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Dublin: 4°C Friday 5 March 2021

Munster's heavy artillery concerns Cullen ahead of Aviva inter-pro showdown

Johann van Graan’s side are travelling to the capital fully locked and loaded.

MINDFUL OF THE six-day turnaround into their European opener, Leo Cullen has, as expected, rotated his resources for tomorrow’s Aviva Stadium showdown with Munster, but the southern visitors will arrive with their heavy artillery in tow. 

This, Cullen admits, is a cause for concern for Leinster as they bid to maintain the upper hand in the marquee fixture — the eastern province have won six of the last seven meetings — while simultaneously keeping one eye on the visit of Wasps to the RDS next week.

“It’s a tricky balance this time of year,” Cullen said, at this afternoon’s pre-match press conference deep in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium. 

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking to the media today. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The defending Pro14 and European champions have made 11 changes in personnel for tomorrow’s renewal of Irish rugby’s pre-eminent provincial rivalry [KO 6pm, eir Sport/Premier Sport], opting to wrap key players in cotton wool ahead of the start of the Heineken Champions Cup pool stages.

While Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose and Scott Fardy will watch from the stands, Munster will pitch up for the Saturday teatime kick-off fully locked and loaded, boasting a starting XV which arguably represents their strongest hand.

In contrast, Johann van Graan has made only three changes from last week’s hammering of Ulster, thus handing a start to Joey Carbery against his former club, while the out-half is one of four players along with Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne and Andrew Conway who could feature in six consecutive games should they be selected for the opening two European outings.

“It’s always a concern, yeah,” Cullen admitted, studying the Munster team-sheet. 

“Munster, we know a lot of the threats they have. They’ve changed slightly this season and have a different focus. It’s hard to get a true gauge through their games, they’ve had very big wins at home and they’ve lost the two games they’ve played away.

“So, a lot of similar threats, guys we’d be familiar with. Even the guys that have come in, like Tadhg that we know well. Joey as well.

“Alby Mathewson is probably the one who we haven’t seen as much footage on, he’s had a period out of the game. We saw some of his clips from Toulon last year and the 50 odd minutes he had last weekend. That’s something a little bit different in the mix, but we’ll expect a nice, physical contest as normal.”

All things considered, Leinster are still well-equipped for the intensity and physicality of the challenge which awaits, with all but three of their starting XV internationals, while they have further firepower held in reserve on the bench. 

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With Sexton one of five players given the weekend off after three starts on the bounce, Ross Byrne steps up to start at out-half for a fascinating head-to-head battle with Carbery in the pivot position.

Byrne, who was part of the Ireland squad for the summer tour of Australia but awaits his international debut, played a key role for Leinster as they raided Thomond Park last Christmas, before guiding the province to a one-point win in the Pro14 semi-final in May.

Ross Byrne Ross Byrne starts at out-half for Leinster. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Ross has been such a key figure for us, if you think of the number of starts he had last year,” Cullen continued.

“Off the top of my head it was 16 or 17, he played in that semi-final against Munster in the RDS and led the team unbelievably well. He started a number of games in Europe as well.

“He’s led the team well this week, he’s getting better all the time. That’s what we want from all of the players, just to continuously improve, regardless of what age they are.

“We expect that from our most senior guys as well, having that mindset where they want to get better.” 

Amid the now-annual debate over this fixture and whether it has lost some of its edge, ticket sales for the round six clash are closing in on the 50,000 mark, with a first inter-pro sell-out of 51,700 since March 2014 a possibility. 

On the basis of this alone, it seems the allure of the Leinster-Munster rivalry remains as strong as ever.

“Definitely, even when you think the last game we played against Munster was the semi-final in the RDS and it had been so long since we had a game in the RDS, but it was an amazing occasion,” Cullen added.

“There was somebody over from America, I met them during that week and said ‘you should come along to this game’. They’d never been to a rugby match before and they had been to loads of different sports events in America and were blown away by the intensity, the crowd, the occasion.

“It’s a sensational occasion, it’s definitely one to be celebrated.” 

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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