There’ll be a little bit more to tomorrow night’s Magners League than first versus second in the Magners League table when Munster and Leinster meet at Thomond Park Stadium.
The rivalry between the sides has existed since day dot and although hardly anymore intense since the advent of professionalism, according to those who plied their trade in those halcyon (?) amateur days, has certainly provided an edge that makes Munster/Leinster matches ummissable events in the rugby calendar.
Leinster arrive in Limerick tomorrow in the unusual position of being slight favourites – despite the absence of Brian O’Driscoll – and with a clear four point lead plus game in hand that means an eventual ‘home’ semi-final is theirs only to lose.
Munster welcome back internationals Tomas O’Leary, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes and David Wallace but groin strains have ruled out skipper Paul O’Connell and Keith Earls. The added absence through injury of Denis Hurley and Barry Murphy means Tony McGahan looks to his younger squad members with Tom Gleeson and Scott Deasy named on the bench.
Deasy, along with Dave Ryan and Mike Sherry have been added to Munster’s Heineken Cup squad for the knock-out stages and all three have impressed in their Munster outings this season.
Between them, Gleeson and Deasy have amassed just 10 senior competitive caps in sharp contrast to their fellow Corkonian Donncha O’Callaghan who tomorrow pulls on the Munster shirt for the 160th time.
“Why do I suddenly feel old.” O’Callaghan asks when you mention the stat. “Maybe it looking at the likes of Tom and Scott makes me feel that way.” he continues, “but it’s great to see them coming through even if they’re from Pres,” says Christian’s product O’Callaghan with a grin.
“That’s one of the great things about this Magners League, it’s gives those lads the opportunity, raises their standard of play.
And O’Callaghan would have no qualms about throwing them into the cauldron that is a Munster/Leinster derby. “There’d be no fear of them, ” he says. “They’re confident fellas, have the skills sets to compete with the best, never let ye down.
But it’s the likes of O’Callaghan and the senior pros that people will look to tomorrow in what he says will be a massive challenge. “It always is when we play them. Local derbies have that extra edge, this one has that and a little more. It’s Cork an Kerry or United and City. Its the game you want to win. And they’re the same.
“It doesn’t matter what competition it is Magners or Heineken, this sort of game is right up there with internationals in terms of physicality, intensity. Mistakes are normally punished to the full, there’ll be very little or no room for error.
“But these are the type of games that running around in the freezing wind, sleet and rain that we had in Clanwilliam on Tuesday are all about.”
And the absence of O’Connell and Earls ? “That’s a blow, no doubt about it.” he admits. “But they’re missing Drico, Shane Horgan and a few more we hear. But we’d have full confidence in the side selected. We know what we have to do. This about who’s on the pitch not who’s not.”
Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett, L Mafi, J de Villiers, I Dowling; R O’Gara capt, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll; A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace. Replacements: D Fogarty, T Buckley, N Williams, J Coughlan, P Stringer, T Gleeson, S Deasy.
Leinster: R Kearney; G Dempsey, F McFadden, G D’Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; S Wright, J Fogarty, CJ van der Linde; L Cullen capt, D Toner; N Hines, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: B Jackman, C Healy, M O’Kelly, S Keogh, P O’Donohoe, S Berne, E O’Malley
Referee: Romain Poite (FFR), Assistant Referees: Colin Stanley (IRFU), Richard Kerr (IRFU), TMO: Brian Fitzgerald (IRFU)