Munster must seize opportunity against much-changed Leinster

The two provinces head into this evening’s meeting at the Aviva Stadium in very different circumstances.

Munster's Niall Scannell and Leinster's Josh Murphy.
Munster's Niall Scannell and Leinster's Josh Murphy.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

AS MUCH AS Leo Cullen sought to talk up the challenge that lies ahead when his Leinster team take on Munster at the Aviva Stadium this evening [KO 7.35pm, TG4, Premier Sports 2], Ronan O’Gara will have been the only Munster man on his mind this week.

Not for the first time in recent years, tonight’s interpro derby in Dublin will be far from a heavyweight clash, Leinster’s guaranteed status as the top team in the United Rugby Championship table – and the small matter of next weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup final meeting with La Rochelle – sapping any real sense of occasion from this fixture.

The province already know they have a home quarter-final to look forward to, with a home semi-final and home Grand Final also on the cards should they progress through the playoffs.

Those games will come into focus after Marseille next weekend, with Cullen outlining Tadhg Furlong (ankle) “should be fine” for La Rochelle after limping off against Toulouse, and adding that James Lowe (shin) and Rónan Kelleher (HIA) were also “coming on well.”

Munster have more immediate concerns on their mind as they head into an intriguing weekend knowing they can finish anywhere between second and sixth. What happens today could have a major say on how the rest of their season plays out.

As of this morning, the picture looks like this: A win for Johann van Graan’s men at the Aviva will guarantee them a home quarter-final, while a bonus point victory may be needed to tee-up a home semi-final, should they make it that far.

Depending on results elsewhere, defeat to Leinster could mean playing away in the quarter-finals, with the prospect of a long trip down to South Africa a situation they will be desperately keen to avoid.

All the pressure is on them, which is why they travel to Dublin as locked and loaded as possible.

There’s still no Tadhg Beirne, no Gavin Coombes or no Dave Kilcoyne, while Peter O’Mahony is nursing the after-effects of his massive performances against Exeter and Toulouse and Damien de Allende also misses out.

Yet this is still a strong Munster selection, with 11 of the 15 that started the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Toulouse keeping their place in the side. Andrew Conway makes a welcome return from injury while the highly promising Thomas Ahern is handed just his fourth start of the season.

andrew-conway Andrew Conway Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

They’ll all need to perform, as Leinster are no strangers to beating Munster without their key men. As Van Graan put it earlier this week, “Whatever team they select will be a tough game for us.

Munster only have to look at how an experimental Leinster group performed during their recent URC trip to South Africa for a reminder of just how competitive a much-changed Leinster can be.

Leinster have dipped right down into the depth chart for this one, but still manage to assemble a decent looking selection of their own. As expected, none of the 15 who started against Toulouse weekend are anywhere to be seen, but Ireland internationals Jordan Larmour and Ryan Baird both come back into the team after lengthy absences. 

Scott Penny and Max Deegan join Baird in the backrow, Ciarán Frawley and Harry Byrne form an exciting 10-12 axis, scrum-half Cormac Foley wins his first home start while rising talent Joe McCarthy makes his sixth start in the second row.

Regardless of the make-up of Leinster’s squad, a Munster win in Dublin would build on the positive momentum generated against Exeter and Toulouse, and leave them in decent shape heading into the playoff stage. 

For Leinster, the motivation has to come from a different place. 

Many of those lining out in blue tonight have had to be patient as Leinster battled it out on two fronts, using 59 players along the way – scrum-half Ben Murphy will take that number to 60 if introduced off the bench. Harry Byrne starts at out-half for just the fourth time this season. Larmour hasn’t played since March. They will all be keen to catch the eye.

“It is a challenge for guys because they all want to play, for sure,” Cullen says.

“Some of the younger guys would have an understanding in terms of the bigger picture and all the rest. But I have to say they’ve really done a great job.

“The guys have acquitted themselves well and it creates a positive pressure in terms of that selection piece which is what you want and long may it continue that those young guys keep putting the pressure on.

But a lot of work goes into hat as well, so huge credit to Simon Broughton and all the academy coaches as well because the guys that are coming through are being managed. Even when we played Connacht in those Champions Cup weeks the lads were getting ready for that South African trip and managing that time well, so that’s worked well. But yeah, it’s a positive headache to have, so don’t get me wrong.
“This week is another chance for guys and I suppose what they’ve done over the course of the last X number of weeks, it gives you confidence to pick them again and that’s what you want. You want those guys to go on and build up the caps so they become more experienced players all the time.”

The return of Baird is particularly interesting as the explosive 22-year-old makes a first appearances since February, and a first start in the backrow since April of last year. He – like Larmour and Frawley – will feel a big performance today could be enough to climb back up the pecking order.

ryan-baird Ryan Baird starts for Leinster. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

“He’s a very dynamic player, particularly when he comes off the bench,” Cullen said of Baird.

What are they
really like?

Rare insights on sport's biggest names from the writers who know them best. Listen to Behind the Lines podcast.

Become a Member

“The way he plays, he’s very comfortable, particularly in wider channels, but we want him getting on the ball quite a bit during the course of the game as well. 

“He’s an exceptional athlete, Ryan, so he gives us that bit of versatility with the way he plays. Hopefully he’ll put in a big performance and put his hand up as well (for future big games).”

For Munster, this is the big game. Given the quality, experience and power in their ranks, it should be a relatively straight-forward evening for them.

If only it were that easy.

LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour, Rob Russell, Jamie Osborne, Ciaran Frawley, Rory O’Loughlin, Harry Byrne, Cormac Foley, Ed Byrne (captain), Sean Cronin, Thomas Clarkson, Joe McCarthy, Josh Murphy, Ryan Baird, Scott Penny, Max Deegan.

Replacements: John McKee, Peter Dooley, Cian Healy, Devin Toner, Alex Soroka, Ben Murphy, David Hawkshaw, Adam Byrne.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Keith Earls, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray, Josh Wycherley, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Thomas Ahern, Fineen Wycherley, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Donoghue (captain).

Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox, Jason Jenkins, Jack Daly, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Rory Scannell.

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)

Get instant updates on your province on The42 app. With Laya Healthcare, official health and wellbeing partner to Leinster, Munster and Connacht Rugby.

About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel