By Phil Rice
Both teams have progressed well as the season has begun to take shape. Last weekend they saw off the challenge of Ulster and Connacht in some style.
Munster annihilated a weakened Ulster team at Thomond Park, while Leinster emerged from the ‘lion’s den’ that is the Sportsground in Galway, with a deserved 20-3 win.
Munster scored nine tries in their 64-7 victory and while they will be delighted with the result, Ulster’s new coach, Dan McFarland will know that his team still had sufficient quality players to have provided sterner resistance than they did.
Unbeaten in the league up till Saturday, Ulster’s performance was reminiscent of last season’s inconsistent efforts, and McFarland will be anxious to sort things out before their first Heineken Cup outing on Saturday week.
Munster and Leinster too will have their eyes on the difficult challenges they face in Europe the following week. Leinster will face in-form Wasps at the RDS, while Munster travel to Exeter Chiefs fortress at Sandy Park.
However, such is the rivalry between these two teams that they are both likely to field their strongest teams available this week in what should be a titanic battle.
Joey Carbery has settled in extremely well at his new province and will relish the opportunity to face his old team mates this week.
After Saturday’s game he pronounced, “I absolutely love it here,” as his man of the match performance endeared him even more to his new supporters.
He certainly has responded well to the opportunity to play regularly in his preferred position of fly-half.
As yet he has been unable to develop a partnership with Munster’s first choice scrum-half Conor Murray, as his neck injury, suffered in Australia last June, is taking longer than expected to heal.
Joe Schmidt will be concerned that Murray may not be available for the November internationals but will be more anxious that he fully recovers with the World Cup on the horizon.
In the light of Murray’s situation Munster have drafted in a first-class replacement – All Black Alby Matthewson showed his talents in his impressive debut last Saturday.
Both coaches will be desperate to avoid injuries to their first-choice players this week, with European games a week away, but that is unlikely to diminish the full-on nature of the players approach. Leinster have had the better of exchanges between the teams in recent years but Munster have a renewed focus about their play this season.
They were very disappointed with their loss to Cardiff Blues two weeks ago and certainly put that behind them last Saturday.
They are five points behind Conference A leaders Glasgow and will not want to fall further behind this week, in what looks like being a very competitive conference.
Leinster are five points clear at the top of Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 and at this stage have almost all of their first-choice players available to them.
It was encouraging to see Sean O’Brien coming through a 60-minute stint in last Saturday’s game, after his lengthy battle with injuries. Josh van der Flier was man of the match and underlined that he is not going to give up the number seven jersey without a fight.
Vice captain Rhys Ruddock left the field after 20 minutes as a precaution, allowing O’Brien to have a run out. Ruddock has been outstanding for Leinster this season and Leo Cullen will be hoping he recovers quickly for the big matches ahead.
Jamison Gibson-Price has been one of Leinster’s best players this season, but may be unlucky to miss out on the big matches due to the Pro14 and Heineken Cup requirements for only two non-European players to be included in the match-day squad.
Scott Fardy and James Lowe appear to be automatic selections for the team at this stage and Luke McGrath will wear the nine shirt.
A full Leinster team is close to the strength of a full Ireland side and as they seem to be hitting their stride at the moment, they may be too strong for Munster, who will not leave without a battle.
As ever it will be confrontational and not to be missed. Let’s hope for both teams’ sakes that casualties are kept to a minimum.