Fans of both Munster and Leinster have been treated to an enjoyable fly-half battle so far this season and on the Munster side it’s Ian Keatley who starts, with JJ Hanrahan taking a seat on the bench. Rob Penney has been sharing out the load so far and has used a league-high 35 players in four games. Whereas eight Pro 12 teams have at least one player who has played every minute of the opening rounds, Casey Laulala leads Munster with just 240 minutes of game time. That’s the lowest by far in the league, and by some distance.
Leinster’s Ian Madigan, fresh off a perfect six kicks from six against Cardiff topped off with a well-taken try, is given the nod for Leinster at fly-half. Brian O’Driscoll is out with a calf injury suffered in training so recent import Australian Lote Tuqiri comes back from a muscle injury to play at centre outside Gordon D’Arcy. In a world where Ronan O’Gara is coaching in France, rather than pulling on the red jersey, a 77% goal-kicking success rate for Munster’s kickers might look reasonable on the surface. However, there has been a vast difference in the results of the two men taking the shots. Today’s starter Keatley has hit 6 from 11 and with Hanrahan having kicked 14 of 15 the ex-Connacht man will be under pressure.
Munster’s set piece has been superb with both scrum and lineout providing solid platforms for the second season of the more expansive Penney game. Munster’s attacking scrum has been strong, plugging away at a 90% success rate overall and a perfect 1[0 from 10 in their opponents’ 22. Good as that might be, their defensive scrum has been even better with the Munster pack coming away with the ball from almost one in three opposition scrums.
Munster’s hookers have been throwing accurate darts with Mike Sherry hitting 20 from 20 and Damien Varley just behind with 19 from 21.
As with the scrum it’s not only their own ball on which the Munster lineout has proven effective, stealing a league-best 15% of opposition throws. Even more encouraging is that this aerial excellence was achieved in the main without Paul O’Connell, who makes his first start of the season today.
Where discipline is concerned both teams have been awarded four yellow cards in their four games so far; only Scarlets and Zebre have received more. With those cards in mind, it’s worth noting that the whistler taking charge of today’s encounter at Thomond Park will be the Frenchman Romain Poite. Mr Poite achieved some early-season notoriety for his awarding of a yellow card against South African hooker Bismarck du Plessis in Eden Park for a hard but clean hit on New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter.
Mr Poite issued four yellow cards in that match, including two to the unfortunate Du Plessis. Such a total is high but for Mr Poite it’s not unheard of. According to Opta, last season Romain Poite issued a massive total of 33 yellow cards in his 13 Top 14 games.
The nearest to that figure was Patrick Pechamert with 22 yellows despite officiating just one fewer game than Mr Poite.
This season Mr Poite has been throwing around cards at an even faster rate. In his five league games refereed he has awarded 14 yellow cards and two red, with six yellows awarded in one match alone.
As part of their match preparations Rob Penney, Matt O’Connor and their captains will have been going through Mr Poite’s various tendencies. In their pre-match team talks you can be sure a heavy emphasis on discipline will be the order of the day.
* Player and referee data courtesy of Opta.