By Phil Rice
The Christmas period in the Pro 12 league is the traditional time for local derbys to take place. Leinster and Connacht began the hostilities last Friday when the Dublin based team avenged their early season loss to the
Westerners, with a 21 – 11 win.
As we relax after our Boxing Day lunch, the most eagerly awaited encounter takes place. Munster host arch rivals Leinster at a partisan Thomond Park. In recent years Leinster have reigned supreme in this tribal battle but earlier this season Munster triumphed at the Aviva Stadium.
For many supporters these matches are the most significant to take place throughout the whole season. The parochial importance a victory in these games is worth can only be appreciated if you are a seasoned supporter
of either side.
The depth of animosity between the two factions came into focus during the 2007 World Cup. This was a competition that Ireland approached with real optimism but ultimately ended in dismal failure. It only came to light
subsequently that the rivalry between the Munster and Leinster players in the Irish squad, resulted in extremely strained relations and lack of cohesion and cooperation.
Rob Kearney is credited with bringing matters to a head at a team meeting some months later and relationships are considerably more cordial since then. Joe Schmidtʼs impartial leadership has further improved the situation and it is apparent that the current Irish squad is a very united group.
Despite this welcome unity, feelings will still run deep on Friday, particularly among the partisan crowd. The Christmas spirit will not extend to magnanimous defeat. For many supporters victory for either team will be more welcome than the most treasured gift from the previous day.
Munster kick started their season with that long sought victory in Dublin in October and a win for either team on Friday will definitely give them a lift as they face into key European Champions Cup matches later in January.
Munster come into the game after a 21-18 reversal away to Glasgow Warriors at the weekend. They remain one point ahead of Leinster in the league table, in third place.
Leinster stuttered to an unconvincing victory over a competitive Connacht team. They are not playing as fluently as in recent seasons. Although Ian Madigan didnʼt play last Friday it has been his accurate place kicking that has kept their season alive both in the European Cup and the Pro 12.
Just as the Thomond Park match is concluding Ulster and Connacht kick off in Belfast. This match will be crucial for both sides as they lie 5th and 6th in the league. The top 6 teams at the end of the season qualify for next year’s European Champions Cup.
Connacht have been a revelation this season, under the expert coaching of Pat Lam. Apart from introducing new quality players to the team, such as Mils Muliaina, he has instilled a self-belief that has been lacking throughout their history.
Ulster are going through a tough period and were well beaten by the Ospreys at the weekend. It would be no surprise if the highly motivated westerners came out on top, despite Ulsterʼs proud home record.