It may be 1st v 2nd in the Magners League, it may be a week before some crucial European quarterfinals, but none of that is needed to talk up Saturday night’s clash at Thomond Park between Munster and Leinster.
Though the two provinces have always been rivals, since rugby union went professional, the intensity has come on in leaps and bounds and now it is arguably the biggest derby domestic Irish sport has to offer.
Up to the Heineken Cup semi final in Croke Park in May 2009, there was no doubt as to who held sway in the contest. Munster had been crown European Champions twice, they had crushed their nemesis at the same stage of the competition a couple of years before, and all the experts were predicting them to do it again.
But there was a monumental tide change that day. Leinster went from “lady boys” to men and thanks to stellar performances all over the park, they prevailed not only then, but in the four derbies played since.
So when Paul O’Connell leads his team onto the pitch, no doubt he will have them primed and ready to end the streak in front of what is likely to be a home crowd so passionately red (owing to the poor take up of tickets from Leinster fans) that they’ll be counted as both a 16th AND a 17th man.
Though both teams recorded wins last weekend, neither did so with any real conviction and will be hoping to name full-strength sides on Friday having rested some of their stars after the Six Nations.
Naturally the player matchup that will grab the most headlines will be O’Gara vs Sexton, and whatever your allegiance it’s always great to see these two grace the field at the same time.
But there will be key battles all over the park – O’Connell himself has missed the last few derbies and will be keen to win the lineout battle with Leo Cullen. Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien will relish the back row challenge against the likes of David Wallace and Denis Leamy, not to mention the mischievous Alan Quinlan.
In the backline, Peter Stringer and Eoin Reddan should resume their battle for the Irish 9 jersey, and on the wing Keith Earls will no doubt carry over his impressive showing in green while on the Leinster side of things Shane Horgan will be proud to receive his 200th provincial cap on such a prestigious occasion.
As for Luke Fitzgerald, being a “Rock boy” myself I’d love to see him get his form back but I fear he has being trying too hard of late to do too much. Hopefully he will be able to find his “mojo” but with Johne Murphy or Dougie Howlett facing him, he’ll have his work cut out.
Also among the foreign contingent, there’s Isa Nacewa who has easily been Leinster’s most consistent performer over the season and in the Munster centre, Lifemi Mafi and Sami Tuitupou could have to contend with the world-famous centre pairing of O’Driscoll and D’Arcy.
So there is much to look forward to on the night. Maybe Munster don’t have Heineken Cup playoffs to look forward to for the first time in over a decade, but given the home advantage plus their impressive record in the Magners League to date, they must be considered narrow favourites. Despite being a Leinster fan myself, I believe we’ll fall short by 3 to 5 points.
While much of the rugby world has been discussing the match in Limerick , Irish fans must not forget the Ulstermen, who have a crucial game of their own at Ravenhill on Friday. After South African star Ruan Pienaar kicked them to a last-gasp victory in Glasgow last week, they are now firm contenders for a play-off place, and should they defeat the Scarlets this week as I predict, they will eliminate the Welshmen from contention.
Of course there’s also Connacht, who face Edinburgh also on Friday. I wasn’t proud that I forecasted their defeat in Aironi last week, but if it’s any consolation to their fans, I believe they should put their opponents away handily at the Sportsgrounds, and not only because Scotland coach Andy Robinson has called for some key players to sit out the rest of the campaign.
All in all it promises to be a cracking weekend of Magners League rugby for the Irish provinces, and hopefully all the squads will come through unscathed for their massive European battles to come.
Check out my blog at http://www.harpinonrugby.net/