MUNSTER host arch-rivals Leinster at Thomond Park on Saturday evening in the Pro14 looking to send a statement to Leo Cullen’s men that they will not have everything their own way going forward.
Johann van Graan’s side have been looking for a changing of the guard moment against Leinster for some time now, and despite fancying themselves on a number of occasions in head to head battles in recent years, they have been unable to wrestle the mantle of Irish rugby’s alpha male from Leinster.
Munster have only won two of the last thirteen meetings between the sides. That stat alone shows where Munster’s place in the rivalry currently stands. Munster may be still competitive at domestic and European level, but they will not make the next jump to winning titles until such time as they find themselves scalping Leinster on a regular basis.
It’s over two years since Munster’s last victory over Leinster when the 26-17 win was achieved in the post-Christmas Pro14 clash of 2018 at Thomond Park, which will be remembered for youngster Fineen Wycherley rattling Jonathan Sexton early on, James Lowe’s sending off and Keith Earls’ late intercept try that clinched the triumph.
Since that win every big game, including the last three league semi-finals, has been won by the Dublin based side.
And while Saturday night is not a final or a semi-final it does signal one of the few occasions, in recent campaigns, where Munster and Leinster have fielded the strongest available line-ups against each other. The Christmas fixture may be a good one, but it is usually played right smack in the middle of rounds four and five of the Heineken Champions Cup, when both sides are busy managing the game time of their top players.
Therefore, a Munster win on Saturday would be deemed a significant statement in terms of repositioning Munster as a serious rival to Leinster in the search for silverware later this year.
For Munster, van Graan has David Kilcoyne, Jean Kleyn, Mike Haley and Jack O’Donoghue available again, although long-term injury casualties Joey Carbery, Matt Gallagher, Neil Cronin, RG Snyman and John Hodnett are still marked absent.
It is now over a year since Carbery filled the out-half slot for Munster. He has been back training with the squad for some time now, but has yet to get the all-clear from the medical experts to test out his brittle ankle in a real match situation. Hopefully, that news will come sooner rather than later, although it goes without saying that they cannot rush him. In saying that we must be reaching the stage sometime soon where the decision must be made whether the 25-year-old may have to step away permanently for the good of his own health if the ankle doesn’t stand up to the heat of battle.
The performance of Jonathan Sexton is bound to be a talking point at the game’s end, no matter what the outcome. If he inspires a Leinster win then it will be seen as proof that he is still the No. 10 to lead Ireland into the Six Nations, while if he struggles on Saturday then the clamour for the 35-year-old to be replaced for Ireland will grow.
His average game time for both club and country this season amounts to just over 40 minutes a game, as it would appear that time is beginning to catch up with him, and he is clearly not as durable as he used to be in his prime. Also, given his tendency to lose his head, it is a given that we can expect Munster to try and unsettle him in the manner that Wycherley managed two years ago. If the Leinster out-half loses focus in a big game like this then inevitably Leinster’s odds of winning will automatically decrease significantly.
In recent years Munster have lost the back row battle against Leinster, despite having Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in their ranks. Hopefully, the added bulk of Gavin Coombes can tip that battle in Munster’s favour, as the side that wins the majority of the collisions is likely to come out on top.