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Dublin: 17 °C Monday 17 June, 2019
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More than 75k fans expected as Munster and Leinster get back in the mix

The two Irish provinces are back in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

AND THEY’RE BACK.

After a barren European season in 2015/16, when none of the Irish provinces advanced beyond the pool stages of the Champions Cup, this weekend brings the delightful reality of quarter-finals for Munster and Leinster.

Ulster have work to do ahead of next season and Connacht need to make sure they are in the competition in 2017/18, but Leinster and Munster fly the flag for Irish rugby tomorrow.

A view of Thomond Park Thomond Park will be full again tomorrow. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It would be easy to forget just how much fun European quarter-finals weekend so often is, although the sheer scale of the interest and excitement this week indicates that supporters have strong memories.

With over 50,000 tickets sold for Leinster’s clash with Wasps at the Aviva Stadium and another full house expected for Munster’s meeting with Toulouse at Thomond Park, the prospect of having more than 75,000 rugby fans – mainly Irish – in the two stadiums tomorrow is a thrilling one for everyone involved.

After the misery of the provincial performances in Europe last season, this is altogether more exciting.

First up at 3.15pm tomorrow, we have Leinster hosting Dai Young’s Wasps in what could be a thrilling and open encounter if both teams remain true to what we have seen from them so far in this campaign. Leo Cullen’s side have scored 31 tries in this competition, while Wasps are not far behind on 28.

Both clubs’ team sheets are mouthwatering and the EPCR couldn’t have done better than to have Nigel Owens in charge as referee.

Despite missing vice-captain Jamie Heaslip and experienced fullback Rob Kearney, Leinster are four-points favourites with most bookies, underlining that home advantage means so much.

The scale of change in Leinster is clear from a scan through their matchday 23 for tomorrow, compared to the squad for their most recent Champions Cup knock-out game – the semi-final defeat to Toulon in 2015.

Just seven players from that day in Marseille are in the Leinster matchday squad for tomorrow – Fergus McFadden, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Zane Kirchner, Sean O’Brien and Richardt Strauss.

The two teams take to the field Leinster are back at the Aviva. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Of course, Heaslip and Kearney would have boosted that number but for injury, but newer faces like Adam Byrne, Joey Carbery, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan have been providing a fresh energy in this Leinster group.

There are still over 400 caps worth of international experience in Cullen’s squad for tomorrow, and the likes of Johnny Sexton, O’Brien and Toner will be essential.

We will learn a huge amount about this squad against a Wasps team that has been exhilarating at times. Leinster wobbled badly in their away pool game against Castres when put under pressure, and will have to show their steel in Dublin.

The returning Jimmy Gopperth is part of an exciting Wasps backline – Leinster’s is not bad either – and the English side’s back row is a potent unit too. Ex-Leinster man Marty Moore is on the bench, and we can be sure he’ll be eager to make an impression after half time.

Once Leinster and Wasps have decided who advances into the semi-finals – we know Leinster will be travelling to France if they do – it’s Munster’s time to shine, with a 5.45pm kick-off for their meeting with Toulouse.

With nine-point favouritism, it would be a surprise if Rassie Erasmus’ men don’t put the Top 14 side away in the second half, particularly given that Toulouse have been consistently underwhelming for years now.

They certainly still have some high-quality players, but if Munster can limit the Toulouse pack’s impact on the game, they should have enough. Stifling those big French [and Italian and Scottish and Samoan] forwards will definitely not be easy, however.

As with Leinster, the knock-out stages of this competition provide us with an opportunity to learn more about Munster mentally. The province hasn’t been in a European quarter-final since demolishing Toulouse in Limerick in 2014, so this is a new experience for some.

Darren Sweetnam, Rory Scannell, John Ryan, Niall Scannell, and many on the bench are heading into their first European knock-out game, as are the more experienced Jaco Taute and Tyler Bleyendaal.

Rassie Erasmus Rassie Erasmus has been a good fit for Munster. Source: Camerasport/Simon King/INPHO

Bleyendaal, Rory Scannell and Sweetnam are the only non-international players in the Munster starting XV – all three of them look like winning Ireland caps in the future – but then number eight François Cros is the only one in the Toulouse side not to have played at Test level.

Thomond Park has been a special place this season and the kick-off time tomorrow is ideally suited to serving up another raucous atmosphere for the Munster players, who have genuinely fed off their supporters this season.

This week didn’t start perfectly for the province with news of Donnacha Ryan’s impending departure and further uncertainty around whether Erasmus will be sticking around beyond the summer, while Conor Murray’s injury situation also created doubt.

Whatever is to come with Erasmus and Ryan, one suspects both men will be able to park the distractions tomorrow evening.

Ireland lock Ryan will love the opportunity to clash with an aggressive Toulouse pack, while Erasmus will continue to push his philosophy of freeing his player from the fear of making errors. The South African’s mindset has liberated so many of these Munster players this season.

While there are some unknowns with both Munster and Leinster ahead of their quarter-final clashes, there is so much for them to be positive about too.

With more than 75,000 people set to flood into the Aviva Stadium and Thomond Park tomorrow, it’s very encouraging to see Irish rugby back in the mix at this point of the season.

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Murray Kinsella

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