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Saturday 25 January 2020

Brent Pope: 'Clash of two Irish giants is big draw'

But some of the gloss has been taken away from this famous rugby rivalry

OLD FOES: Jordan Larmour of Leinster is tackled by CJ Stander of Munster in one of the great rivalries in Irish sport. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
OLD FOES: Jordan Larmour of Leinster is tackled by CJ Stander of Munster in one of the great rivalries in Irish sport. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

I got a call on Christmas night from a delighted Munster fan: 'The best present ever Brent, two tickets to Thomond Park this Saturday'.

This annual game had sold out in record time and the opportunity to cheer your side on in what is perhaps the biggest post-Christmas rugby occasions anywhere in the world is priceless.

But despite Thomond Park being jammed tomorrow, the game has lost some of its gloss over the years. Not through lack of desire or commitment from players and fans, and not because both teams are not desperate to claim the bragging rights.

No, it's because we will no longer get to see all the top Irish players on show, with many of Ireland's RWC players rested even for this one.

The head-to-head match-ups that we were once used too all over the park have sadly dissipated over the years.

Longer, drawn-out seasons, with more emphasis on player protocols and a serious eye toward Europe and the upcoming Six Nations Championship has meant that some of the top players simply cannot play in these games.

I get it - player welfare and the province's overall ambitions for the season must come first. But I still miss the good old days, and as one of Ireland's first foreign players, I came to understand what it meant to win these annual derby matches.

I cannot forget the days commentating in the rickety RTE gantry, days when it was O'Gara against Contepomi, Munster v Argentina, or O'Gara versus the young pretender that was Johnny Sexton.

O'Connell, Quinlan, Foley, Clohessy, Galwey and others in red, all lying in wait, lips smacking not for Christmas turkey leftovers, but for the arrival of Leinster into Thomond Park.

It was an invitation into the Lions' lair by team-mates that shared an Irish jersey, days when friendships didn't matter until after the final whistle.

Few teams escaped Thomond Park with a win, and if they did, then they deserved it.

Changed

But times have changed, not in the competitive nature of these games, but in what players are on show, and also Leinster's perceived strength in depth. Not just in Ireland but in a territory where Munster once reigned themselves - in Europe,

Leinster and Munster are both doing well in the PRO14, with Munster recently tightening their grip on conference B with a gritty but well-deserved win in Galway, and Leinster are unbeaten in all competitions.

But attacking-wise, they go into this match in different spaces.

Leinster have scored over 100 points both in Europe and domestic competitions in recent weeks, with a bucketful of tries, whereas Munster have lost a tough away match to Saracens and then secured a hard-fought win in Connacht.

The incentive for both coaches is big. Leo Cullen won't want to lose for the first time this season and Johann Van Graan's Munster would love to be the team that ends that run.

The one huge advantage Munster have is that Thomond Park is still a difficult place to win and they have an incredible home record.

Prime

The difference, however, between Leinster and other teams from Europe is that they know what it takes to win in Limerick. The issue will be, who plays?

There is some talk of the timely reappearance of former Leinster out-half Joey Carbery after a long lay-off with an ankle injury, and with Tyler Bleyendaal again injured, Munster need more options in the No 10 shirt than the impressive JJ Hanrahan, who can't play every game. I don't see Carbery starting this game, but he could make an impact off the bench.

Leinster, on the other hand, have serious options in the same positions that Munster struggle to plug, even without captain Johnny Sexton.

Ross Byrne, Sexton's natural replacement at Leinster and, possibly, Ireland for the start of the next Six Nations - depending on the fitness of Carbery and Sexton - may be rotated in for this match.

If not, he may just be replaced by Ciarán Frawley, or even his younger brother Harry.

Frawley would be Cullen's second option after Byrne, given Harry Byrne's inexperience, but it just shows that Leinster are blessed for choice in most positions.

The same applies to the back row and front row where, despite young flanker Jack O'Donoghue's good work in defence for Munster in recent games, Leinster has serious options from their back-row conveyor belt.

Best

Last year, Leinster and Irish flanker Dan Leavy had established himself as one of the best flankers in the world, and sat comfortably with the likes of Seán O'Brien in the Leinster back row. Fingers crossed that Leavy makes it back at some stage in 2020, and by all accounts his rehabilitation work is going well.

In his absence, Leinster have simply rolled out another crop of astonishing young talent - Max Deegan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors and Scott Penny just to mention a few.

Even last weekend's outstanding second row against Ulster, Josh Murphy, is a player that prefers to operate as a blindside flanker, such is Leinster's depth of options in so many positions.

Munster at full strength and at home are a match for any team. It's just that they may find it hard to replace like with like at the moment.

Munster do have plenty of young talent coming through off the rank, especially in their back three, but they also need the experience that the likes of Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, CJ Stander, Dave Kilcoyne and especially captain Peter O'Mahony bring to the team.

Without some of these key figures and despite a huge crowd behind them, beating Leinster still is a very difficult task.

You always want these games to be tight, memorable occasions and I have a gut feeling that this will again go down to the wire. Who wants it most?

PRO14 League, Munster v Leinster, Live Prem Sp, Eir (Tomorrow 6pm)

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