Very Mild Fever in the Aviver

Four weeks of decidedly ho hum build-up is over and the real season begins this weekend. At least that’s how it feels anyway. Leinster v Munster has come to represent the start of the ‘season proper’ and this season is no different. Coming the week before the first round of European matches, the tuning up is over and the intensity increases several notches.  Unless any province has a disastrous start to the season, the early skirmishes tend not to matter too much. The real business starts now.

Unfortunately, Munster have brushed with disaster in a spectacularly ignominious start to Axel Foley’s leadership. The catastrophic own goal of the leaked player review email has set the tone for a dire start. If Foley didn’t know the extent of the job he has at Munster, he does now. Two wins and two defeats doesn’t sound that bad, and is no worse than Leinster, but the wins were against meagre Italian opposition and the defeats were at home, where the proletariat have gone a bit cold on the revolution, seemingly preferring the more bourgeois pursuits of sitting at home watching deh telly. Consider that Munster still have all their hard away games to come this season and it already looks like they’re on the back foot. To make matters worse, the media – who we assumed would be utterly supine to the point of cheerleading Foley – have been surprisingly unsparing, with Gervais Thornley particularly critical.

Not that Leinster have been that much better. They’ve won their home games at least and both their defeats have been narrow and against teams that often beat them, but the same problems as last season have marked all their performances: in particular a lack of attacking cutting edge and a rudimentary game plan at the centre of which appears to be a desire to kick the ball to the opposition and chase it half-heartedly.

Much has been made of the lacklustre build-up to the latest round of what has come to be one of the biggest – but at times the most suffocating – derbies in the rugby calendar. The middling form of both teams hasn’t helped, and neither fanbase will be arriving feeling especially bullish. Indeed, the overriding feeling is one of fear. Leinster fans are thinking ‘If we lose to this Munster team…’ while Munster fans have come to expect defeat in the Aviva, and another loss would mearly exacerbate the sense of gloom around the team.

It doesn’t help that lots of players are injured: the derby would be so much more attractive (not to mention intense) if Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony were on the pitch, among others. But they won’t be – although O’Mahony is apparently back training and Munster must be desperate to get their talisman and most talented forward back in the team. A whole heap of jerseys are up for grabs and how both sides line up, and how they play, will be the first item of fascination.

In the front row it’s advantage Leinster, with Jack McGrath making a timely return to fitness. Either Mike Ross or Marty Moore will start on the other side, and the collective should be enough to get the edge on the waning BJ Botha and David Kilcoyne. At hooker Sean Cronin has tremendous pedigree but has yet to hit the heights of last season’s stupendous form and Munster have unearthed yet another fine No.2 in Duncan Casey. In a lineout-heavy game he hit his man an impressive 20 out of 21 times against the Ospreys. He’s young and looks set to go far.

Kane Douglas has arrived and should get another hit out alongside Devin Toner. Toner’s ability to give and take a pass was one of the more impressive elements of Leinster’s win over Cardiff last Friday. We can only presume that Paul O’Connell will be partnered by Dave Foley. If Axel persists with O’Callaghan it will be a staggeringly bad pick, as the once Stakhanovite lock is now several shades of completely useless. Good partnerships both, but O’Connell gives Munster the slight edge.

In the backrow, Leinster are down three opensides, with Jennings, O’Brien and Murphy all out. Dominic Ryan should keep his place, and he’s having his longest run in the team for some time. The stratospheric expectations from 2011 have been put away but he can still become a decent squad player. Heaslip has started well, as ever, his footwork especially impressive and Rhys Ruddock is one of the revelations of the season. Always strong but not particularly dynamic, he looks to have added a deal of explosiveness over the summer and it’s helping him break tackles. A strong showing here, and he’s duking it out with POM for the green 6 shirt.

Munster will line out with CJ Stander at 6 and Copeland at 8. We’re guessing one of O’Donnell and Dougall will play at 7, with O’Mahony probably not quite ready. It’s a good unit. Stander is proving a big success and Copeland may not have the multi-faceted game of a Jamie Heaslip, but he can certainly carry ball. Both can get Munster on the front foot.  How the two contrasting No.8’s get on in direct opposition will be instructive. If O’Donnell plays, who is going to focus on the breakdown?

Come noon on friday, all eyes will be on the backlines to see if the cause-celebre 10/12s get picked. We think Madigan will – at 12 – and Hanrahan won’t. The Gopperth-Madigan-D’arcy axis had its moments on Friday and is good for another run out. McFadden and Darragh Fanning will probably stay in the team. Fanning playing in a Leinster v Munster derby – there you have it.

We’ve nailed our colours to the mast as regards Munster’s centre picks, but we’re expecting Keatley-Hurley-Smith and all that goes with it. Leinster will be happy not to face Hanrahan. Simon Zebo and van den Heever should give Munster a huge advantage out wide, so it would strike us as barmy not to include a centre who can pass a bit.  Dare we suggest that Leinster will be looking to bosh through the middle, while Munster look to move the ball wide as often as possible?

