It has been five meetings and 29 months since Munster last defeated their bitter enemies, in the Celtic League final at Thomond Park on May 28, 2011. Two seasons of home and away defeats in the league followed.
Yet Downey believes much has improved at Munster since then, with Rob Penney’s efforts to broaden his players’ skill sets and add variety to the province’s game plan finally bedding in. Three wins from the opening four games in the RaboDirect Pro12 have shown some evidence of that and Downey, who is expected to make his third appearance of the season this weekend, believes Munster are in a far better position than a year ago.
“I think last year everyone was trying to learn the new plays and get used to the new coaches, but this time we are hitting the season running,” Downey said.
“We’re way, way ahead, there is no comparison to last season. Lads know what they are doing, we don’t need to stop and say ‘what are we doing now?’ We can get a lot more done and add a few more strings to our bow.”
For Downey, 32, a game against his home province brings a special edge to proceedings as it represents another expected clash with fellow midfield war horses Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll.
“Leinster are obviously tough and they are playing well, especially last week, and we need to pick it up a good bit if we are to beat them at home and they are still ahead so we need to rein them back in and it starts with a home win this week. I know we lost to them last season in bad conditions at home but still it was one of the best we played, physicality wise; it was a huge step up and I think we need that.”
For Downey, a clash with the D’Arcy-O’Driscoll axis and the Leinster backline in general serves both as a template for potential Munster improvement and a real battle of wits.
“I think Brian was the difference the last time, just a pick and go try, just a bit of the streetwise we need. We were in the green zone for a good bit but we couldn’t score. Leinster got in there once and they scored. We just need to be ruthless and score when we get in there. I think they took their time and we didn’t so we need to pick it up.
“The two midfielders have been around so long and there is quality there for years, but Leinster still surprise you. You think they will do one thing and they will do another, so you are always on your toes.”
Downey will also be keen to send a message to Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt that he has something to offer. Having earned a long-awaited first Test cap against Canada on the North American tour this summer, he was omitted from the recent 42-man squad for Schmidt’s first training camp at Carton House 10 days ago.
“Obviously [disappointing], yeah. I’ve no arguments with it, though, I know where I stand. The only way that can come is if I’m playing big matches for Munster and I’m up against Gordon this weekend again. I need to keep playing well to keep pushing them and bide my time.”