MUNSTER and Leinster face-off at Thomond Park on Saturday evening in the annual Christmas shoot-out between the pair, with Munster keen to show that they are not going to be in Leinster’s shadow any longer.
In recent campaigns Munster have been very much the underdog in their head to heads against Leinster, with Munster winning only two of the last thirteen games between the rivals.
As a rivalry it has been too one-sided recently, but Munster will feel that they now have the playing personnel to start changing that dynamic.
Last year the two sides played at this time of year in Limerick with Leinster emerging winners by 6-13, with outhalf Ross Byrne scoring all Leinster’s points on the night, as they controlled Munster in an arm wrestle of a tie.
This year feels different though. This year Munster’s emerging young talent has fused with the established players within the squad to re-energise the side, with the result being nine straight wins in games in the Pro14 and the Heineken Champions Cup in the season to date.
Munster are already twelve points clear at the top of Conference B so the top spot, and the home semi-final that this would bring with it, are pretty much in the bag already, so the points on offer for the win are actually not terribly important in the context of the season.
What is more important is the opportunity to get one over their main rivals, who have been the alpha in Irish rugby for the past decade, and to put down a real statement that Munster are genuine silverware contenders once more.
Munster have received good news on the injury front in the last couple of weeks with the news that the likes of David Kilcoyne, Alex McHenry, Niall Scannell and Jeremy Loughman are all recovered from recent injuries, although captain Peter O’Mahony is going through the return to play protocols after last weekend’s brilliant win over Clermont.
For a squad that has been performing so well of late this will only further strengthen their options as they head into a key part of their season.
In late October Munster issued an injury update where they informed the public that loose heads David Kilcoyne and Jeremy Loughman were to miss the best part of two months.
At the time it was a blow to Munster as the pair were the first and second choice No. 1’s at the time.
It is a testament to the strength in depth being developed at Thomond Park right now that on their respective return to the squad this week that they could now realistically be considered the third and fourth choice in the position, such has been the performances of the Cork duo James Cronin and Josh Wycherley in recent weeks.
Indeed, Kilcoyne was probably the in-form loose head in Ireland at the time of the injury.
The fact that he now finds that he has to fight for his Munster shirt is a sign of the Munster squad strength.
Cronin has been Munster’s leading turnover merchant in the league this season, such has been his prowess in the jackal, while Bantry’s Josh Wycherley truly announced himself to the Irish rugby public with his brilliant display against experienced French international prop Rabah Slimani last weekend in Munster’s scintillating comeback victory over Clermont.
This strength gets tested this Saturday as Munster face by far and away their toughest Pro14 game of the season to date as fellow 100 percenters Leinster travel to Thomond Park where something has to give in terms of one of the rival’s unbeaten starts.
Outhalf JJ Hanrahan had one of his finest ever games last weekend too, kicking nine from nine from the kicking tee, which proved crucial to the victory. He did go off just before the end holding a shoulder, but wasn’t referenced in Munster’s recent injury update so should be fine for Saturday.
With Ben Healy out Munster are certainly short of experienced options at No. 10 right now, but it would be extremely encouraging if Munster head coach Johann van Graan was to trust yet another of his exciting youngsters in the form of Cork Con’s Jack Crowley, who impressed for Munster A’s when leading them to victory over the Leinster A’s last week.
Still a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday the Bandon youngster has time on his side, but Munster should not be afraid to throw him into the fray if they believe he is up to this level.
Since 2015 neither of these two sides have managed to win consecutive matches at Thomond Park, with the result going one way and then the other.
If the sequence is going to continue then it is Munster’s turn to take the bragging rights on St. Stephen’s Day.