The match is unlikely to be a classic with so many big names and good players missing. But the game is timely for both sides; it has a habit of focusing minds.  Munster will surely put up a better show than they have so far. It was reassuring to see Foley talking about accuracy and execution and playing down the importance of the pishun. Nonetheless it’s hard to see an outcome other than a win for Leinster on their home turf, even if the Palindrome has lost some of its lustre for them in recent outings.  Strangely, performance could be more important than the result for both teams, or sets of fans at least.  Munster might take a loss if they at least go down swinging, while Leinster fans have been starved of quality under O’Connor and want to see some panache.

There are some signs of hand-wringing that “only” 40,000 tickets have been sold, but, to be frank, that’s about 30,000 more than the rank rugby served up so far by both sides warrants. If the improvement doesn’t happen, both provinces will go into European rugby in as glum humour as they ever have done. One can only wish RTE’s Rog-cam was re-constituted by Sky, live from Jonny’s apartment, to see the two generals who have given so much to this fixture shake their heads and go back to the foie gras and comte reduction and croissantsin order to get through the substitution-riddled, error-strewn second half.

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23 Comments

  1. From my relatively disinterested position, I’m really looking forward to this, in a way. The list of names unavailable is impressive, yes, but it’s an intriguing time for all the provinces and a loss for either team right now would be a huge setback.

    FWIW, over the course of the season I expect Leinster will rise to the top of the league or thereabouts, as their squad seems palpably stronger than anyone else’s, but I look at Munster and think they’re a couple of injuries away from finishing way off the pace – but then I think that can’t be right, and they’ll come good at some point. Interesting times, but maybe this Saturday is more interesting in an academic sense than as a spectacle. I’d say home win in a bitty contest that no-one will want to watch twice.

    • “I look at Munster and think they’re a couple of injuries away from finishing way off the pace – but then I think that can’t be right, and they’ll come good at some point”

      From the perspective of winning the league, the fight for playoff spots is essentially between five teams. We tend to know what we’ll get from Leinster, Ulster and Glasgow. Ospreys are a wild card and Munster’s level of application to the league is highly variable. The fact that Ospreys have started so well means Munster could be in a scrap to get into the top four.

      • For clarity, when I said “way off the pace” I was talking more 7th/8th than not making the playoffs… No Paulie, no POM, no Murray and that team looks very shaky. If you’ve then no Earls and no Zebo, it’s a pack to frighten no-one supplying a backline armed with Nerf*.

        Of course, there isn’t a side in the league without problems this year – apart from Glasgow? – so it’ll probably be the usual top five, Scarlets defining mid table, quite possibly in a lively contest with Connacht, then the rest (probably Cardiff sitting 8th above the Italian sides, Edinburgh and the Dragons in some order).

        *there are also questions about playing style and, accordingly, coaching but – while I’ve raised a few of those myself – it’s way too early to point the finger at Foley.

      • Amiga500

         /  October 2, 2014

        “The fact that Ospreys have started so well means Munster could be in a scrap to get into the top four.”

        Right now, you could make a case for Munster being in a scrap to make the top table in Europe.

        You could split the Pro12 into roughly 3 groups of 4, with maybe Edinburgh* somewhere between groups 2 and 3.

        *who have sacked the fortress of pashun and intensuty already this year.

        Glasgow
        Leinster
        Ospreys
        Ulster
        ——-
        Connacht
        Munster
        Scarlets
        Blues
        ——-
        Edinburgh
        Zebre
        Dragons
        Treviso

        All 4 in the Munster “group” are direct competitors for Europe.

    • Cian Murphy

       /  October 2, 2014

      I think Munster are properly in trouble already. Ospreys have started really well, even if a lot of it was against crap teams. I’ve been doing the maths with my predictive model and I reckon they only have a 50% chance of getting into the playoffs:

      http://www.bal-do.net/2014/09/round-4-review/

  2. COYBIB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Ro

     /  October 2, 2014

    As a Leinster fan I am more worried about this game than previously. There is a lot of youth in the Munster team eager as hell to make a name. They are underdogs and hurting from two recent home defeats. Killer, Casey, Foley and the entire back row have something to prove. Any weakness comes from outhalf and the centres. Van der heever looks very promising and we all know what Zebo can do. Field position is key and as Foley’s interviews suggest playing a typical Munster game of big pack with outhalf kicking for the corners will be their aim early on. Although if JJ plays at either 10 or 12 this could change and also ease any pressure on Keatley. For Leinster Redden needs quicker more accurate distribution. Goppert needs to have a cut at Keatley and Mads needs to up his defense. McFadden’s form is well down on his usual standard too. Hopefully Rob Kearney can vary his counter attacks and be more creative than he was in Galway. I hope we stop the aimless kicking not only is it boring as hell to watch but it could afford the Munster wingers ample opportunity to punish us.

