Date: Saturday 31st March 2012
Kick-off: 19:30 (GMT)
Venue: Thomond Park
Referee: Nigel Owens
Despite a shock loss to Aironi earlier in the month when Munster were shorn of their Six Nations stars, the Red Army bounced back last week against Irish rivals Connacht to keep their second placed spot in the RaboDirect Pro12, though the Ospreys are hot on their heels. Munster will be without the international trio of Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan and Conor Murray for the visit of Leinster, meaning that Donnacha O’Callaghan and Mick O’Driscoll will start at lock, with London Irish-bound Tomás O’Leary at scrum-half.
After losing at home for the first time in 20 matches against the Ospreys last weekend, Leinster will look to increase what is already an 8 point lead over closest rivals Munster this weekend. Despite ending up on the wrong side of the result last week, the club did welcome back Brian O’Driscoll after a long injury layoff, and the Ireland captain will take part in this crucial derby this weekend. Leo Cullen also returned last week, whilst Brad Thorn made his debut from the bench and should be involved too.
What to Expect:
A titanic struggle. The top two seeds for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup traditionally produce very narrow, niggling Test-match style encounters, so this should be no different. One try either way could decide it. The South African pairing of Wian Du Preez and BJ Botha should edge out Cian Healy & Mike Ross, whilst Munster’s weakened lineout will be heavily targeted. Ronan O’Gara and Johnny Sexton’s kicking should be a prolific as ever, but you feel the stage is set for a Brian O’Driscoll moment of magic.
All Eyes On: Peter O’Mahony & Brad Thorn
After impressing on debut in the Six Nations, calls have been made across the Irish rugby public for the young Munster star to be included permanently in the starting line-up, moving Sean O’Brien to number 8 and edging out Jamie Heaslip. The 22 year old offers what the unbalanced Irish back row has been missing with his specialist skills at the breakdown, so on Saturday look out for him at the ruck trying to slow down Leinster’s possession and keeping their backs stagnant.
Meanwhile it was a great coup for Leinster to bring in World Cup winner Brad Thorn to cover their losses after Steven Sykes returned to South Africa. Respected throughout the rugby world, Thorn takes no prisoners and his hardened edge will only help Leinster in their upcoming Heineken Cup knockout matches, as well as the looming playoffs in the RaboDirect Pro12.
Head to Head: Ronan O’Gara v Johnny Sexton
A fantastic rivalry. Ever since Sexton burst onto the scene the battle for the number 10 shirt for Ireland between these two has been special. Both excellent kickers, their control from fly-half makes them desired by clubs all across Europe. O’Gara may be aging but insists he has another three seasons within him, whilst Sexton’s mind will now be on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia.
Both sides recent records are incredibly impressive, Munster with one loss in their last 8 and Leinster with one in their last 21. But the current league leaders have been so outstanding this season that they should exorcise the ghost of last season’s final at Thomond Park with victory on Saturday night. Leinster by 5.
by Ben Coles