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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021
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Reinforced Munster look to down top dogs Leinster as rugby returns

Irish rugby is finally set to kick-off this evening behind closed doors at the Aviva Stadium.

AND SO, THE wait is over.

176 days since Leinster last played and 175 since Munster took to the pitch, Irish rugby is set for its long-awaited resumption.

The five-month barren run is behind us and we have the perfect fixture to kick things off this evening at 7.35pm at the Aviva Stadium [live on eir Sport, deferred coverage at 9.35pm on TG4].

It might be behind closed doors without rugby-hungry fans there in the flesh but to have the sport back at all is extremely welcome, all the more so given the impressively strong teams that Leo Cullen’s Leinster and Johann van Graan’s Munster named yesterday.

keith-earls-shakes-hands-with-johnny-sexton-after-the-game Munster and Leinster kick-off at 7.35pm this evening. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

There has been much discussion about the dilution of this rivalry in recent years, with absent Ireland frontliners generating negative column inches, but these are certainly full-bore selections as both head coaches look to pick up momentum as soon as possible.

Leinster have already qualified for the Guinness Pro14 semi-finals and will top Conference A but will be keen to continue their unbeaten season, while Munster are hunting Conference B leaders Edinburgh over the next two weekends, eager to ensure the best possible semi-final draw.

Of course, it’s the fans who make the rivalry and there will be a challenge for the players in performing without the energy supporters can generate for them on game day, but there should be no shortage of motivation here – even in these strange circumstances. 

The forecast suggests wet weather, the error count is likely to be high anyway given this is the first game in months, and referee Andrew Brace will be keen to establish good habits around the breakdown and offside line, but this contest should be fun regardless.

The head-to-head and unit-to-unit match-ups across the pitch are mouthwatering.

Johnny Sexton captains Leinster and gets a chance to remind his doubters that there is plenty of rugby quality left in his 35-year-old frame, while JJ Hanrahan steers the ship for Munster in the indefinite absence of Joey Carbery.

The southern province’s ship has added a few notable cannons in the off-season. Springboks inside centre Damian de Allende is one of the best in his position in the world – a regular gainline winner with excellent passing skills and even a short kicking game. His partnership with Chris Farrell going up against Ireland duo Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose should be epic.

keith-earls-celebrates-scoring-with-mike-haley-andrew-conway-tyler-bleyendaal-and-conor-murray Munster will hope to upset the reigning champions. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

De Allende’s compatriot, second row RG Snyman, is a fascinating addition. He can move at high pace despite his 6ft 9ins size, while his offloading ability and passing are key skills. The 25-year-old has joined Munster with the intention of improving his nuts-and-bolts work in the tight, with Billy Holland starting for Munster in part to lead the lineout.

Leinster second row Ryan Baird is a man of serious interest too. Having trained with Ireland during the Six Nations, the 21-year-old now gets the biggest test of his career so far. There is no doubt about his athletic capability but the challenge is to show he can mix it in what could be a real tussle of a game.

The back row battle promises to be a thrill too, particularly given the refocus on implementing the laws at the breakdown.

Jack O’Donoghue misses out for Munster due to concussion but the experienced Tommy O’Donnell is a good replacement to team up with captain Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Leinster’s combination is interesting with a pair of number eights – Jack Conan and Caelan Doris – picked along with openside Josh van der Flier.

Conan’s return from a foot injury is welcome and Doris has the attributes – lineout jumping, a turnover threat, power in collisions, good decision-making – to excel as he starts at blindside for the first time. Their dynamism in the same back row makes sense, especially if it’s with a nod towards Saracens in the European quarter-finals next month.

With Tadhg Furlong missing with a back complaint, Andrew Porter gets a big start at tighthead and will scrummage opposite James Cronin, who will be eager to put his one-month ban during lockdown in the rearview mirror. Munster have opted for Stephen Archer to start ahead of John Ryan in the number three shirt as their tit-for-tat battle continues, while hooker Niall Scannell – left out by Ireland this year – has a point to prove opposite Ronan Kelleher, who will be aiming to take over at number two for his country later this year.

23-year-old Shane Daly is an exciting selection at 15 for Munster with Mike Haley still on the comeback trail. The Cork man has a classy skillset and will relish this opportunity in a frontline game, with Andrew Conway and Keith Earls alongside him in the back three.

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james-lowe-scores-a-try-despite-chris-farrell James Lowe is usually a handful. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

With his Ireland qualification in November looming, James Lowe will look to bring his usual infectious energy, while Dave Kearney has had an excellent 2019/20 so far and Jordan Larmour is the incumbent Ireland fullback.

Of note is Leinster picking six forwards on their bench, an indication that they expect things to be attritional up front, although there is the risk that replacements back rows Will Connors or Max Deegan may have to be emergency cover for the backline in the event of a couple of injuries, as Leinster carry only scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne as reserves.

A new signing from Saracens this summer, Munster man Matt Gallagher is set for a debut off the bench, while Dave Kilcoyne will be motivated to add his ball-carrying power when called upon, and 21-year-old Craig Casey will hope for a chance to continue his rise as he backs up Conor Murray at scrum-half.

There will be so much that feels new and different this evening – including Covid-19 guidelines around the stadium, the empty stands, the anti-racism circle before kick-off – but this is Irish rugby getting back up and running.

Leinster are deserved eight-point favourites but this reinforced Munster team will believe this is the perfect chance to knock the defending champions off their perch. 

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Dave Kearney
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Ronan Kelleher
3. Andrew Porter
4. Ryan Baird
5. Scott Fardy
6. Caelan Doris
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Ed Byrne
18. Michael Bent
19. Devin Toner
20. Will Connors
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ross Byrne
23. Max Deegan

Munster:

15. Shane Daly
14. Andrew Conway
13. Chris Farrell
12. Damian de Allende
11. Keith Earls
10. JJ Hanrahan
9. Conor Murray

1. James Cronin
2. Niall Scannell
3. Stephen Archer
4. RG Snyman
5. Billy Holland
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Rhys Marshall
17. Dave Kilcoyne
18. John Ryan
19. Jean Kleyn
20. Chris Cloete
21. Craig Casey
22. Rory Scannell
23. Matt Gallagher

Referee: Andrew Brace. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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