As big as this fixture has been in the professional era, there was a time when the twice annual dust-up between Leinster and Munster was more than the sum of its parts, a prelude to a greater objective.
This season, the Champions Cup quarter-finals may still be a week away but they are of little interest to these two once-proud provinces.
Leinster and Munster are fallen champions, no longer able to punch above their weight in Europe as they did between 2006 and 2012 when the Heineken Cup was brought back to Ireland a remarkable five times in seven seasons.
But don’t be fooled into thinking this evening’s showdown in Dublin between the two old warhorses carries no significance. Far from it. If anything, this Guinness Pro12 clash at Aviva Stadium, stripped of its wider context, is laden with greater meaning for both sides.
Never before has a regular season league meeting between the two had so much riding on it. With only three rounds remaining after this weekend Leinster, in second, have lost their last two games, including last Saturday’s nailbiting 7-6 thriller at Pro12 leaders Connacht, and now find Scarlets biting at their ankles, just two points behind. By the time they kick off against Munster, Leo Cullen’s side may well have been overtaken and kicked out of a home semi-final spot with the West Wales region in derby action themselves at home to Cardiff Blues in Llanelli at 3pm.
Munster, meanwhile, are locked in a battle for fourth place with Ulster, who entertained Connacht in Belfast last night, and defending champions Glasgow, who face Treviso in Italy, also at 5:30pm today and have a game in hand on both those Irish provinces. Before last night both were just a point back of Munster. Should Anthony Foley’s side lose to Leinster and never mind the play-offs, even an all-important top six finish which ensures European qualification for next season will hang in the balance.
Throw in a 40,000-plus crowd at the national stadium and this is an interprovincial derby with a difference, the stress levels pushing through the roof for players, coaches and supporters alike.
Both sides recognise it and neither can honestly claim to be unburdened by it.
“There is pressure on both teams,” Cullen said yesterday. “Everyone wants to progress into the semi-finals. We have lost two games on the bounce, Glasgow and Connacht away, and we just want to get back to winning ways. There is enough pressure involved in that and in what we want to do in terms of delivering a performance in the Aviva Stadium in front of supporters. So guys have prepared well this week. There is always some soul-searching that goes on after losing a couple of games so we just need to focus in on what’s important for us to deliver a performance. External factors like must-win games and who it is more important for are not really important to us. It will still be important for both teams if we were 12th and they were first because it is a rivalry that has been there for many years and they are great occasions.”
Munster scrum-half Conor Murray concurred, brave enough even to predict the outcome of this afternoon’s Welsh derby and its effect on Leinster.
“It’s a massive game for both. Scarlets are playing Cardiff at home and you would imagine they might get a win there and that will put pressure on Leinster in the home semi-final position so they are going to want to protect that.
“We want to stay in the top four, we want to be involved in play-off rugby. There is a lot of teams under us (heading into the weekend) quite close. Glasgow have the game in hand and presumably they will win that. We have to maintain the pressure there too. I don’t know who it is more important for. For us it’s a huge, huge game and I’m sure they will be saying the same thing. Qualifying for Europe is massive for this club and we are under no illusions, we need to perform well for the rest of this season to look forward to next season.”
Munster lost to Leinster on home turf at Thomond Park on December 27, their captain CJ Stander describing the 24-7 defeat as a hiding during a miserable run of form that derailed Foley’s campaign in both Europe and the Pro12.
They are hardly the form team now, their three wins in the last seven coming against Zebre away and home and a Limerick victory over the Dragons.
Yet while Leinster have been soul-searching following that painful Connacht reverse, Munster are in a positive frame of mind collectively. The vibes are strong following that 47-0 hammering of Zebre and the returning internationals have detected a sharp change in attitude and intensity among the players they left behind in January. Leinster look stronger and more battle-hardened in many positions, not least at fly-half where Johnny Sexton returns after a fine Six Nations to go against the inexperienced Johnny Holland. Yet like Holland, there is something about Munster’s potential and demeanour that suggests the home side may be in for a fight at the Aviva this evening. It is the least Munster must deliver if they are to close in on a meaningful finishing position in this ultra-competitive league campaign.
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