There will be much more than just provincial pride on the line when Magners League leaders Munster and their chief chasers Leinster collide at Thomond Park tonight.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Saturday, April 2
MUNSTER (1st) v LEINSTER (3rd), Thomond Park, 7.30pm (live RTE 2/BBC ALBA)
Team News: Munster head coach Tony McGahan has made three changes to the team for Saturday’s key Magners League clash with Leinster at a sold-out Thomond Park.
The Magners League leaders’ back-line remains unchanged as does the front row but not surprisingly, Donncha O’Callaghan returns to partner captain Paul O’Connell in the second row after sitting out the win over the Cardiff Blues.
The in-form David Wallace also returns at openside flanker, joining Donnacha Ryan and James Coughlan in a combative back row.
Ryan will start at blindside flanker and Academy member Conor Murray has notably held off Peter Stringer to retain the number 9 jersey.
It will be the 21-year-old Murray’s third senior start in recent weeks, and the Garryowen clubman will have the vastly-experienced Ronan O’Gara outside him.
Felix Jones has been preferred at full-back to Paul Warwick, who has been named on the replacements bench. It will be the 23-year-old Jones’ first senior match against his native province.
Munster currently hold a 12-point lead at the top of the Magners League and skipper O’Connell, mindful of Leinster’s five in-a-row over Munster, is eager to keep his side on track for the play-offs.
“It will be very disappointing if we don’t beat them. Six times in-a-row would be tough for everyone to take, supporters, staff and players,” he said.
“We’ll be going out and giving it everything on Saturday. Since the Toulon game (in January) we’ve improved. We’re a lot happier with how we’re playing and what we’re doing.
“It’s just another game, that’s the way we’re trying to keep our preparation…trying to keep it to another game, and come the day there will be plenty of spice.”
Meanwhile, Boyne’s Shane Horgan will make history when he lines out for his home province for the 200th time – in doing so he becomes the first Leinster player to reach the milestone.
Horgan continues in the back-three alongside Luke Fitzgerald and Isa Nacewa, who both started last weekend’s 26-16 victory over the Newport Gwent Dragons.
Gordon D’Arcy partners Brian O’Driscoll at centre with Isaac Boss, a try scorer in Newport, and Jonathan Sexton partnering each other once again at half-back.
In all, there are six Ireland internationals in the starting pack. Props Cian Healy and Mike Ross resume in the front row and Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip rejoin Kevin McLaughlin in the back row.
Leo Cullen leads the team and partners Scotland’s Nathan Hines in the second row.
Internationals Heinke van der Merwe, Stan Wright, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan and Fergus McFadden have been named on a strong replacements bench.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Doug Howlett, Johne Murphy, Lifeimi Mafi, Keith Earls; Ronan O’Gara, Conor Murray; Wian du Preez, Damien Varley, Tony Buckley, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (capt), Donnacha Ryan, David Wallace, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Mick O’Driscoll, Denis Leamy, Peter Stringer, Paul Warwick, Sam Tuitupou.
LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa; Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Isaac Boss; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen (capt), Nathan Hines, Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Heinke van der Merwe, Stan Wright, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.
Referee: Andrew Small (England)
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Richard Kerr (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Munster to win: 8/13; Draw: 20/1; Leinster to win: 13/10
Pre-Match Quotes: Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster) – “Look, ye can’t run away from it. They’ve beaten us the last five games. Does that bother us? Of course it does.
“But the game on Saturday is all about just that. It’s about getting the points because we want a home semi-final and after this one (Leinster), we have two games in Wales and then the game against Connacht.
“So even though we have a healthy lead at the top of the table, if we don’t win on Saturday, all of a sudden that lead is chopped.
“Three tough games to come, two on the road, and all the hard work of the past few weeks that the lads did while we were away is compromised. We don’t want that.
“Leinster are a good side right across the pitch. They have been for a good period now. We haven’t beaten them in a while but there’s been very little in it in the last three games.
“One try scored in each of those games and they scored them and basically that’s been the difference in the end. It will be close again this time.”
Joe Schmidt (Leinster) – “I think Munster have an astute coaching staff and I know they have quality players.
“Paul O’Connell being back for them is a massive boon. He really lifts the whole level of expectation and confidence for them within that group.
“It is certainly a pressure cooker atmosphere. I think it is something our players are pretty keen to respond to. I know they won there (at Thomond Park) last season, albeit by a point.
“In fixtures like this, it is only one or two points. There’s not much between the two teams. It does come down to a bit of luck and a little bit of timing and effort on the day.
“I don’t think there is going to be any hesitation of the physical side of things. It is great preparation (for European games) as long as you don’t get too many guys knocked around,” said Schmidt.
“Across the park, defensively they are very difficult to break down. They are very, very good at slowing ruck ball down.
“It is very hard to play a high tempo game against them. They know that is probably what we’d like to do. They will stick to their strengths and try to blunt ours.”
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Magners League: Munster – Points: Ronan O’Gara 126; Tries: Doug Howlett 6; Leinster – Points: Isa Nacewa 142; Tries: Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, David Kearney 4 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Sunday, September 28, 2008 – Leinster 0 Munster 18, the RDS
Saturday, April 4, 2009 – Munster 22 Leinster 5, Thomond Park
Saturday, October 3, 2009 – Leinster 30 Munster 0, the RDS
Friday, April 2, 2010 – Munster 15 Leinster 16, Thomond Park
Saturday, May 15, 2010 – Semi-final – Leinster 16 Munster 6, the RDS
Saturday, October 2, 2010 – Leinster 13 Munster 9, Aviva Stadium
– Leinster have won their last five matches against Munster in all competitions, since Munster won 22-5 at Thomond Park on April 4, 2009
– Munster have won their last four Magners League matches since their 19-18 reversal in Treviso on February 13
– The Munstermen have won all 13 home games they have played in all competitions this season
– Leinster’s only defeat in any competition since early December was 11-3 at the Cardiff Blues in the Magners League on February 19
– The Leinstermen have won eight of their last nine encounters with fellow Irish provinces