Rob Penney operating with more freedom
WITH THE NEW Zealander set to leave Munster at the end of the season, there is a sense that he can finish his reign with more focus on his rugby philosophy. Last weekend’s drab victory over Treviso was far from an advertisement for his Canterbury-influenced style, but this weekend is an altogether different platform.
Munster have produced two strong performances against Leinster during Penney’s time as head coach; the 19-15 win at Thomond Park earlier this season and the 30-21 defeat at the Aviva in October of 2012. The former clash saw Munster excel at the breakdown, while also adding in a clever try from an Ian Keatley cross-field kick.
Those displays provide the outline for Penney’s men for Saturday; a marriage of outright aggression in the ‘tight’ areas of the maul, scrum, line-out and rucks with a continued focus on searching for favourable one-on-ones in wide channels.
Where are Leinster in their development under O’Connor?
Following Joe Schmidt into the head coaching job was never gong to be an easy feat for Matt O’Connor, and it would be unfair to judge his success in replacing the Kiwi until the end of the season.
The earliest impression of the Australian’s game plan was one which focused less on attacking possession than Schmidt’s and more on ensuring that Leinster were spending as much time as possible in opposition territory.
However, the thrilling 40-7 success against Northampton in December suggested a more Schmidt-esque concentration on ensuring a breathtakingly high tempo when in possession of the ball.
Results in recent months have been strong, leaving Leinster as Pro12 leaders, but with that Heineken Cup quarter-final against Toulon rapidly approaching, it remains difficult to judge whether or not O’Connor has added any new strings to the province’s bow.
Back row selections could prove key
Leinster will need to get Jamie Heaslip back up to speed after a rest weekend, meaning he is likely to start at No. 8, but either side of him, Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings Dominic Ryan, Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock provide international options.
The line-out strength of McLaughlin will be tempting against a Munster side who have quality jumpers of their own, but Ruddock’s ability in the collisions should see him get the nod on the blindside.
On the openside, Shane Jennings’ communication and breakdown ability could be important, but Murphy and Ryan offer more in terms of ball carrying and power.
For Munster, those explosive attacking contributions are likely to come from Tommy O’Donnell, who played a part in Ireland’s Six Nations triumph. James Coughlan’s high work rate from No. 8 means he looks a shoe-in at the back of the scrum.
The returning captain Peter O’Mahony would round off the expected back row selection, but the likes of CJ Stander and Sean Dougall provide Munster with the opportunity to alter their tactical approach in the second half.
All out for victory or holding something in reserve?
With their Heineken Cup quarter-finals against Toulouse and Toulon looming in the background, it will be interesting to note whether the respective head coaches treat this fixture as one worth taking risks in.
Clearly, Penney and O’Connor will do everything in their power to achieve a Pro12 victory, but will they hold anything in reserve for the following weekend? Their French opponents will analyse this game in extreme depth, so is it worth unleashing their most incisive attacking plays?
In terms of player selection, is it a case of first-choice foot forward? Should, for example, O’Connor haul Brian O’Driscoll off after 55 minutes in order to keep him fresh for the trip to Toulon? Potentially important decisions in both provinces’ seasons.
The benefits of Ireland’s Six Nations success
One of the reasons this weekend’s fixture is such an exciting one is that it will provide us with the opportunity to see so many of the Six Nations champions back in action for the first time since Paris.
It will be fascinating to discover whether that triumph is followed by something of a hangover for the players or, as seems more probable, supporters at the Aviva are treated to a demonstration of some of the skills that helped Schmidt’s men to succeed.
Be it Rob and Dave Kearney’s aerial expertise, Peter O’Mahony’s jackling, Paul O’Connell’s low tackling focus, Conor Murray’s composed playmaking or Gordon D’Arcy’s technically strong rucking, there are many technical areas of this game that provide interest.
This is a different environment, of course, but with almost 52,000 passionate fans crammed into the Aviva, it is unlikely that the intensity will see a major decrease from the Six Nations.