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No room for goodwill as Munster and Leinster renew battle lines in front of record Thomond crowd

The two provinces return to Pro14 action this afternoon as they face off in the latest instalment in their inter-provincial rivalry.

Leinster have won four of the last five meetings between the teams.
Leinster have won four of the last five meetings between the teams.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE SEASON OF goodwill, yet the fire of three inter-provincial derbies for these two sides, beginning today at a sold-out Thomond Park [KO 3.15pm, TG4 and Sky Sports], marks the start of campaign-defining blocks.

Both Munster and Leinster arrive into this afternoon’s fixture coming off the back of their own successes in Europe but attention now reverts back to the Guinness Pro14 for the next few weeks, where an 11-day, three-game period represents a good opportunity to make up ground on the pacesetters in each conference.

For Munster, back-to-back wins over Leicester Tigers has the potential to really ignite their season and a close-to-full-strength selection installs them as firm favourites today, even if the southern province have lost four of the last five meetings between the sides.

Johann van Graan has enjoyed a fine start to his reign in charge and has been able to retain the core of his side which recorded a momentous win at Welford Road last week, making just four changes, two of which are recalls for Rhys Marshall and Andrew Conway while Keith Earls and Tommy O’Donnell also return from injury.

All in all, it’s a strong hand van Graan has been able to play for his first taste of an inter-pro clash and the South African is fully aware of the significance of the fixture.

“It’s the big game in Ireland,” he said. “I did a bit of research over the last few weeks on this game, watched the games last year and the game earlier this year.

“Obviously Leinster is the big Dublin team, quality coaching staff, a lot of quality players, a lot of squad depth. To go to Exeter and to win there, they lost some star players early in the game and had the composure to pull off a result is really impressive.

“So, it will be a 50-50 game, two quality teams going at each other.”

The Munster team — on a run of five straight wins in all competitions — is stacked with quality. The prospect of the resurgent Ian Keatley and Conor Murray pairing up in the half-backs for a third straight game is an exciting one, and Sammy Arnold and Rory Scannell have formed a dynamic partnership in midfield.

Up front, O’Donnell returns to join a back row unit containing captain Peter O’Mahony, who will become the 12th member of the current squad to reach 100 appearances for the province, and, fresh off his recently-signed IRFU contract, CJ Stander.

Johann van Graan Munster have won five games on the bounce. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Leinster don’t have quite the same level of international experience in their side, although that said there are still 10 capped players in their starting XV, which also contains Jordan Larmour at fullback and James Lowe on the wing.

As is usually the case, Leo Cullen has shuffled his pack for the away inter-pro at this juncture of the season and in doing so has made 12 changes in personnel, while the likes of Isa Nacewa, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney aren’t involved at all.

It was the same case 12 months ago when a young Leinster side were beaten 29-17 in Limerick and while the visitors will certainly be up against it again today, van Graan still sees this game as another significant test for his side.

“I’m very, very impressed with how they go about their business,” the Munster coach says of Leinster. “I spent a lot of time watching their away game versus Exeter.

“If you go there, not a lot of teams win. Their composure, they looked fit as individuals. Their quality of personnel, squad depth, quality of coaches. They are a very well-oiled machine.

“We will have to be at our best to beat them, even though we are playing at home. But our common theme, go back to zero.

“Within Ireland, I can’t think of a better game, Munster versus Leinster in a sell-out Thomond Park against quality opposition. It’s a massive test for us.”

Indeed, irrespective of who is playing this is still Munster versus Leinster and a Pro12/Pro14 record crowd of 26,267 underlines the enduring significance of this fixture in the calendar.

The recent history is on Leinster’s side and of the 25 times the sides have met in the last 10 years, the eastern province have won 16, including October’s 23-17 win at the Aviva Stadium.

But to go to Limerick later and raid Munster’s Thomond citadel would be quite an achievement. Whichever way you look at it, all the odds are stacked in the hosts’ favour.

Munster:

15. Andrew Conway
14. Darren Sweetnam
13. Sammy Arnold
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. Ian Keatley
9. Conor Murray

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Rhys Marshall
3. Stephen Archer
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Billy Holland
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. CJ Stander.

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell
17. James Cronin
18. John Ryan
19. Darren O’Shea
20. Jack O’Donoghue
21. Duncan Williams
22. JJ Hanrahan
23. Simon Zebo.

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Barry Daly
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Jack McGrath (captain)
2. James Tracy
3. Michael Bent
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Jordi Murphy
7. Dan Leavy
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Richardt Strauss
17. Ed Byrne
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Mick Kearney
20. Josh van der Flier
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Cathal Marsh
23. Noel Reid

Referee: Nigel Owens.

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