  4. Van Den Heever will be on the bench I’d say, he cost us a solid 10 points against Ospreys. It’s also looking like O’Mahony will be on the bench, for very different reasons, obviously.

    The back-row will almost certainly be Stander-O’Donnell-Copeland, and they will have to have a truly outstanding game as a collective if Munster are to win, because none could be called a breakdown specialist. O’Donnell racks up huge amounts of tackles and I expect that will remain his brief in defence, but in attack he may have to reduce his carrying and hit more rucks. This is the area we miss O’Mahony most, and having him, Foley, and O’Connell all on the pitch at the same time is really vital for Munster for the rest of the season.

  5. Leinsterlion

     /  October 2, 2014

    I don’t know what to make of the “big one” this year. Munster are a crap side with gas out wide and utter averageness in between(Murray on occasion and POC apart), Leinster are the opposite with reams of talent down the spine( Boss and Jimmy G aside), both have duff coaches nd no form to speak of, debating whether to buy a ticket.

    Same story as last year under MOC, feels like we are playing in pre season, no cohesion or attacking verve. This will be a bad game, unless it breaks down to 7’s rugby. Boring kickfest on the cards.

  6. Mike

     /  October 2, 2014

    Keatley was as bad as I’ve seen against the Ospreys. He stood very deep, offered no running threat and his distribution was meh. His kicking was aimless and his defence was really poor. Murray doesn’t always help him in with the speed of passing, but for me anyway, that’s where Munsters biggest problems are.

  7. Jesper

     /  October 2, 2014

    Not to be all ‘Pedantic Pat’ but there is another round of Pro12 before Europe starts. As to whether that makes any difference to the contest, who knows.

    Munster have got to start firing soon or Top 4 will be out the window. A <7 pt defeat with JJ making an encouraging cameo would be acceptable to most fans right now I feel. GVdH is a huge defensive liability for Munster, can see Conway starting instead. More than likely Dougall at 7 I feel, Sat evening will come too soon for POM to even make the bench.

  8. Away The Well

     /  October 2, 2014

    So O’Mahony is now Munster’s ‘most talented forward’ – how times change here in flip-flop land!

    • Yeah, bang to rights! O’Mahony came into the Munster team surfing the wave of articales comparing him to Richie McCaw. We just urged a bit of calm. We’ve long since come around to the idea that he is a first-rate backrow. And we never doubted his talent. His ball-handling and lineout skills were always top drawer for a forward.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  October 3, 2014

        Stander, Copeland(based on last years form) Ryan(fitness permitting)and St. Paul are all superior forwards based on doing their basic positional tasks. When O’Mahoney excels at the basic criteria for one of the three backrow spots he is frequently acclaimed to be a master a change of opinion will be warranted, as it stands, he is merely an amalgamation of the worst tendencies of Robshaw and Croft.

        • osheaf01

           /  October 3, 2014

          You sound like Mick Doyle back in the late 80s, talking about Neil Francis i.e. “I’d play my Granny ahead of Franno.” Letting animus get in the way of analysis.
          How’re the “Top Team In Europe” getting on in their away matches this year in the Top 14?

          • Leinsterlion

             /  October 3, 2014

            Away home, doesnt matter, toulouse are done, Noves couldnt train a dog at this stage, loads of talent, zero coaching.

            As for O’Mahoney, for such a “hardman” he is a soft rugby player, the day he cuts someone in half or plays and carries with true aggression and bursts someone is the day I change my opinion of him, until then, he is overrated and neither a top class 6 or 7 or 8.

        • ruckinhell

           /  October 3, 2014

          I’ll give you one thing LL, you’re consistent!

  9. Andrew097

     /  October 2, 2014

    Leinster have lost to every side this season that had a real cut at them. Don’t know which way this will go but both teams need a performance sooner rather then later. All the new faces could make this a wild game.

  10. Well the teams are pretty much as expected. Would love to have seen Mick McGrath squeeze his way into the starting 15 as I think he gives us a real attacking threat out wide. Other than that no real complaints. I also fear we’ve seen the last of SOB. Expecting medical retirements for himself and Donnacha Ryan.

  11. osheaf01

     /  October 3, 2014

    Leinster to win this easily. Did you not get the memo?

    I think “catastrophic” understated the impact of that email. Foley might as well have gone there and then.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  October 3, 2014

      Is it really that bad? No evidence of discord has leaked.

  12. Mary Hinge

     /  October 3, 2014

    A third of the comments compared to your recent maiden foray into matters Connacht WOC! Does this signify a lack of interest in Saturday night’s tussle?

    I don’t think so, and this is a key game for Munster to show they have what it takes this season. Not getting within a score of Leinster will not bode well for Foley

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