The key battles as Munster and Leinster face off in the Pro14 final.
In Leinster’s Jordi Murphy and Munster’s Jack O’Donoghue, today’s number seven jerseys are occupied by versatile back rowers covering for the absences through injury of more regular starters.
Yet both are Ireland internationals and their contributions could be key in the battle for breakdown supremacy.
Murphy, set to move north to Ulster for next season, will want to exit the RDS in style as he switches from No.8 in Bilbao last week to replace Dan Leavy, who in turn had stepped capably into the position vacated by Sean O’Brien for both Leinster and Ireland.
O’Donoghue, more comfortable at No.8 or on the blindside, has adjusted well to the openside with orthodox sevens Chris Cloete and Tommy O’Donnell sidelined and the Waterford man will need to be on top of his role as Munster bid to slow Leinster ball down as effectively as Racing did last week.
Both Ross Byrne and JJ Hanrahan have been handed their chances to guide their teams in the absence of injured first-choice playmakers. With Johnny Sexton tweaking a groin muscle in last week’s win over Racing 92, Byrne, 23, gets the nod ahead of Joey Carbery, who starts at full-back and is given the opportunity to score a second victory of the season over Munster, after kicking two penalties and three conversions in the PRO14 win at Thomond Park over Christmas.
Byrne is well capable of unleashing his backline to devastating effect while his tactical kicking has been on the money all season.
Hanrahan, 25, has yet to impose his leadership on this Munster team since his return from two seasons in a struggling Northampton set-up, yet the Kerryman has won the trust of Johann van Graan ahead of Ian Keatley. Hanrahan has become more assured with each start and he will need to take his performance up another level again.
There are two fascinating contests for the price of one here as newly-crowned Players’ Player of the Year Keith Earls goes up against Leinster wunderkind Jordan Larmour on one flank while New Zealander James Lowe goes toe to toe with Andrew Conway on the other.
The individual honours have been pouring for Earls after a brilliant season with Munster and Ireland.
Six Nations player of the championship as he helped Ireland to a first Grand Slam in nine years and also earning the respect of his contemporaries after being voted Munster’s player of the year before topping this week’s Rugby Players Ireland poll.
Yet Earls will have his hands full against Larmour. It was against Munster on December 26 that the 20-year-old rubber-stamped his burgeoning reputation with a brilliant try from inside his own half.
Earls missed that game but the contest saw a battle royale between Lowe and Conway with the Kiwi flyer denied a certain try when he was taken out by the Munster wing, landing the latter in the sin bin and garnering the visitors a penalty try and an automatic seven points as Leinster jumped into a 27-5 first-half lead.
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