Munster and Leinster are back in interprovincial action at the Aviva stadium this weekend.
Munster are going into the game off the back of a tough encounter in challenging conditions against the Stormers, a team that they have some recent history with, including the URC final at the end of last year.
Leinster are in a different flow after the return of their important international players, adding to the growth that the rest of their squad has seen in their absence. With a dominant win over a weakened Scarlets side, Leinster will be full of confidence, but maybe could have done with a tougher test before an interprovincial rivalry.
Munster have struggled a bit at the set-piece lately. The scrum came under ferocious pressure again last week, some of them penalised, and other dominant Stormers scrums were allowed to play out. It won't get any easier next week with Leinster’s options in the front row.
Oli Jager is reportedly available for Munster selection, which will help in the scrum but could take some time to get into the rhythm of the rest of their systems. Props generally play a key role in lineout lifts, as well as in the middle of the field in attacking structures.
The Munster attack won’t be anything that Oli Jager can’t get up to speed on, a lot of the attacking structures look similar at the moment anyway, with some subtle differences.
However, if Munster can’t get their set-piece right, they’ll have a long day against Leinster. Leinster are a dominant set-piece team and launch very effective attacking plays from that.
Munster will be looking to replicate what they did in last season’s semi-final, keeping the ball in play and more importantly, avoiding Leinster’s structured attacking plays.
Joe McCarthy has been very impressive since his reintroduction to Leinster. His time at the World Cup training camp seems to have allowed his game to mature. The World Cup came at a fundamental time for his development and he looks like he’s going to push that standard again at Leinster this year.
Partnered by James Ryan, who had his injury troubles at the World Cup but is looking hungry again upon his return to the club. Along with Hugo Keenan and Dan Sheahan, who haven’t missed a beat since returning, it could be a monstrous challenge for Munster who are having the opposite fortunes with regards to their squad.
Peter O’ Mahony will miss the game this weekend after being replaced at half-time on Saturday night against the Stormers, as well as Jack O’ Donoghue who suffered an ankle injury.
Munster will be hoping that Diarmuid Barron can progress through his return to play from a concussion picked up against Ulster as well. The province have been light at hooker, with injuries to Niall Scannell and Barron, and even signed former Munster academy hooker Eoghan Clarke after his misfortunate and abrupt ending with Jersey Reds.
With O’ Mahony missing from the lineout, the relative inexperience at hooker, and their trouble in the scrum, their foundations might be affected too much for a dominant performance away to Leinster.
Munster will be going into this game with the psychological edge, different from many of the previous seasons where they’re meeting Leinster. They might not be in their strongest position at the moment, not scoring for 60 minutes away to Ulster and for another 40 minutes in the second half at a sudden home stadium against the Stormers. However, they’ll get a huge mental boost from their victory last year.
Usually Leinster are in that position and Munster have to find hunger from their soreness and bitterness from losing to Leinster. This time round, Leinster will be looking to avenge their defeat last season. A defeat that set them towards failure with no silverware in a season where they were desperate to get over the line, both in the league, but more importantly in Europe.
The battle at out-half will be eagerly watched by Irish fans. Sam Prendergast slipped into the Leinster system pretty easily last weekend, finding himself on the scoresheet early on and replaced at 51 minutes with a bonus point in the bag on his first start at the RDS.
Munster would be a real test of whether Prendergast has what it takes to step up sooner rather than later in place of Ross Byrne.
No selection has been made yet and Byrne is more than capable of beating Munster, like he has done in the past. He crossed the 1000 point mark and 150 appearances for Leinster last weekend. Whoever Leo Cullen picks will be up against the heir apparent in Jack Crowley.
It might not always be fair to compare out-halves on opposite teams because there are many other factors at play, such as the dominant pack, the game plan, and a dominant set-piece. However, you’ll get clues at the weekend as to who is in the driving seat when it comes to Irish selection and the Six Nations in the new year.
Crowley showed his toughness last week against the Stormers, shipping a couple of heavy tackles, but it didn’t deter him from nonchalantly guiding Munster to victory. Another feather in his cap against Leinster would give him a serious head start towards Irish selection in February.
Despite losing some internationals, two to retirement and another to injury, Munster will feel that have enough to beat Leinster and use them as a step towards igniting this season. Alex Nankivell has been a shrewd signing in midfield and there are enough fearless, young members of the Munster pack that have a point to prove against their Leinster rivals.
However, I don’t see it happening for Munster this time, with the form of both sides and the upward trajectory that Leinster are on. They’ll more than likely beat Munster and move closer towards the start of the European campaign that they are keen to get stuck into.