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What World Cup?

What World Cup?

In the recent history of the Munster v Leinster rivalry, this Friday’s meeting is by a distance the match with the least riding on it, writes Adrian O’Farrell. In the past few years, they have contested some huge games in both the RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup.

It is so early in the league that the loser has plenty of time to recover. With the Heineken Cup pool matches kicking off next week, there really is very little reason to be getting terribly excited about this match.

Yeah right! This might just be the best-timed match in the history of rugby! Leinster v Munster at the Aviva Stadium is just what the rugby-playing population of this island needs to bring people back to the season now at hand after the confusing overhang of the World Cup.

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I don’t think it’s just me that is dealing with the cognitive dissonance arising from the World Cup – we know we did well, but…. Then there’s the sheer fatigue of the situation. And if we’re feeling it, imagine how it must be for the players!

No, this is just the thing to get us back into our stride again. There’s nothing like a full-blooded scrap with the neighbours to get the pulses racing. And for the players too, now is the time to get back on the wagon. After all, all that conditioning for the World Cup has to come in useful.

The Munster and Leinster international squad members arrive home to find that their understudies have by and large done a good job in their absence.

Second-placed Munster take on third-placed Leinster with the exact same record of five wins, two defeats, one winning bonus and one losing bonus each. The only thing separating them is that Munster boast a +40 points difference compared to Leinster’s +35.

As close as that is, it does mask somewhat the fact that Munster’s defence has been tighter. Leinster have scored a couple more tries than Munster (12 v 10) but conceded a lot more (13 v 4).

Oddly, Leinster have conceded more tries (13) than they’ve scored. Their last match against Edinburgh was a prime example as they conceded three (two of them very poor defensively) in a 36-28 win.

That match was the first to include the international contingent this year. As Joe Schmidt points out, that means reintegrating a whopping 14 players into the squad, while Munster have nine coming back in.

Neil Francis, on Setanta’s excellent ‘The Breakdown’, referred to it as the ‘Coolmore’ policy, noting how the famous breeding stable uses lesser horses to bring the mare to a state of readiness before wheeling in the stud to take over at the crucial moment.

It might work with horses, but coaches need to take into account the sensibilities of human beings, some of whom have been performing very well in the absence of the stars.

Indeed, the performance of their squad must be a relief to the Munster supporters who were nervous at the end of last season that their team was ageing without the necessary back-up in place.

For Leinster, Jonathan Sexton, Fergus McFadden, Isaac Boss, Rob Kearney, Sean Cronin, Leo Cullen and Mike Ross were introduced last week, while for Munster Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Keith Earls, Conor Murray, Damien Varley, Donnacha Ryan, Denis Leamy, Tomas O’Leary and Donncha O’Callaghan made their seasonal bows last week in their 18-6 victory over Aironi.

This interprovincial fixture always carries a lot of attention in terms of jockeying for positions in the Irish team. On this occasion, perhaps less so as there is a lot of time now before Ireland’s next fifteen is put on the pitch.

Nevertheless, in light of how the World Cup panned out there will be renewed interest in the battle between the two out-halves, both of whom were in prime place-kicking form last week.

Another performance that will be especially noteworthy is that of Leinster hooker Richardt Strauss. The South African becomes eligible for Ireland on residency grounds at the end of 2011. Good news, you would think.

However, he has not given any indication if this is something that he wants to do, or whether he would prefer to try to make the South African squad.

The presence of one Bismarck du Plessis in the Springbok squad may convince him that the grass is greener in Ireland.

And it is. Interesting, then, that Strauss’ fellow South African Johann Muller has been touting Rory Best for the Ireland captaincy, saying (correctly) that he is ‘in the form of his life and was outstanding at the World Cup’.

Neither side ever wants to lose this fixture, obviously, but there are reasons beyond the tribal rivalry to consider. The following weekend sees Leinster begin their defence of the Heineken Cup with a daunting trip to Montpellier.

Montpellier may be Heineken Cup newcomers but they finished runners-up in the Bouclier de Brennus last season. However, they are struggling domestically so far this season, with just two wins and a draw from eight matches in the Top 14.

For their part, Munster don’t exactly have a soft touch for their first outing in the tournament at home against last season’s beaten finalists Northampton.

The Saints have gotten off to a fairly ropey start in the Aviva Premiership, but seem to be getting their act together now. Both Munster and Leinster will certainly be rusty, so they won’t want that exacerbated by the downer of a defeat against the side they least want to lose to.

So who is going to win on Friday? Often in predicting these fairly unpredictable events, it is advisable to go with the team whose need is greater, but that doesn’t really apply this time around.

Leinster won’t want to lose in front of their own fans and will be carrying a grudge from their beating in the grand final last May.

Munster will be feeling that they need to convince the world that there hasn’t been a fundamental shift in the balance of power with Leinster equalling their two European title successes. I’ll go for a Leinster win on this occasion, half-expecting that Munster will find a way.

At time of writing there are over 42,000 tickets sold at a time when the country is in the toilet. Without a doubt this is the world’s greatest local rivalry at the top level of the game. It’s a Friday night under lights with a full house baying for blood and thunder.

World Cup? What World Cup?