With Christmas done and dusted for another year, what better way to retain the festive cheer than indulging in what promises to be an almighty clash between this season’s Guinness PRO14 pace-setters at Thomond Park.
Conference B leaders Munster will be vying to avenge last season’s semi-final defeat to eventual champions Leinster, and truly cement their intentions to claim the Championship title for the first time in nine years.
Johann van Graan’s men have six wins from eight Guinness PRO14 games so far in 2019/20 and have a four-point advantage over second-place Connacht, who they narrowly got the better of in their last outing.
Their form has been somewhat inconsistent recently however – with two wins from their last five games in all competitions – but their defeat to Leinster in May is the only time in the last six that a fellow Irish province has got the better of them.
Leo Cullen’s double-defending champions are about as tough a test as Munster could face though, with the Dublin-based side yet to taste defeat in any competition this term, and proving to be the standout side at home and in Europe.
Leinster have been ruthless in attack, scoring an average of 49 points across their last three matches, including a 50-21 humbling of the-then Premiership leaders Northampton Saints in the European Champions Cup.
With only one defeat in their last six against Munster, and only one in their last six against Irish provinces, they will be confident of victory at Thomond Park, which would keep them firmly on track for a third successive Guinness PRO14 crown.
Kick-off: Thomond Park, Limerick | KO 18:00, Saturday 28 December
How to watch: Live on Premier Sports 1, Eir Sport 1, DAZN, pro14.tv
Referee: Frank Murphy
AR1: George Clancy AR2: Chris Busby
TMO: Olly Hodges
Players to watch out for: Jack O’Donoghue (Munster), Caelen Doris (Leinster)
Back-rower Jack O’Donoghue is enjoying the season of his life, and has made the joint-highest number of offloads (9) in the league so far.
The 25-year-old came off the bench to grab the key try in Munster’s derby win last time out, and will be hoping to further enhance his international credentials here, having missed out on Andy Farrell’s extended Ireland squad last week.
For Leinster, it’s youngster Caelan Doris who stands in his way; he will have quite the task to limit the threat of his opposite number.
Key fact: Munster have not been defeated at Thomond Park in any competition in their last 21 matches since Leinster won there on St Stephen’s Day 2017.
Munster: Mike Haley; Dan Goggin, Sammy Arnold, Rory Scannell, Shane Daly; JJ Hanrahan, Nick McCarthy; Dave Kilcoyne, Kevin O’Byrne, Stephen Archer; Fineen Wycherley, Billy Holland (C); Tommy O’Donnell, Chris Cloete, Jack O’Donoghue
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Jeremy Loughman, Keynan Knox, Darren O’Shea, Jack O’Sullivan, Neil Cronin, Joey Carbery, Calvin Nash
Leinster: Hugo Keenan, Adam Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien, Conor O’Brien, James Lowe, Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy, Josh Murphy, Will Connors, Caelan Doris
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Peter Dooley, Jack Aungier, Ross Molony, Scott Penny, Rowan Osborne, Ciaran Frawley, Tommy O’Brien
Leinster’s flying Guinness PRO14 campaign continued on Derby Day in Round 9 with a victory at the home of Munster in the latest instalment of the old rivalry.
Ed Byrne’s try and eight points from Ross Byrne’s boot put them ahead, and the defence did the rest as Leo Cullen’s men smashed back attack after attack to keep their line unbreached at a sell-out Thomond Park.
The story of the first half was very much of Leinster containing Munster and inching ahead, which they achieved on 10 minutes as James Lowe looped round the back of the attacking line to create space, front rower Ed Byrne able to power over moments later.
Fly-half Ross Byrne kicked the conversion and followed it up with two penalties as Leinster turned the screw, the home side’s kicking game constantly thwarted by an aggressive wind blowing against them.
Johann van Graan’s side crucially did get on the board just before the break through JJ Hanrahan’s penalty, a feat repeated as play resumed, but the Leinster machine rumbled on with phase after phase of tight play.
You suspected a Munster fightback would come, and come it did, part in thanks to the arrival off the bench of Joey Carbery and part in thanks to several smart kicks downfield now with the wind behind them.
Jack O’Donoghue worked tirelessly and Mike Haley found half-gaps but the men from Dublin kept slamming the door shut, prop Andrew Porter’s 20 tackles bettered only by openside Will Connors’s 23.
Munster dominated possession for the final quarter but couldn’t escape the smothering defence, Leinster now nine from nine and with a hugely impressive 42 points.
This was a battle won in the close quarters and Leinster No.8 Caelan Doris was central to that effort, growing his burgeoning reputation.
12 carries, 12 tackles, two defenders beaten and several key turnovers were influential in keeping Munster out around the fringes.
Munster enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in the second half but when a double-hit came in from Connors and Sean Cronin on Darren O’Shea on 75 minutes the tone was set.
This season it seems when Leinster don’t want to concede a try, the door stays firmly shut.