‘When the Aviva is full for a passionate inter-pro derby, it’s an amazing place to play’

WHILE WE MAY not be treated to the piquant backdrop of a Johnny Sexton-Joey Carbery mano-a-mano come Saturday teatime, the allure of Irish rugby’s heavyweight clash is as strong as ever it seems.

The prospect of the master and apprentice facing off in the pivot position for the first time is an exciting one, and certainly would provide a fascinating subplot to what is always a fiercely-contested battle.

Sexton and O’Mahony could sit out this weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Indeed, the majority of the 46,000 fans — whether blue or red — who have pre-purchased tickets for Saturday’s Guinness Pro14 inter-pro derby at the Aviva Stadium would have done so in anticipation of witnessing two rivals, locked and loaded, go head-to-head.

The reality, however, is that many frontline internationals will be wrapped up in cotton wool this weekend ahead of the start of the Heineken Champions Cup campaign a week later, allowing ticket-holders to feel a little bit peeved when the teams are announced at Friday lunchtime. 

Still, this is not uncommon when you think Leinster caused discontent among some quarters two Christmases ago when they fielded a perceived shadow team for their trip to Thomond Park, while doing the same last year yet still winning in Limerick having made 12 changes from their victory over Exeter in Europe.

And even amid the continued debate over whether this fixture has lost some of its bite, or significance, these teams have played in front of an average attendance of 46,352 at the redeveloped Aviva Stadium since Leinster moved their home tie against Munster there in 2010. 

As of Tuesday, Leinster report ticket sales of 46,000 for Saturday evening, meaning a sell-out is not beyond the realm of possibility by the time the teams emerge at Lansdowne Road just before 6pm. Either way, it remains one of the biggest games in the calendar.

“For club rugby in Ireland to get that number of people coming this early in the season shows the importance of the game to both sets of players, but also the supporters,” Stuart Lancaster says.

“It’s going to be an amazing game.”

If, as expected, Leinster go into battle without a host of their heavy artillery with one eye on Wasps’ visit to the RDS six days later, they will likely remain favourites to seize the provincial bragging rights, given their recent record in the fixture and indeed their record at the Aviva Stadium.

Leo Cullen’s side have not only won six of the last seven encounters between the rivals, but have lost just four times in 24 outings at the national stadium since its reopening eight years ago.

A big crowd is expected at the Aviva this weekend. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Munster’s last victory over Leinster was their 29-17 success in Limerick on St Stephen’s Day 2016, while the southern province haven’t enjoyed their visits to the Aviva Stadium, winning just once in 11 games at the venue.

Furthermore, Johann van Graan’s inconsistent form — strong at home, poor on the road — has seen their last seven games go the way of the hosts, including last May’s one-point defeat to Leinster in their Pro14 semi-final at the RDS. 

Leinster, on the other hand, have enjoyed huge success at the Aviva Stadium, with their last defeat there coming back in December 2015 when Toulon raided Dublin, meaning Cullen’s charges have won nine games on the bounce.

Last season, they enjoyed a number of memorable days at Lansdowne Road during their double-winning campaign, not only seeing off Munster in this corresponding fixture 12 months ago, but blitzing their way past Saracens and then Scarlets in the Champions Cup before defeating the Welsh region in May to lift the Pro14 title.

It’s a second home at this stage.

“The players very much see the Aviva as a stadium they’re comfortable playing in because they’ve done it so many times with Leinster and Ireland,” Lancaster continues.

“When the Aviva is full, particularly for a passionate inter-pro derby, it’s an amazing place to play so it is different and creates that level of excitement, but we keep things normal this week.

From a player’s perspective, the focus remains on the task in hand, regardless of where home is. 

“I suppose it’s just another home game to us,” Sean O’Brien says. “I think there is over 44,000 tickets sold already so there will be a big, big crowd there so it will be great. It’s always nice to go there.

“We just go back again to the process and what we are about, so if we are playing in the car park we’d try and do the same thing. It’s not new to us, it’s like the norm going there now. For us nothing really changes.”

Leinster have trained at Donnybrook and UCD as normal this week, and will have their pre-match captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium on Friday afternoon, at which point Cullen will reveal his hand for the round six clash. 

Player rotation will come into it, particularly when many of the Ireland players made their seasonal returns earlier than expected this term, but what you can still expect is two sides stacked with international quality across the board. 

Leinster won all four of their games at the Aviva last season.

Despite their wildly oscillating form which has seen Munster record three facile home wins, and slump to back-to-back away defeats, Lancaster was keen to point out the province’s pedigree, particularly after they strengthened during the summer.

“Munster are a team the players know pretty well, we played them a few times last year, and from what I’ve seen they’ve expanded the game a bit, not just from the weekend [against Ulster], but you can see the way they’re looking to move the ball,” the Leinster senior coach explained.

“This is a team that have lost twice in European semi-finals, so they’re top of the European game. Joey has gone there but also people like Tadhg Beirne and they’ve only strengthened from last season from what I’ve seen.

“It’s a big challenge for us on Saturday and then for both teams — they’ve got Exeter, and we’ve got Wasps coming around the corner — so the challenges come on after that, but I don’t think anyone will look beyond Saturday.”

After his side’s nine-try hammering of Ulster last weekend, van Graan conceded he wasn’t quite sure how to measure where Munster stand at this juncture in this season, but the next three weeks will tell a lot.

Lancaster, however, isn’t reading too much into their hot-and-cold performances. 

“If you looked at some of our performances, certainly our first game against Cardiff away, we were very lucky to win really, being honest,” he continued.

“Munster, we’ll see this weekend, the one thing I would say is that they’ve a better squad than last year and wherever I look in most positions, there’s an Irish international in one slot or another.

“They’ll be confident on the back of beating Ulster in the way they did and the style in which they did it. It’s a big challenge for us defensively. They defend differently to Connacht so we need to make sure we understand how that’s going to play out.” 

It’ll be fascinating to see how it all plays out.

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