Both top of their European Champions Cup pools and coming back to Guinness PRO14 action fresh from victories over Premiership sides – which of these two Irish giants will come out on top on the 26th?
Leinster beat the English champions Exeter last time out while Munster won away at Leicester, meaning neither team will be short of confidence at Thomond Park.
What’s at stake? There is always more than Guinness PRO14 points on the line when these two meet, and this encounter is no different.
Glasgow slipping up against Edinburgh gives Munster the chance to close the gap on the Conference A leaders, while Leinster could leapfrog Scarlets in Conference B should they win and their Welsh rivals fail to.
Team news (Munster): Johann van Graan makes four changes to his last XV as Rhys Marshall and Andrew Conway return to the starting lineup.
Keith Earls and Tommy O’Donnell also make their first starts since Round 7 as the former replaces Alex Wootton and Conway comes in at full-back, with Simon Zebo moving to the bench.
Team news (Leinster): Leo Cullen makes a host of changes to his side for this inter-pro encounter, with academy product Jordan Larmour making his first senior start, at full-back.
Cullen’s lineup also includes a first time wearing the captain’s armband for prop Jack McGrath as Barry Daly returns from an ankle injury to play on the wing.
Talking points: Munster’s CJ Stander on signing his new contract ahead of the Leinster clash, said: “The Munster and Ireland fans have been fantastic to us since we arrived and my continued focus will be to do my best for them and both teams when called upon.
“My intention was always to stay with Munster and Ireland throughout this process having settled well in Limerick with my wife and within the Munster family.”
Leinster’s Australian flanker Scott Fardy said: “It’s a good day, apparently. The boys have said it’s a good, fun trip down there.
“Obviously very different to what I’m usually doing at Christmas. I’m usually having a few beers and some nice prawns in the sun down at the beach. It’s my first wintery Christmas here in Ireland.”
Key battle: CJ Stander goes into the game fresh from signing a new contract to stay at Munster until 2021, and he goes up against Jack Conan in the Leinster pack.
With Leo Cullen leaving forwards such as Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier and Richardt Strauss on the bench, will Stander be able to exert enough authority over Conan to make the result certain before Leinster make changes?
Key stat: Peter O’Mahony will become the 12th member of the current Munster squad to reach 100 caps in the inter-pro encounter.
Did you know? Munster have brought in extra seating to lift the capacity of Thomond Park to 26,267 for the sell-out St Stephen’s Day clash.
Munster: A Conway, D Sweetnam, S Arnold, R Scannell, K Earls, I Keatley, C Murray, D Kilcoyne, R Marshall, S Archer, J Kleyn, B Holland, P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander
Replacements: N Scannell, J Cronin, J Ryan, D O’Shea, J O’Donoghue, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, S Zebo
Leinster: J Larmour, B Daly, R O’Loughlin, R Henshaw, J Lowe, R Byrne, J Gibson-Park, J McGrath, J Tracy, M Bent, D Toner, J Ryan, J Murphy, D Leavy, J Conan
Replacements: R Strauss, E Byrne, T Furlong, M Kearney, J van der Flier, N McCarthy, C Marsh, N Reid
Match officials – referee: Nigel Owens
AR1: Sean Gallagher
AR2: Stuart Gaffikin
TMO: Simon McDowell
TV: Sky Sports Action 3pm/TG4 2.45pm
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie
A first-half blitz, coupled with Jordan Larmour’s scintillating solo score, gave Leinster just enough breathing room to hold off a roaring Munster comeback and edge a St Stephen’s Day thriller at Thomond Park.
The 34-24 win continued Leinster’s recent dominance over their countrymen – they have lost only once to a fellow Irish province in the last 12 months – and also means they have now triumphed in five of their last six encounters with Munster.
Leo Cullen’s troops also strengthen their hand in Conference B of the Guinness PRO14 but for Munster it was a first home defeat in 13 games and brought a five-match winning run in all competitions to an end.
The visitors flew out of the blocks at a packed Thomond Park, which had its capacity increased to 26,267 for the game due to demand for tickets, as scores from Dan Leavy, Robbie Henshaw and a penalty try had them 27-5 ahead at the break.
Ian Keatley and Andrew Conway crossed early in the second period as the hosts looked set for a remarkable comeback but Larmour’s try-of-the-season contender ten minutes from time sealed victory, despite Conway at least securing a four-try bonus point for the hosts at the death.
Leinster earned a penalty after just 30 seconds as Munster held on in the tackle and Ross Byrne nailed the three-pointer from near the right touchline, before the fly-half produced an even more precise kick seven minutes later.
After numerous phases in the home 22, Byrne opted for a pinpoint cross-field punt and picked out Leavy all alone on the left wing – the flanker having the easiest of tasks to dot down.
Byrne’s conversion, and a second penalty shortly after, left the shell-shocked hosts 13-0 down with barely ten minutes played but they got on the board thanks to the talismanic Conor Murray.
The electric Alex Wootton had made the initial break down the left wing and after the pack secured ball from an attacking lineout, scrum-half Murray sniped from the base of the ruck as he has done so many times before – darting off the fringe and powering through two defenders from close-range to narrow the deficit to 13-5.
That score proved to be little more than a temporary obstacle for the Leinster juggernaut however, as two tries in quick succession midway through the first half appeared to put the result beyond doubt.
Firstly, winger James Lowe – playing in his first Munster-Leinster derby – hared after a Rory O’Loughlin grubber kick but was hauled back by Conway as he was about to collect and touch down, leaving referee Nigel Owens no option but to award the penalty try.
And two minutes later, the visitors notched a spectacular team score.
Exciting young full-back Larmour – who looks destined to be a future Guinness PRO14 superstar – demonstrated his incredible pace after picking up a loose ball, fed Rory O’Loughlin, who shifted the ball to Barry Daly and although the winger was tackled on 22, he popped the offload from his knees to the supporting Henshaw, who cantered over.
Munster limped into half-time with a 27-5 deficit but came roaring back after the break.
Sustained pressure in the visiting 22 saw them draw in the defence and Keately scythed over from close-range before duly adding the conversion.
Conway then produced a brilliant score as Niall Scannell fired a miss-pass wide to the full-back midway in the Leinster half, he put on the after-burners to dart inside one defender, swerved outside another and dotted down – the conversion meaning Leinster’s 22-point half-time advantage was reduced to just eight.
The Thomond Park crowd were rocking but Leinster steadied the ship and sealed victory thanks to Larmour’s brilliance on 69 minutes.
The former Ireland Under-20 star collected a kick in his own half, jinked past two men almost immediately, raced away and slipped inside another helpless defender before holding off the covering Simon Zebo for a truly magnificent try.
There was still time for Conway to grab his second score in the left corner but it only secured Munster a four-try bonus as the visitors deservedly took five points.
24 Dec 2017
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