IF rugby could be measured as rainfall, then all of us who enjoy watching the game would be up to our necks struggling to survive in a monsoon of mouth-watering encounters.
Let there be little doubt about it that we have been spoiled over the last few weeks and we are not finished yet.
First of all, we had the back-to-back European Cup games where all the Irish provinces did themselves extremely proud and now we have the prospect of three local derbies on the bounce. And if that wasn’t enough Munster must then hop on a plane to Paris and lock horns with a Racing 92 side that will be vying for blood after their October defeat (14-7) in Thomond Park.
Leinster arriving at the gates of Thomond Park is always a sight that has the locals frothing at the gills and for the players and coaches, it represents a completely different set of hurdles that must be negotiated.
Considering the intensively physical shifts that both Munster and Leinster have had to put in over the last 160 minutes in the Champions Cup, you could argue the scheduling of this game is ill-timed. However, we now live in an age where every game is falling under a heading that reads, ‘must win’, so it is irrelevant as to who or where teams are playing next.
With success comes pressure and now that both Munster and Leinster are flying high, there is a tight-fisted expectancy level among supporters.
The dog on the street knows that to beat any of the English Premiership sides you need to match and excel beyond the physicality that teams like Leicester bring to the table. For decades, English sides have just gone along with the philosophy that bigger is better and foolishly they have failed to adapt to the various law changes that World Rugby has introduced.
In times gone by, Leicester would have just intimidated teams off the park, however, now that most other sides can match whatever they throw at them, the tide has turned.
To be able to perform successfully at the highest level week after week is something that doesn’t just happen.
The professional rugby players of today are now like thoroughbred racehorses; some would suggest they are just as temperamental.
Their training schedules, food intake, and rest periods are designed for them to peek at certain periods in the year. Every minute of the game they play is recorded and they will not be allowed exceed their allocation of game time no matter what.
Joe Schmidt and the national team will always have the first pick and this then filters all the way down to the amateur game where the clubs end up with the raw end of the deal. In a money-driven world, someone always has to suffer and it is just unfortunate that the people at the coalface are the ones that suffer most. In the economic world, I believe they call this capitalism.
During the week Leo Cullen received news that Cian Healy was handed down a three-week ban by an independent disciplinary panel for his act of foul play against Exeter last weekend. Initially, Healy was given a two-week suspension however, it was then decided that due to Healy’s poor disciplinary record, the length of the ban would be extended to three weeks.
Leinster also confirmed that Jonathan Sexton will not be playing on St Stephen’s Day because of concussion-related issues but they also indicated he may not have been considered anyway as he would have been down for a rest week in his schedule. Sean O’Brien is also not available because of injury so the pendulum certainly swings in Munster’s favour.
Personally, I would have loved if both sides had all their superstars locked and loaded for this one but with the physical nature of the game nowadays, this will rarely happen.
Munster, on the other hand, didn’t seem to pick up any major knocks in their double-header but you can be sure that caution will have been applied when selecting their team because remaining alive in Europe is far more important than the Pro 14.
Leinster’s conveyor belt of up-and-coming professional players is something that has been lauded for some time now and when you see the gruelling calendar of games that all our provinces have in front of them, it is vital that they all have adequate depth to choose from.
Youth is, was, and always will be the key to Irish rugby’s success and while the IRFU can always cherry-pick from around the world to fill certain gaps, it is imperative that our academy players are given an opportunity to become acquainted with rigorous demands that coincide with the professional game.
My hope for this festive clash is that the game doesn’t end up resembling a game of chess where both sides spend the entire 80 minutes second-guessing each other and it ends up being a dull and lethargic encounter.
These are the kind of do-or-die territorial disputed games where legends such as Anthony Foley, Mick Galway, Denis Hickie, Brian O’Driscoll, Victor Costello, and Peter Stringer all received their rugby schooling and went on to be iconic figures on a global stage.
The rivalry that exists between these two sides must never be diluted or lessened in any way shape or form because if it is the very essence of sporting competitiveness in this country it will die a slow and painful death.
Home advantage should give Munster the edge this time but if the game was to be played in a neutral venue it would be impossible to call.