JUST two weeks on, Munster return to the scene of their agonising Heineken Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse, as they travel to the Aviva Stadium tomorrow hoping to scalp league leaders Leinster and come away with the much-coveted second spot in the URC table.
They've named their team and bench.
Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Josh Wycherley, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Thomas Ahern; Fineen Wycherley, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Donoghue (c).
Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox, Jason Jenkins, Jack Daly, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Rory Scannell.
A second-place finish would guarantee a home quarter-final at Thomond Park, with a potential home semi-final to follow, and perhaps just as importantly, it would avoid a long and tiring trip to South Africa.
At the time of writing we can make the assumption that Munster will require a bonus point victory against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium, but come kick off no assumptions will be necessary, as by 7.15pm on Saturday evening Johann van Graan’s side will know exactly what is required of them in order to secure second spot.
Ulster go into the final round of fixtures just one point behind second placed Munster, but they still find themselves beginning the weekend in fifth spot, which is a clear illustration of how tight things are at the top.
Munster, the Sharks and the Stormers are all on 56 points, with Ulster on 55 and the Bulls on 53. It certainly would not be a good time for a slip up.
Ulster host the Sharks on Friday night, so one of them will certainly be out of the picture by the end of that game.
Bar a draw in that tie the Bulls can’t get second, but in any event their race will be run on Friday as well, as they visit the Ospreys, while the other side in the equation, the Stormers, will be finishing their game against the Scarlets in Llanelli around a quarter of an hour before the Leinster v Munster game kicks off, so Munster will know what they have to do.
In normal circumstances requiring a victory, and possibly a bonus point victory at that, away to Leinster would be an extremely tall order but given that Leinster have bigger fish to fry right now, Saturday serves as a great opportunity for Munster to gain a rare victory at the Aviva Stadium.
The Leinster team that takes to the pitch is not going to contain any of the side that dismantled Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final last weekend, given that a) they will be fully focusing on the final against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle seven days after the Munster game, and b) as top spot in the league has already been secured, they have nothing to play for barring pride and bragging rights.
The current culture and feel-good factor at the club mean that we can expect Leo Cullen’s youngsters to put up a real battle, but if Munster can perform anywhere near the levels they showed against Toulouse then they should have too much experience and power for the young Leinster side.
If Munster do end up chasing four tries to secure second then they will have to do it without the services of Damian de Allende and Simon Zebo, who are both on the injured list. Andrew Conway and Shane Daly can come in for Zebo but de Allende is harder to replace.
At least van Graan can call upon the fit-again Gavin Coombes, Chris Cloete and Jack O’Sullivan to bolster the forward ranks, which is timely given that the likes of Jack O’Donoghue, Alex Kendellen, Fineen Wycherley, Jean Kleyn and Peter O’Mahony have had to do so much of the heavy lifting of late, given Munster’s injury issues.
The kicking in the shootout may have got all the headlines in the defeat to Toulouse but ultimately Munster lost that quarter-final tie at scrum time.
The Munster front row does not have to worry about Leinster’s renowned first-choice props this weekend so they really must take advantage of their absence to dominate the set-piece, as if Munster can dominate the scrums and lineouts then you would expect that this would give van Graan’s side the platform to get the job done.