IN A bid to halt a four-match decline against old rivals Leinster, Munster coach Tony McGahan has identified the breakdown, and Alan Quinlan’s ability to snaffle possession there, as a key element for potential success in tonight’s Magners League clash at the Aviva Stadium.
Accordingly, the 36-year-old counter-rucking specialist has been included in the back row as replacement for David Wallace, who started at blind side in last week’s victory over Glasgow Warriors.
The wily Quinlan will play alongside captain Denis Leamy and the increasingly influential Niall Ronan against a Leinster back row that might struggle without the influence of Shane Jennings; yet the home unit still features Lions number eight and tonight’s captain, Jamie Heaslip, alongside Sean O’Brien and the highly promising youngster Dominic Ryan.
It makes for an absorbing cameo confrontation as Leinster remain unclear about the participation of Jonathan Sexton, who is battling to recover fully from a thigh injury.
Munster’s McGahan has made three changes from last week; the second and third being his options of Wian du Preez at loose head instead of Marcus Horan and John Hayes on the other side instead of Tony Buckley, who has been ruled out with a stomach bug.
Munster captain Denis Leamy is acutely aware that this match represents the biggest challenge of the season to date; his side have lost four on the bounce to their old rivals; it is, of course, a first for all of the players at the Aviva Stadium.
The sell-out crowd will guarantee a special atmosphere but Leamy is conscious the occasion should be parked.
“We cannot afford to dwell on the fact that it’s a special night, we just have to focus on the job and be as positive as we can in that sense.”
Notwithstanding the intensity of the challenge expected from an under-pressure Leinster, Leamy is happy at the level of confidence within his squad, based on recent victories – if not always on specific performances.
“No doubt, winning breeds confidence,” he said this week. “There was a feeling coming into this season after last year that we had lost that edge on confidence and were losing tight games that we would have won in the past. Winning certainly doesn’t do you any harm.”
Leamy won’t boast of vast improvement in Munster’s scrum from this time last year, but he does point out it was crucial for the team to survive and prosper at this level. “Yes, our scrum has improved and that’s heartening but there’s still work to be done there and in other areas.”
The physicality of Munster’s challenge and the benefits that might bring will be equally important, however, the captain believes.
“This game will be won or lost on that physicality battle, it’s as simple as that. Leinster, in the last three or four games against us were able to dominate our scrum and probably at the breakdown as well. They appeared to win all the battles in the contact zones and they came out the better of it. For whatever reason we haven’t matched them and we will have to match them, probably have to beat them, to have a chance of winning.”
Leamy sees his own contribution as vital, given the fact that he comes face to face with old rival Heaslip. It’s a personal aside to an intriguing tussle between two quality back row units, but the Munster man is looking at the collective not the individual jousts to seal the deal.
“We all have our individual jobs to do and I’m sure Jamie will be as anxious as I will to make a point; but I believe part of the reason we lost to Leinster these last few times was because we possibly went our own way, tried to play as individuals and were split; this will have to be a collective effort, for sure.”
Based on current Magners League standings, Munster will start favourites but Leamy doesn’t buy into that.
“No, these games are different, we all know the type of competition that goes with playing a derby. We know each other so well, having grown up playing against one another and it’s just one of the great games to be involved in. As far as one or the other team being tipped as favourites, all bets are off on this one.”
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