Munster's chance for Christmas cheer at Thomond Park

When a Leinster team minus at least nine front line players turns up at a sold-out Thomond Park for a top of the table Guinness PRO12 encounter against full-strength Munster, there really should be only one outcome — a convincing victory for the home side.
Munster's chance for Christmas cheer at Thomond Park

That may well the case when Welsh referee Nigel Owens blows the final whistle shortly before 7.30 this evening, but the Munster fans in the record 26,200 attendance will, no doubt, have endured many nervous moments earlier in the day.

The last thing the Red Army want to see is their team going down to a fourth successive loss to arch their rivals who travel without Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Josh Van Der Flier, Gary Ringrose, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Devin Toner along with the injured Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney.

Very few teams shorn of such talent could hope to win, but Leinster’s so called second string have been producing a succession of impressive results throughout the season and that is why they are tied at the top of the table with today’s opposition and second only on points difference.

Munster coach Rassie Erasmus has adopted a totally different strategy and with the exception of Keith Earls, has included his marquee names in a full-strength 23-man squad.

However, IRFU protocols mean the likes of Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander must miss Saturday’s visit to the Galway Sportsground.

Given his team’s incredibly arduous three-match European Cup schedule as soon as the new year dawns, Erasmus, understandably, believes this is the wisest course of action.

He is also full of admiration for Leinster and the way they have managed a succession of outstanding results even when a dozen players or more were away on international duty.

“They have unbelievable player depth and their coaching staff’s history also speaks for itself,” says Erasmus.

“They gave us a good hiding at the Aviva and one of the three losses we had this year was against them. We’re expecting a very tough game against a well-coached team. It’s a daunting task.”

And even if Leinster are travelling way below full strength, Erasmus’s views are not to be disregarded even if there will be red faces should Munster fail again against their keenest rivals.

They will surely hope to enjoy an advantage in the crucial half-back duel where the experience of Tyler Bleyendaal and Conor Murray far exceeds that of the little-known Ross Byrne and the recently arrived New Zealander, Jamison Gibson-Park.

Even so, the latter scored arguably the try of the European Cup so far in the first game against Northampton Saints while Leo Cullen has expressed total confidence in Byrne as stand-in number ten for both injury victims, Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery.

“Ross has probably played the most of any of the 10s,” he pointed out. “When you think back, he started against Zebre, started against Scarlets, played the majority of the second half against Dragons and played 65 minutes against Northampton as well as the whole of the second game.

“He’s played plenty and ran the team well. He’s been waiting for his chance for a long time and has a good, calm presence.”

While there is little doubt that the Leinster back line, as always, will display its customary class and resilience, it remains to be seen how a forward pack containing only Tadhg Furlong of the unit that humiliated Northampton last week fares against a fired up Munster eight.

Furlong, Cian Healy, playing his 164th game for the province, and new Irish cap James Tracy certainly comprise an excellent front-row who will test John Ryan, Niall Scannell and Cian Healy.

A salient demonstration of the depth of the Leinster squad is the presence in the back five of established players like Mick McCarthy and Rhys Ruddock and two of the many hugely promising back-rowers in the country in Dan Leavy and Jack Conan.

As against that, Munster have strength in abundance with the irrepressible CJ Stander a key figure at number eight supported by internationals Peter O’Mahony, invariably a hugely influential captain, Tommy O’Donnell and Donnacha Ryan and with much expected of the towering South African second-row Jean Kleyn.

It can be safely expected that Francis Saili will be sprung from the bench for his first appearance of the season and with Simon Zebo, Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell in great form, much will be expected of the back division as a whole.

Munster are favoured to use home advantage and the understrength nature of the Leinster squad to move clear at the top of the PRO12 but few would take anything for granted in a meeting of these two great rivals.

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