Peter O’Mahony makes grand entrance

As if biggest game of the weekend needed any further spice, Munster head into the Aviva Stadium cauldron to face their fiercest rivals with the abrasive presence of captain Peter O’Mahony.

Peter O’Mahony makes grand entrance

After just 20 minutes of game time in his locker following a year on the sidelines with a knee injury he suffered against France at the 2015 World Cup, director of rugby Rassie Erasmus has restored O’Mahony to the starting line-up to face Leinster and provide an expected crowd of 41,000 with the spectacle of two sets of Irish Test back rows going hammer and tongs at one another.

The expectation had been that O’Mahony’s return to full match fitness would be less dramatic and he would be sprung from the bench in the pair’s first interprovincial clash of the Guinness PRO12 campaign to continue the groundwork initiated by the flanker’s entrance for the final quarter of Munster’s facile victory over Zebre a week ago in Limerick, his appearance in red since May 23, 2015.

Today’s game is an important staging post, both for the provinces ahead of next week’s Champions Cup pool openers and their players with ambitions of selection by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt for November’s trip to Chicago to face world champions New Zealand.

With Racing 92 awaiting Munster in Paris a week tomorrow and Leinster preparing to welcome Castres to the RDS in seven days, this is a fixture seen as a much-need step up in intensity for both sides but a starting role for O’Mahony was something the Corkman may not have been expecting.

Certainly, his demeanour and words at Wednesday’s Champions Cup launch suggested he was planning to lay down another building block this weekend ahead of European games against the French champions and Glasgow a week later.

“It is going to be a massive step-up for me,” O’Mahony said of today’s game.

“Hopefully, I can get 30-35 minutes. Every time I take the pitch for the next few weeks I will be building my confidence, not just in my rugby, but in my knee as well.”

Like Leinster, Munster have won four of their first five PRO12 games and sit a point and a place above Leo Cullen’s side at second in the league table behind Ulster.

What better stage for Munster to welcome back their leader than a derby game.

“It is always good preparation. It is a step up in intensity and physicality which leads to the following step up in European intensity and physicality.

“It is not international level. It is very close to it. It (Europe) is a big step up from the PRO12.

“It is certainly a great stepping stone to get us prepared for the following week. We have been using this game for a couple of years now to make the bridge from the first five or six games into Europe. The intensity and the passion that goes with it. There’s a huge amount at stake.

“It definitely is a good platform for both of us going into Europe.”

O’Mahony’s return is one of five changes from the 49-5 bonus-point win over Zebre, with hooker Niall Scannell and tighthead prop John Ryan returning to the front row to face an all-Test trio of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Tadhg Furlong.

Billy Holland relinquishes the captaincy and O’Mahony’s number six jersey to partner Donnacha Ryan in the second row while in the backline there is also a return from injury for inside centre Rory Scannell after four weeks out with a neck injury suffered in round two against Cardiff.

Scannell’s selection pushes Springbok centre Jaco Taute onto the bench as the Corkman forms a midfield partnership with Keith Earls in an intriguing match-up against Leinster debutant Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose while the final Munster change sees Ronan O’Mahony back on the left wing at Alex Wootton’s expense.

With Leinster missing injured backs Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney, the return of Rob Kearney at full-back will be welcomed by Cullen, the Ireland star’s inclusion pushing out Zane Kirchner while captain Isa Nacewa comes in on the left wing and academy back Rory O’Loughlin moves from outside centre to the right wing for his first home start, the all-new back three some of the 11 changes from last weekend’s away win at Cardiff.

Ringrose and Henshaw in midfield are two more while scrum-half Luke McGrath returns to relegate Jamieson Gibson-Park to the bench.

The second row sees former Munster lock Ian Nagle face his home province alongside Devin Toner for his home debut in blue while Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy form the back row with Ireland team-mate Jamie Heaslip, who will make his 221st appearance for Leinster to equal Cullen as the province’s second most-capped players behind Gordon D’Arcy (261).

Going up against O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander should provide all the focus they require and likewise for Munster, things are about to get seriously real again.

Leinster will start favourites as both provinces look to consolidate top-four positions but they also need strong workouts ahead of European fixtures to come.

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