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Munster on the rise but champions Leinster still hold the upper hand in intriguing interpro meeting



Rivals collide: Leinster’s James Lowe is tackled by Munster’s Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Conway

Rivals collide: Leinster’s James Lowe is tackled by Munster’s Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Conway

Rivals collide: Leinster’s James Lowe is tackled by Munster’s Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Conway

Rarely has a game with so little on the line felt so important.

Whatever way things go at Thomond Park tonight, Munster and Leinster will still be favourites to face off against each other in the Guinness PRO14 final, whether that’s in March or later.

Yet the build-up suggests there’s an awful lot more at stake.

Perhaps it’s just the time of year. Both teams should be booking their place in a European quarter-final this weekend, while the Six Nations is looming large.

The fact that this rescheduled derby is available to fill the schedule is a reminder that we live in very unusual times and, for every rugby fan stuck at home lucky enough to be able to watch the game, this is compulsory Saturday night viewing.

It’s an easy sell.

For Munster, this is all about showing that their apparent improvements this season are the real deal; that they are once again capable of mixing it with the best in the business.

Leinster, meanwhile, want to keep their psychological edge in this rivalry. They’ve watched Munster get better, but they’ve maintained their own standards.

A hiccup against Connacht at Christmas has got some observers excited about supposed vulnerabilities, but one game is too small a sample size for definitive judgments.

The looming Ireland selection adds an additional layer of intrigue.

Across the pitch, there are individual battles that Andy Farrell will be watching closely ahead of his squad announcement on Monday.

Unfortunately, the weather forecast is not playing ball for those looking for free-flowing entertainment.

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If the game takes place in sub-zero temperatures amid flurries of snow, then it will be won by the team who copes best.

It will require a seismic forward effort and a controlled performance from the half-backs, assisted by accuracy and patience from the outside backs.

Across the pitch, Leinster just about have the edge and, if they play to their full potential, they should win.

Up front, their tight-five has the right blend of ball-carrying and set-piece acumen to get on top, while their back-row has the quality to edge what will be a crucial battle.

Against Ulster, their lineout wobbled when Sean Cronin went off and, while James Tracy struggled that night, it is Ronan Kelleher who’ll be introduced this time around.

Munster will apply pressure to their visitors’ throw, but Cronin has been in solid form and if he can connect with Scott Fardy and James Ryan then Leinster will get their maul moving.

If the pack can gain the advantage then Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton have the experience and nous to guide the team around the park.

Like Rhys Ruddock on the blindside, McGrath has a major point to prove to Farrell and outshining Conor Murray would be a decent starting point.

Munster’s mission will be to upset the away team’s rhythm.

They’ll look to repeat the relentless assault on opposition ball that proved so successful against Connacht, but Leinster’s loss to the Westerners was a reminder of what happens when they don’t take the breakdown seriously enough.

They’re unlikely to make the same mistake twice.

In September, Munster copped a lot of flak for the conservative approach that so upset the Leinster coaches.

They would argue that, had they been more accurate in the air and had JJ Hanrahan brought his kicking boots, they’d have won the match. They’d point to Saracens’ success with a similar approach as evidence that the four-in-a-row-chasing PRO14 chances were vulnerable.

Munster may be sore about the criticism, but they only scored three points in a semi-final.

Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and Leinster learned a lot the way they were exposed by Munster and Sarries in the autumn.

Robin McBryde has changed the way his pack scrummages, with the second-rows starting on two feet to ensure greater stability, while the back-three has been reconstituted.

Hugo Keenan is seen as the most secure player in the air, so he’s picked at full-back with Jordan Larmour on the right wing and Jimmy O’Brien a surprise pick on the left.

The Kildare native has been excellent this season and Dave Kearney — like Dan Leavy — picked up a knock early in the week. He’s been playing full-back all season, so he will back himself to deal with whatever Murray sends his way.

So often in these games, however, James Lowe’s unpredictability has been key to blowing Munster wide open. He’ll be missed.

In the centre it promises to be a war of attrition, with Leinster boasting the extra attacking class that Garry Ringrose brings to the party.

Shutting him down is key for Munster, who need to impose their game on the men in blue.

They need to be vicious at the breakdown and relentless in the air both out of touch and from the boot. Hanrahan needs to be ruthless with his boot, while they require huge discipline to ensure Leinster don’t get into their half easily.

On their last visit, Leinster won an ugly game and, with six forwards on their bench, they’re looking for something similar tonight.

It won’t be pretty, but it will be compelling.

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