Leinster and Munster will hunker down at Aviva Stadium this afternoon for their first interprovincial meetings of the season and the place will be awash with playmakers.
True to their words in the build-up to this Guinness PRO14 clash in Dublin, Leo Cullen and Rassie Erasmus have both fielded strong teams while also rotating their squads with an eye on European business ahead in the next fortnight.
There are first starts of the season for Ireland stars Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls, both of whom start in opposing backlines featuring out-halves at numbers 10 and 15. Earls will also have a out-half starting at inside centre as Munster attempt to cover their options for the long-term absence of Springbok Jaco Taute, Tyler Bleyendaal returning to action at number 12 after a week out on the sidelines.
Ian Keatley gets the nod at 10 from Munster director of rugby Erasmus while JJ Hanrahan gets his first start since rejoining the southern province from Northampton Saints with a run at full-back, where his opposite number will be Joey Carbery.
Of course, the daddy of them all is Johnny Sexton, the Ireland and Lions playmaker who captains Leinster and is just five points shy of overtaking Felipe Contepomi’s mark of 1,225 as the province’s all-time leading scorer.
The battle to provide back-up to Sexton in Paddy Jackson’s absence during Ireland’s November internationals is one of the sub-plots to this fixture which features similar selection battles all over the field. Hanrahan, though, believes he is a long way off the pace in that regard, despite an impressive return to action following a shoulder injury with which he arrived from Northampton this summer.
His 25 minutes off the bench in last week’s bonus-point victory over Cardiff Blues produced three clean breaks and two tries, from full-back and the Kerryman gets his chance to shine as the starting 15 this afternoon, with Earls returning to the left wing and Andrew Conway, full-back for the first five rounds, moves to the right wing as Munster’s back three is changed for the first time this season, leading try scorer Alex Wootton dropping to the bench while Darren Sweetnam is rested.
Hanrahan received praise from Erasmus for playing like a out-half from full-back last week and he is more than happy to continue in the same vein.
“Rassie had a quick chat with me (during the Cardiff game),” Hanrahan said. “He put me on at full-back. I was happy just to be on the field, to be honest. Attack is attack, it’s heads up and wherever you end up you do what you need to do in that area, which I was more than happy to do.
“I played Leinster twice last year (for Northampton, in Europe) and was on the back of two big hidings, so I know what they can bring to the party. They’re a very dangerous side so it will be a big, tough challenge.”
Hanrahan has a healthy respect for Leinster’s team of many talents.
“They have very, very good attacking threats, excellent in some areas. They have an ability to play both sides of the park and they’re not a predictable team, which makes it difficult to close them down.
“They’ve got an excellent kicking game as well which is hard to defend and in terms of their defensive game, they get nice width and it’s hard to break them down. I experienced that first hand last year, it’s very difficult and can almost feel like suffocation at times when you’re up against them. Eventually, they wear teams down and they can get on top of you. That’s when their superstars come to light and it all of a sudden goes, we played them at Franklin’s Gardens and it was 13-10 with 50 minutes gone and it ended up 37-10 and you’re going ‘how did that happen?’”
Munster’s new centre partnership sees Bleyendaal replace Rory Scannell at 12, the latter dropping to the bench as the soon to be Irish qualified Kiwi starts alongside Ireland hopeful Chris Farrell.
The size of their challenge to make the autumn squad will be facing them with Henshaw getting his first game time since a torn pectoral muscle ended his Lions tour to New Zealand in late June. Henshaw is partnered at outside centre by Rory O’Loughlin.
There will also be plenty of bite up front where two all-international packs will do battle, Australian lock Scott Fardy the only non-Irishman. James Tracy replaces fellow Ireland hooker Sean Cronin for Leinster while Josh van der Flier comes in at openside flanker and Jack Conan is selected at No. 8. Munster’s pack is unchanged, allowing No. 8 CJ Stander to make his 100th appearance for his adopted province as he goes head to head with Ireland rival Conan to replace the injured Jamie Heaslip for the upcoming Guinness Series.
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