Leinster win to heap misery on Munster
THIS weekend's much anticipated derby clash between Leinster and Munster will be followed with much interest, not because it is the first clash of the season between two of European rugby's titans, but because it is a chance for other European teams and their coaches to assess where Irish rugby is at.
Both teams, especially Munster, go into this match well below par, with both provinces needing some positive momentum and self-belief to carry forward into a new look European competition where the pool stages are even more competitive and ruthless than ever.
In fact this time last year all the Irish provinces bar Connacht where in rude good health, fighting near the top of the Rabo League, this year it is just about the opposite, with only the Galway-based side bearing their teeth.
Leinster has been promising in fits and starts, but to be honest they have not been clinical or consistent enough, and while unlike Munster they have at least won both their home games they have still failed to ignite.
The most pleasing aspect of last weekend's win against Cardiff was that Leinster owed its last quarter scramble and bonus point to the 'new kids on the block'.
Matt O'Connor must have been delighted with the cameos from the likes of the Byrne brothers, scrumhalf Luke McGrath and flying, bearded winger Mick McGrath who all showed that Leinster's conveyor belt is in pretty good shape.
Munster have looked out of sorts, their former talisman and now coach Anthony Foley is well respected in the province, but will be pulling his hair out at the lack of traditional firepower shown by his team.
The Munster faithful will soon run out of patience, even for one of their most favoured sons, if they continue to lose, especially at home, where Thomond Park, once regarded as the fortress of Europe is starting to crumble brick by brick.
In fairness to both coaches they have been hit with a raft of untimely injuries, especially in Munster who unlike Leinster don't have the depth to sustain injuries to key personnel like Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O'Mahoney while Leinster face protracted periods without the likes of Cian Healy, Seán O'Brien, Zane Kirchner and Dave Kearney.
Munster also seemed to struggle to meet the finances required to attract a big foreign signing and then lost their Kiwi import, All Black U21 captain Tyler Bleyendaal, to injury as well.
These derby games will show the respective coaches more about leadership, commitment and mental toughness than any other games in this competition. It is the closest replica and preparation for what it's like in Europe.
Come Sunday morning O'Connor and Foley will be putting a tick in some players' boxes and a cross in others. It is almost guaranteed that Munster will lift their performance for this match. After all, two losses (in Thomond Park) and two wins against the lowly-rated Italians is not the ideal start, especially with the top seven teams in this competition qualifying for Europe next season and the likes of Connacht already making huge inroads into that top group.
Another loss for Munster will not help their overall team morale that has already been tested. Leinster also needs a lift, so that they can go into Europe with plenty of confidence and this game will seriously test their aspirations.
The experiment of Gordon D'Arcy in the famous No 13 worked well last week. 'Man of the match' D'Arcy was like his famous predecessor, creative, strong in defence and a leader on the field. Long term D'Arcy does not have the top-end pace to threaten in Europe, but he is still a hugely experienced and an intelligent player and with Ian Madigan able to create inside him it looks Leinster's best option at the moment.
Healy, while a huge loss, can be covered by a number of promising options, although no one in the world carries ball better than he does, and without O'Brien to punch holes in Munster's defence Leinster will have to rely on Jamie Heaslip, Seán Cronin and the impressive Rhys Ruddock to knock up the hard yards.
Last week I wrote glowing reports on big off season signing Kane Douglas and as yet he is still settling in, but Leinster need to be far more accurate out of touch and also more dynamic with ball in hand.
In the backline, Ian Madigan's somewhat casual approach close to their line nearly cost them, while once again the accuracy of the basics of the game like passing, kicking and first-up tackling once again waxed and waned from good to bad.
Munster on the other hand desperately needs two things - a big dynamic ball-carrier in the loose and a creative playmaker in the backs, at the moment they have neither.
Munster can't rely on Paul O'Connell forever, and at the moment their back-row looks efficient but not eye-catching.
The one player who has the ability to change that dynamic when he is on song is new recruit, No 8 Robin Copeland.
Copeland is a big, fast aggressive man but he needs to play for the full 80 minutes and become more involved off the ball, but he has the talent to cause most teams including Leinster serious problems with ball in hand as long as he is focused.
To have a serious chance of winning this game you feel that Munster must be prepared to cut loose more than they have been. A simple kick for territory then bump and grind game-plan is not enough anymore.
Leinster on the other hand need to eliminate their silly mistakes, be more clinical and patient in key areas of the field and generally up the tempo of their play, holding onto possession and building phases rather than trying too much and over complicating things far too early in the match.
One always finds it hard to predict these derby games, simply because you can throw away the recent form book. Munster are more desperate for a win and that always makes them dangerous but Leinster may just hold the creative sway. Leinster by five.