Munster dare not let golden chance of derby scalp pass them by

With Leinster eyes firmly on La Rochelle and a fifth European star, Van Graan and co can scratch the itch that has nagged since 2018
Munster dare not let golden chance of derby scalp pass them by

Pointing the way: Munster head coach Johan van Graan. Pic: INPHO/Ben Brady

Whatever about Leo Cullen’s assertion that Leinster's final game of the regular season is not must-win but “want-to-win”, his selection for today’s United Rugby Championship derby with Munster has shifted their priority from must-win to dare-not-lose.

With this evening’s Aviva Stadium fixture sandwiched between Leinster’s European semi-final demolition of Toulouse and next Saturday’s final against La Rochelle, Cullen was never likely to have served his frontliners up for the filling.

Yet with top seeding for the URC play-offs already secure and bigger fish to fry in seven days Cullen has retained just three of his replacements from last weekend’s matchday squad of 23 for tonight’s game. Munster, then, must ensure they can make the most of the opportunity granted them to complete their own business and get the victory that will ensure they finish second and hold off a chasing pack to seal a home quarter-final of their own at Thomond Park on June 4.

It will never be a pushover. This is Leinster after all. The URC top dogs, chasing a fifth European star, have the strength in depth to make light of any absence. They showed that on tour in South Africa last month when they left those same frontliners at home to prepare for the Champions Cup knockout stages and still came close to beating both the Sharks and the Stormers with a mix of second-string senior squad members and unproven academy players. It was good enough for two losing bonus points and assured Leinster of top spot with a game to spare.

That game comes tonight and Cullen has the luxury of turning to his second string once again. It is, though, a side with less experience than the one Leinster fielded against Munster in the Rainbow Cup last season, when the province was plotting an impending European semi-final against La Rochelle. That allowed Munster to leave the RDS with a 23-7 win so the opportunity is clearly there for Johan van Graan and his strongest available selection.

The Munster head coach must do without captain Peter O’Mahony, Damian de Allende, Stephen Archer and Simon Zebo, all missing from the side that took Toulouse all the way over 80 minutes plus extra time in the Champions Cup quarters two weeks ago before succumbing to that agonising penalty-kick contest defeat. Their absences add to those of Tadhg Beirne, Gavin Coombes, John Hodnett and Dave Kilcoyne to name but four, who will also miss out through injury this weekend. Yet Munster, who welcome back Ireland wing Andrew Conway for the first time since January, look to have the experience, momentum and quality to finally claim a first league win over their rivals since December 2018.

Yet they cannot get sucked into any complacency. The possibility of losing second place to one of the Sharks, Stormers, Ulster and Bulls should they fall to another Leinster defeat is very real and could send them tumbling out of the top four and onto the road for a last-eight knockout tie in one of Durban, Cape Town, Belfast or Pretoria.

Munster are in a much better position now than when they played that Rainbow Cup game last year, having added a much-needed layer of creativity in attack and ferocity in contact that unsettled Toulouse for long periods. Yet van Graan has demanded more and it is likely Munster will need to go up another gear to maintain their momentum through this game and into the URC knockout rounds.

Asked this week what his side needed to do better than they had done against Toulouse, the Munster boss focused on the scrum and the need to maintain concentration and standards for the full 80 minutes.

“I think if you look for access points for them during the game obviously we’ve got to scrum better. We came up against a pretty special Toulouse scrum and you saw this weekend again in the semi-final, they put teams under pressure.

“Now we won’t necessarily face that again this season but Leinster has got a very good scrum. In previous games against Leinster they’re a Championship side and we spoke about minutes 30 to 40 specifically where they punish teams. It doesn’t matter who they play against they have the ability to score just before half-time.

“So I think what we need to do better, we’ve got to perform for 80 minutes if we want to get a result on Saturday.” 

Leinster may be understrength but Munster have to stay on task if they are to finish the season on a high and march into the play-offs with confidence. They dare not lose.

LEINSTER: J Larmour; R Russell, J Osborne, C Frawley, R O’Loughlin; H Byrne, C Foley; E Byrne – captain, S Cronin, T Clarkson; J McCarthy, J Murphy; R Baird, S Penny, M Deegan.

Replacements: J McKee, P Dooley, C Healy, D Toner, A Soroka, B Murphy, D Hawkshaw, A Byrne 

MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D Goggin, K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray; J Wycherley, N Scannell, J Ryan; J Kleyn, T Ahern; F Wycherley, A Kendellen, J O’Donoghue - captain.

Replacements: D Barron, J Loughman, K Knox, J Jenkins, J Daly, C Casey, B Healy, R Scannell.

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)

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