Recent years have seen at least three episodes of this game a season. The home leg for either team and the playoff game in the Magners/Rabo. The games provide a snapshot of Irish rugby and a way of connecting the seasons together.
Changes from Recent Years
Significant absences from recent encounters are Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Jerry Flannery, Peter Stringer, David Wallace and Alan Quinlan. Questions have to be asked about how effectively both teams go about replacing players of such quality and experience but the same questions were raised by the departure Axel Foley, Galwey, Clohessy and Contepomi. The show goes on.
Conor Murray put in a top quality performance in the Magners final last year and returns from the World Cup as Ireland’s first choice half back. The pace of the Welsh game seemed to catch him out but Murray has dealt with every step up so far and this game provides a great opportunity to continue his learning curve. Ireland’s transition to a professional structure built around the provincial teams has been handled very well and the fact that one of Ireland’s new internationals can play in front of 50,000 in a domestic match of almost test like intensity is testament to that. Somewhat unbelievably, Garryown v Young Munster is scheduled for 7.30 on Friday, which doesn’t seem aimed at attracting a big crowd.
The absence of Quinlan and Wallace is a matter of a different hue. While Donnchadh Ryan is a good squad player and impressed through cameos at the World Cup, he still falls between the flanker and second row stools. It’s interesting to note that his Leinster counterpart Kevin McLoughlin has been included on the bench as second row cover. Versatility is good for making a squad but not a team. Niall Ronan has been selected ahead of the much touted Richie McCaw-esque Peter O’Mahony. Ronan is a good runner but not in the same power bracket as Wallace or Sean O’Brien and the Munster back row looks short of ball carrying ability.
How Will Munster Play?
McGahan’s team now travel as underdog, a role that often suits Irish teams and Munster in particular. Whereas in previous years they were the dominant team in Irish rugby and backboned the national side, they now don’t have the same strength and experience running through the team. McGahan has sought to expand Munster’s repertoire in recent years but in last season’s Magners final it was their defence, control from half back and set piece ability that won them the game as Bull Hayes and Horan pushed the vaunted Leinster scrum back towards the line at the end. Leinster, possibly believing their own hype, sought to run ball that should have been kicked against fired up opponents and brought the Thomond crowd into the equation. Sean O’Brien left the pitch early, exhausted after the week’s exertions and Shane Jennings broke his arm. Munster’s ability to play another game of final intensity the week before the Heineken kicks off is in doubt. It doesn’t seem likely that Munster have enough firepower to beat Leinster at home using patterns and systems that will be useful throughout the season. Munster’s counterattacking ability and the lack of powerful ball carriers in the pack suggests that they will rely on a solid scrum, strong well run lineout and accurate kicking game.
Leinster’s to Lose
The referee is from France and stereotyping suggests that he will favour the home team with the large support. Leinster re-introduce European Player of the Year Sean O’Brien after a barnstorming World Cup alongside Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Gordon D’Arcy. D’Arcy has been written off by many after a few disappointing years from Ireland but all of Ireland’s backs have been quite disappointing. Joe Schmidt got good performances from him last year and must have faith to have kept him in the starting team. Devin Toner has started the season with a number of strong performances and gets the chance to measure himself against the Irish second row partnership on Friday.
Leinster’s level of expectation and what looks like a favourable draw for the Heineken Cup leaves ample room for disappointment. Schmidt has introduced a sharper attacking edge and greater squad depth since his arrival while losing little of the doggedness that was the hallmark of Cheika’s teams. Losing to their old rivals would leave a bitter taste in the mouth. The Mole takes the home team to beat the 4 point handicap.