertion surrounding the chance to kill off Leinster’s PRO14 challenge, something Ulster will also be hoping for, there is a real possibility that that outcome may not be as clear cut as it appears right now.
The current format, with a straight shoot out between the conference winners in a grand final, was introduced to cater for the addition of the top four South African teams in the newly-created Rainbow Cup which is due to launch in April.
Given how serious the coronavirus is at present, both here and in South Africa, what are the chances of that innovative new competition going ahead on schedule? It looks unlikely at this juncture. If that proves to be the case, the PRO14 organisers may be left with no option but to revert to the original format with playoffs and a semi-final.
If so then tonight’s result may not prove as significant in the longer term. But tonight is the here and the now. There is one certainty - neither side will hold nothing in reserve tonight.