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Thursday 14 December 2017

Crunch time again for old rivals

Lancaster confident Leinster can handle player welfare restrictions

Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster at squad training.
Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster at squad training.

"There's no added edge needed whenever we meet."

This was the message posted by Leinster hooker Sean Cronin ahead of the annual Munster-Leinster Christmas carve-up.

As ever, it will be a guaranteed Irish war of the worlds as the aristocrats taken on the artisans.

For all the strides Leinster have made this season - they have been long ones - it is the way Munster have been able to harness the heartbreak of Anthony Foley's tragedy and make it last that has been an utterly compelling story of resilience and rebirth.

Spend ten minutes in the company of their Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus and it is easy to see where he leads others are bound to follow.

It is often alluded to how emotion can only take you part of the way along the stretch of 80 minutes.

The South African double act of Erasmus and renowned defence coach Jacques Nienaber have tapped into the passion of what it means to wear the red jersey.

The call for the sell-out Thomond Park crowd to raise the roof will find a hair-raising response unless Leinster can take away reasons to get behind the men in red.

Momentum

The Blues have to start well to do well because should their hosts win the opening engagements, they will have the momentum that is rarely arrested.

When Leinster knocked Munster on the head 25-14 at The Aviva Stadium back in early October, Isa Nacewa was the star-turn.

The club captain's two tries and another from fellow Kiwi Jameson Gibson-Park were contrasted with Munster's blunt-force trauma tries from Peter O'Mahony and a late consolation effort from Jaco Taute.

A lot of water has flowed under both bridges since then.

Leinster have shown impressive fluency in deconstructing Northampton Saints away and at home to take control of Pool Four in the Champions Cup.

For all of that, Leinster have not come under the kind of relentless pressure Munster can exert, especially in Limerick.

The Southern Province is in a great position in Pool One, stalking Glasgow Warriors with a game-in-hand.

In the PRO12 League, Ulster, The Ospreys, Benetton Treviso and Glasgow have all been swept aside by a magnificent Munster.

Okay, their unbeaten sequence ended against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road last weekend.

Despite this, it was a game that could have gone either way.

There was no sign of their performance levels slipping in any way in what is a notoriously difficult place to do business.

"They're motoring really, really well. They won't be lightly turned over down there," said Cronin, in something of an under-statement.

There is the additional ingredient of the IRFU's hand in the influence of the precious player management system.

Leinster will be most compromised by the need to protect Ireland's frontline internationals from overuse.

"I don't think this game will be diluted," issued Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster.

This came in response to the claimthat the inter-provincial rivalries can suffer at this juncture of the season.

"It's no different in England. When Ireland go into camp for the first Six Nations game, we've got a week off here. If you're with Ireland, you don't get a rest, so I understand the reasons.

"The trick is on selection is to make sure, particularly at Leinster where there are so many Ireland internationals, that we are competitive in both games.

"That is where the selection will unfold. I am pretty sure it will be a competitive team."

However, Jonathan Sexton has been put on the back-burner for well-documented reasons.

Joey Carbery (ankle), Dave Kearney (ankle), Fergus McFadden (quad), Jordi Murphy (knee) and Mike Ross (hamstring) are all out for the Christmas period.

Rob Kearney has been ruled out for Munster and may or may not be reconsidered for Ulster at The RDS on New Year's Eve.

Then, the workload carried by the likes of Jack McGrath and Cronin has to be taken into account. This sits comfortably with senior coach Stuart Lancaster.

"We can't play them in both games," he said.

"It is a question of do you play Jack McGrath the first day or Cian Healy? Do you play Sean Cronin or James Tracy?

"It is where you need the depth in your squad and that's what Leinster have done really well.

"They've not only got a deep squad, but also the opportunity through the selection process and injuries to give younger players opportunities to step in the hole.

"Say with Rory O'Loughlin and Garry Ringrose, I would be confident with Rory to play in a game of this type because he has the experience."

This week will test all coaches and players made available to the limit.

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