Another chapter of one of sport’s great rivalries will be written in Thomond Park tomorrow night. While there’s no immediate reward at stake for this battle, there is plenty to play for. Munster’s need for a win appears to be far greater. We’re into the real business end of the season, with the HC quater-finals to come the weekend after this. While a Leinster loss tomorrow would be a blow for them, failure at home could have catastrophic effects for Munster.
Picture it: a Munster loss at home just 8 days before that massive quarter-final against an Ulster side who have no fear of Thomond Park. How would it affect the side’s confidence knowing that they had failed against even bigger rivals the weekend before? The consequences would reach further than the Heineken Cup too. Munster’s next three PRO12 games are against the Warriors (h), Scarlets (a) and Ulster (h). All three of those sides are still play-off contention. A loss to Leinster tomorrow puts Munster right back in the thick of that battle. A win would allow some breathing space.
Would a loss effect Leinster as much? On the surface, no. They currently have an 8-point lead over Munster at the top of the PRO12. Losing tomorrow would have no effect on their league position, while two of their final three fixtures are very winnable (Edinburgh at home and Dragons away). Next weekend’s quarter-final at the Aviva is against the Blues, who will be boosted by Wales’ Grand Slam. Still, betting against Leinster in that one won’t be on too many people’s agenda. A defeat to Munster is never welcome, but the fact that the game is in Thomond Park would reduce any ill-effects.
As if Munster’s mission was already not difficult enough, this season’s leading lights of O’Connell, Ryan and Murray have all been ruled out through injury. These losses will be as keenly felt as POC and BOD’s were by Ireland during the Six Nations. Others will now have to step up as Ryan for Ireland. He would have relished this game, still with something to prove after starting only two Six Nations games. Who will provide the leadership without O’Connell? Who will provide the aggression without Ryan?
Leinster’s deck of cards is almost full with the return of their complement of internationals. After some patchy form recently, Joe Schmidt will be keen to get back to their glorious December heights ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final. Last season, Munster got back on top of this rivalry with a narrow 9-13 loss in the Aviva being followed by a 24-23 win in Thomond Park and that 19-9 Magners League Final win. Their only meeting this season resulted in a 24-19 win for Leinster in the Aviva.
Elsewhere, Ulster are in action tonight against bottom side Aironi. It’s a good chance for Brian McLaughlin’s side to secure a try-scoring bonus point in Ravenhill and keep themselves in contention for a play-off spot. Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble return to the side after their Six Nations involvement. Interestingly, McLaughlin has gone for Lewis Stevenson in the second-row ahead of Dan Tuohy, who has had a great season up to this point.
McLaughlin has stated that a number of places are still up for grabs ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final in Thomond Park. Tuohy will be devastated if this is an indication of his coach’s thinking before that Heineken Cup outing. A bonus point tonight looks even more important when you look at Ulster’s three remaining PRO12 fixtures, where they face three inter-pro derbies in a row: Connacht (a), Leinster (h) and Munster (a).
Connacht also play tonight as they travel to take on a Dragons side who have enjoyed a superb turn-around of form recently. They’ve won 4 of their last 5 games, and welcome back Grand Slam trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and captain Luke Charteris for this game. The pressure is on Eric Elwood to finish this season with a few more Connacht wins. It would be disappointing to let the season simply peter out.
This week brought more good news for Connacht ahead of next season with the announcement of Willie Faloon’s signature. The 25-year-old openside joins from Connacht with plenty to prove. He will relish the opportunity for more game time at the western province. Along with Dan Parks and Nathan White, Faloon should help improve this inconsistent Connacht team.
It’s another PRO12 weekend with so much at stake. Enjoy!
Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane, Fabio Beretta.