SATURDAY: Leinster v Munster Guinness PRO14 Aviva Stadium, 7.35pm
THERE are going to be two key areas where Munster must prevail if they are to overcome their biggest rivals this evening at an empty Aviva.
Hitting the ground running will be the first priority, for both teams – with Leinster still involved in European action next month.
And keeping the penalty count low will be another key performance indicator for Johann van Graan’s side.
Super rugby has shown that referees are marshalling the breakdown far more closely and are looking for the ball to be moved from the deck as quickly as possible.
That puts added pressure on the scrum-half but with plenty of rest since the start of the pandemic and a great head to deal with pressure, Munster are well armed in that department.
The front row is another area that has been more tightly marshalled and making sure contact is clean and straight will be vital for the Munster trio.
Both sides will enter this game on a par as both have had the same amount of downtime and also both teams will have been able to give their star Ireland players and their injured players plenty of extra rest.
We can expect plenty of energy from both sets of out halves with both now over any of their niggling injuries.
The pair may have a say in the final outcome as this game could also come down to a kicking duel.
JJ Hanrahan gets a chance to really cement the starting number 10 spot for the foreseeable future after Joey Carbery’s latest injury setback and his clash with Johnny Sexton will be one to watch.
The battle of the back-rows will also be fascinating with two international sets of backrows going hell for leather at each other.
Both sets of back-rows will have had to get used to making sure that they are away from the tackle area as quickly as possible as the man in the middle will be policing that part of the game very carefully.
Coach Johann van Graan knows his side are facing the best teams in Europe before lockdown happened and says he has nothing but admiration for Leo Cullen and his side.
“They are unbeaten in both competitions. Look, the only thing we can focus on is ourselves and that’s what we’ve been doing over the last eight weeks in these incredible circumstances. Speaking to Leo during this pandemic. Between Leo (Cullen – Leinster coach), Andy (Friend – Connacht coach, Dan (McParland – Ulster coach) and myself, we’ve spent quite a lot of time helping each other through this whole crisis and they’ve got their dreams and we’ve got our dreams.
“Certainly, there are no edges in this one for us. We’re going to the Aviva Stadium which Leinster are well accustomed to playing at,” says the Munster head coach.
Hanrahan will be trying to unlock the form backline in Europe and his coach has full confidence in his ability to do so.
“Obviously a lot of the players will only become aware of Joey’s situation today because we needed to make sure that Joey is good first.
“He’s [JJ] the incumbent 10 and he’s got a lot of responsibility but that’s something that he wants, that’s something that he works for and the opportunity is now there for the taking.
“You have got Rory (Scannell) and Damien (De Allende) on his one side and you have got Conor (Murray), Craig (Casey and Nick (McCarthy) and Neilly (Cronin) on his other side. We are all in this together but a No 10 for any side is one of the main positions in taking your team forwards.
"That’s something that he’ll embrace not only in the coming weeks but the coming season.”
Munster fans will also be watching the side’s new signings RG Synman and Damien De Allende.
Both have settled into their new Munster surroundings but tonight’s game will also be watched with some trepidation by the Munster strength and conditioning staff.
Neither of the World Cup-winning Springboks have played a lot of rugby since the World Cup final and with the pace of tonight’s game expected to be high, that will be a cause for concern.
“I think the most important thing when I initially spoke to them is they have got to come and buy into what we have at Munster and they have been absolutely terrific at that. They made sure they fitted in well.
“They haven’t played a lot of rugby either, they have played three or four games each in the Japanese league after the World Cup, they haven’t played a lot of rugby over the last nine months either and are just looking forward to getting on to the pitch again,” says van Graan.
Verdict: Leinster win