For several within the Munster squad Saturday’s URC encounter against Leinster (kick-off 7pm) will be their last meeting with the province’s old foes at Thomond Park, not least for the Bath-bound Johann van Graan, and the Munster head coach is clearly excited about the prospect.
Perhaps this is partly because Munster ended a six-game losing streak in the fixture when beating Leinster in the Rainbow Cup at the RDS last April; just a second win in 11 attempts under van Graan’s watch.
More likely it’s because after five clashes behind closed doors this will be the first encounter between them with a crowd since Munster hosted Leinster at Thomond Park in December 2019. Munster-Leinster matches certainly weren’t meant to be played in echo chambers.
Van Graan has always accepted that playing Leinster is the ultimate challenge in this competition and that hasn’t changed.
“The first thing you’ve got to say about them is they give you nothing easy. They’ve got a phenomenal set piece. We’ve watched some of their previous games and some of their recent performances.
“They’ve got a scrum that gets them penalties, then they kick to touch and they maul. If you concede a penalty they’re going to the maul again and they’ve got a fantastic set of players to start off with.
“Defensively they are incredibly patient. They know when to poach, know when to put numbers on their feet. In their kicking game, they’ve got some of the world’s best players in certain positions and then some of their attack they are the team that gets the quickest ball right across all teams in European rugby.
“So you’ve got to slow their ball down, you’ve got to be disciplined and once you have the ball, you have to punish them. On top of that they have a team full of internationals so a lot of respect for them.
“We have got to focus on ourselves this weekend. We know that we have to be at our best to have a chance to beat them and they’re currently top of the league in the URC, so it’s a very good challenge for us to play against them at Thomond Park.”
With the Champions Cup last 16 two-legged tie against Exeter followed by Ulster away to come in the ensuing three weeks, a win would be timely.
“In terms of a bit of continuity leading into the next few weeks, it’s an important game for us so obviously we’d like to win the game,” said van Graan.
“But in terms of reintegrating the whole squad, it was the 23rd of January (when they were last together), we are now on the 29th of March so it’s great to have everybody back. Let’s hope we can get a bit of continuity leading into the next two weeks, leading into Ulster in Belfast and Cardiff in Musgrave Park.
“The main thing is performance this weekend, getting back to our systems and making sure that everyone is comfortable with the way we play, the way we do things. So really looking forward to it.”
Joey Carbery, Dave Kilcoyne, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony are all likely to be involved, although Andrew Conway has been ruled out and there remain doubts about Tadhg Beirne (thigh), Jean Kleyn Leg strain), Simon Zebo (concussion) and Mike Haley (knee).
Entering a meaty month of the season, van Graan will not be inclined to take a risk.
“I’m not going to take a chance with anybody in the squad who is not 100 per cent ready to go because you need 23 fit guys to come up against Leinster.
“So everybody who is fit and available that comes through training will be assessed and we’ll pick our best possible team in terms of guys who are fit and available.
“I’m not going to keep guys back in terms of squad management. Everybody’s available in terms of minutes, it’s just how are their bodies and how are they mentally.”
Leinster were far from full-strength last April at the RDS, but that 27-3 win does imbue Munster with confidence.
“We’ve beaten them the last time that we played against them in Dublin and every game is different, I don’t want to overstate that. This is a new game, a new competition and they’re a phenomenal team, the current URC champions and that’s a challenge, and we love a challenge.
“They always want to come up with their best and we lost against them in the final,” added van Graan in reference to the Pro14 final four weeks previously at the RDS, which Leinster won 16-6.
“Every loss hurts,” maintained van Graan, but that one still stings. “Small margins, and we came up short and we had worked so hard to get into that final and not to get the result, sure it does.
“The good thing is that we played them four weeks later in the Rainbow Cup in Dublin again, but that’s why we had to literally go back to those games, which feels so long ago.
“We have developed since then and they have certainly developed. It’s a different part of the season, both teams have internationals back, both teams are in pretty similar positions.
“Obviously they are top of the league and we are third so there’s so much to do in the URC and then we’ve got the nice carrot of Europe in the round of 16 over the next two weekends to come.
“So it’s all about balance, it’s all about integrating with each other then hopefully putting in a performance on Saturday evening.”