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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 20 June, 2018
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Fired-up Munster get first shot at toppling European champions Leinster

There’s a place in the Guinness Pro14 final at stake at the RDS this afternoon.

A SOLD-OUT RDS, a 3.15pm kick-off, with sun and a temperature of 20°C forecast, the European Champions fresh from earning a fourth Champions Cup crown, and their fired-up provincial rivals desperate to keep their season alive and advance into the Pro14 final.

Leinster and Munster have had some enthralling clashes over the years but this one feels like it could be special.

Isa Nacewa and Jordi Murphy lift the European Rugby Champions Cup trophy Munster will be motivated to bring Leinster back down to earth. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The eastern province have been forced into some key changes – Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy miss out with injury issues, while Rob Kearney is still battered from Bilbao – but even still have named an exciting team that could tear it up in attack.

Munster have most of their big names in Dublin with them, although this game comes too soon for Chris Cloete and Jaco Taute, both of whom are still chasing full fitness after injuries.

But Munster, by all accounts, are as motivated and focused as they have been for a long time. Their training week is said to have been exceptional.

Their capitulation in the first half of the Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Racing 92 remains an open wound and there is no better place for Johann van Graan’s men to begin truly healing than at a jam-packed RDS.

Leinster have been keen to stress that Munster have had a great deal longer to prepare for this afternoon’s game, but don’t be mistaken about their mindset – winning a Champions Cup and Pro14 double has driven this group of players all season.

“The group wants to separate themselves from other groups that have come before them so the opportunity is there to do something pretty special,” said Leinster boss Leo Cullen yesterday.

Even beyond each province’s motivations and their rivalry with each other, there is a further subplot.

Joe Schmidt will name his Ireland squad to tour Australia midweek next week and will be watching intently today as he copperfastens his final few selection calls.

JJ Hanrahan JJ Hanrahan is at 10 again. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Leinster are favourites and on an eight-point margin with some bookmakers, but we saw last weekend how those forecasts can be inaccurate at times.

“Munster have gone about things in a different way,” said Cullen of the Munster threat. “They do kick a lot with Conor Murray at nine in all sorts of areas of the field, even if it is attacking on the 22. They are dangerous, they have some good guys in the air as well.

“We’ll see how they play and how it is refereed. Stuart Berry is the referee and he is usually pretty strong on guys loitering at the back of the tackle and, hopefully, the game will be a nice, clean contest and we are able to see the ball move around the place.”

Van Graan has backed JJ Hanrahan in the 10 shirt again today, with Ian Keatley kept in reserve, and the opportunity for the Kerryman to make a major statement is clear.

The consistent and influential Rory Scannell will be important on both sides of the ball, while a Munster back three of Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls has counter-attacking quality and a fair degree of aerial prowess.

The impactful Gerbrandt Grobler is restricted to a bench role again, while James Cronin starts at loosehead prop ahead of Dave Kilcoyne and Rhys Marshall gets the nod at hooker, with Niall Scannell in reserve.

After the wet weather in Bilbao last time out, Leinster are hoping to open up a little more this afternoon.

Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour and the returning James Lowe make up an attacking-minded back three, while halfbacks Luke McGrath and Ross Byrne will plan on using centres Isa Nacewa and Garry Ringrose to get good go-forward.

A mobile pack includes Jack Conan back in the starting team, while James Ryan can make it 22 wins from 22 games in professional rugby.

Ross Byrne looks on as Jonathan Sexton prepares to kick Ross Byrne replaces Johnny Sexton at 10. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The changes for Leinster, and the absence of leaders like Sexton and Henshaw, do also mean a little less certainty of Cullen’s men performing at their peak, although they’re aware that recent inconsistencies in the Pro14 are unacceptable.

“The last time we were here [at the RDS], we were beaten by Treviso,” said Cullen. “The last time we played a game in this competition we got absolutely hammered down in the Sportsground in Galway.

“So we know we need to get better, we know we need to be more consistent but it is amazing for us to win a European trophy and then to go out and play in front of our home crowd in the RDS against Munster.”

Even given the injuries, Cullen says Leinster were keen to reward the likes of out-half Byrne, who has been pivotal in the province’s season both in the Pro14 and in Europe.

From Munster’s point of view, the hunger to redeem themselves will be ferocious and playing the best team in Europe is motivation enough.

That these two have a longstanding rivalry makes it all the more appetising.

“I was talking to Scott Fardy,” said Cullen. “He said this is why he wanted to come to the club – to play in games like this.

“He’d seen Leinster v Munster games in the past; they’re talked about around the world.”

Leinster:

15. Joey Carbery
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Isa Nacewa (captain)
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne

9. Luke McGrath
1. Jack McGrath
2. Seán Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Cian Healy
18. Andrew Porter
19. Scott Fardy
20. Max Deegan
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Rory O’Loughlin
23. Barry Daly

Munster:

15. Simon Zebo
14. Andrew Conway
13. Sammy Arnold
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10.  JJ Hanrahan
9. Conor Murray

1. James Cronin
2. Rhys Marshall
3. John Ryan
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Billy Holland
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Jack O’Donoghue
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell
17. Dave Kilcoyne
18. Ciaran Parker
19. Gerbrandt Grobler
20. Robin Copeland
21. Duncan Williams
22. Ian Keatley
23. Darren Sweetnam

Referee: Stuart Berry [SARU].

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Murray Kinsella

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