It seems a little early in the Guinness Pro12 schedule for this match-up between old foes to feel like a crossroads game but for both Leinster and Munster this first weekend of October is exactly the moment where things start to get serious.
With two wins apiece from their opening four league games, coaches Matt O’Connor and Anthony Foley will each want the satisfaction of leaving the Aviva Stadium tonight having drawn a line under the start of their respective campaigns.
And even in defeat, the losing boss will at the very least want to see signs of progression from his side heading into the opening European Champions Cup fixtures a fortnight hence.
There are plenty of reasons for these stuttering starts, not least the graduated re-introduction of Ireland internationals under the IRFU’s player welfare programme that has left the Irish provinces facing full strength Scottish and Welsh sides seriously short-handed.
Then there are the injury lists of both sides which just this week have seen Test stars Sean O’Brien of Leinster and Munster’s Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan ruled out for lengthy spells. So forget misdirected emails and lost passports, that is plenty to occupy the minds of the coaches.
Of the two, Foley has more on his plate and perhaps less to lose from tonight’s fixture. Munster, after all, are heading to the capital in search of a first win there against the Blues in six seasons, having beaten only the Italian sides Treviso and Zebre so far this season. Their defeats have come at Thomond Park no less, against Edinburgh and Ospreys while at least Leinster lost in Glasgow, to last season’s beaten finalists, and Galway as Connacht proved their bogey side yet again at the Sportsground.
Yet while both outfits have been far from fluent in their performances to date, Munster appear to have further to travel in order to reach their desired destination.
O’Connor is a season ahead of Foley in that regard, having replaced Joe Schmidt ahead of the 2013-14 campaign, while the Munster players are still finding their way under the new, indigenous management team installed following the departure of Rob Penney and his backs coach Simon Mannix.
The level of the southern province’s performance at home to Ospreys last weekend, however, had Foley echoing his predecessor’s bugbears.
“It’s about doing the right thing at the right time,” Foley said this week. “Having the ability and just taking ownership of it. Taking ownership of the team and really running with it, making decisions and being accountable for them. The worst thing you can do is not make a decision. We want fellas who can go out and play and back themselves. We just have to try to get into the mentality of what is the best thing to do at that moment. Is it to kick, if it’s to run, lets make that decision and back ourselves.”
Foley will have perhaps his strongest side of the season so far available this evening in Dublin, having made eight changes to the side which lost 19-14 to Ospreys in Limerick.
Robin Copeland returns at No 8, thereby allowing CJ Stander to return to blindside flanker, while Tommy O’Donnell comes in at openside. There is further good news for the head coach in being able to name captain Peter O’Mahony on the bench following his double shoulder surgeries at the end of the last campaign, as well as hooker Damien Varley, while Dave Foley partners Paul O’Connell in the second row for the first time this season.
Simon Zebo returns to the left wing in a back three also containing Andrew Conway and team captain Felix Jones, while Conor Murray and Ian Keatley are retained in the half-backs and will be hoping for better service than they got last time out
Leinster, on the other hand, make just three changes to the line-up which started the victory over Cardiff Blues last week at the RDS, all of them in the forwards, with props Jack McGrath and Mike Ross coming into the front row and Mike McCarthy replacing Kane Douglas at lock.
Regardless of the personnel, Munster have a job on their hands to emulate their most recent away win at Leinster, back in September 2008, not that Foley is fond of dwelling on past errors.
“I don’t think it is a cumulative thing,” Foley said of the losing run. “We have never come off the pitch complaining about anything. They produce an unbelievable atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium, they do sell it out well, it will be a hostile environment for us, we do appreciate that but that also gets your dander up.
“Our recent results up there have been disappointing, but we want to put out a performance that is worthy of winning a game against very good opposition.
“If we do that we have a chance but if we keep looking back on what happened before it just weighs you down. If we keep trying to impose ourselves on them, let’s see where that takes us.”
Leinster v Munster: How they compare - By John Fallon
Leinster: They are going to have to get used to being without Cian Healy and while few teams in the league have the luxury of slotting another current international straight into the spot, they are not going to be able to play Jack McGrath every week. They are starting with big power this evening with Mike Ross and hooker Sean Cronin, who is starting his fifth game of the campaign. The return of Richardt Strauss to the front row for today’s A match at Donnybrook for his first outing of the season is a timely boost. 4/5
Munster: The loss to Ireland of Cian Healy for most of the season sees a battle in Munster between Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin to see who moves up the pecking order. Cronin, who got his first cap in Argentina, gets the nod this evening but Kilcoyne will be out to make a mark. Duncan Casey continues his run at hooker with Damien Varley to make his bow off the bench, while BJ Botha has also been held to give Stephen Archer first shot at battering Leinster. 3/5
Leinster: Kane Douglas made a decent debut last weekend against Cardiff but Matt O’Connor has gone back to basics to start this evening with Mike McCarthy joining Devin Toner in the second row. It’s an area where both sides usually settle for parity and hope to gain an advantage elsewhere. 4/5
Munster: This is a huge match for Dave Foley if he hopes to progress from Emerging Ireland during the summer to something more tangible in November. The lengthy absence of Donnacha Ryan has created an opening which he must exploit and having Paul O’Connell — the only one in the starting 15 for Munster who knows what it is like to win a league game in Dublin — beside him is a big boost. 4/5
Leinster: It will not be lost on Leinster the difficulty which Ospreys created for Munster by constantly targeting the half-backs last week. Not much ball was turned over but the supply line was disrupted enough to create problems for Munster and with Rhys Ruddock in superb form at the moment they will hope for an advantage here. 4/5
Munster: The return of Peter O’Mahony, off the bench this evening, will give Munster badly needed bite in the back row even if it is bound to take him some time to get up to game-speed. Will be interesting to see how Robin Copeland goes as well but you just suspect this is where Leinster will get an edge. 3/5
Leinster: Jimmy Gopperth is again in flying form for Leinster and his unpredictable nature causes untold trouble. Having Ian Madigan behind him is another serious option and once again expect Eoin Reddan’s box-kicking to do damage. The return from the tee is also high. 4/5
Munster: Ian Keatley can’t be happy with his return from kicks at the posts but will be boosted by the way Anthony Foley backed him this week. A better supply will result in a better return from Keatley and, in particular, Conor Murray from open play while JJ Hanrahan must be champing at the bit to get a run. The difference between the sides is notable this season in that Leinster have converted all 12 tries, Munster have added the extras to just four of their ten touchdowns. 3/5
Leinster: This is where it could get really interesting. Leinster huffed and puffed against Cardiff and didn’t really exploit the great work of Gordon D’Arcy, who once again starts at 13. Fergus McFadden will be on high alert for Simon Zebo but will also fancy his chances going forward. On the other side Andrew Conway and Darragh Fanning both have points to prove, while Mick McGrath looked sharp off the bench last weekend. 3.5/5
Munster: Simon Zebo is in superb form and will relish the likes of this evening, but the big question is whether Munster can get the ball wide often enough to him. The attention he is likely to receive should give Conway an opportunity on the other side. Big game this for new signing Andrew Smith as well as the re-deployed Denis Hurley, not least as Hanrahan is likely to be sprung a lot earlier this time. 4/5
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