Munster plays host to Leinster in Thomond Park next Saturday in a game which could ultimately decide who wins this year’s Magners League title.
While a win for Tony McGahan’s men shall put them in the box-seat for league honours, a Leinster success would keep the title race ticking over as the campaign reaches its business end.
It’s a fascinating face-off given that the Heineken Cup quarter-finals will be held the following weekend, leaving both coaches in a pickle over how many front liners they’ll deploy.
Were neither side first or second in the table, one imagines that McGahan and Leinster counterpart Michael Cheika would be tempted to cotton wool some of their top bill stars ahead of their European engagements.
But this particular match-up has taken on an altogether greater significance in recent seasons and with silverware hanging in the balance, neither will want to concede an inch at this critical stage.
Munster’s win in Firhill last Friday was impressively executed. Four tries scored, three of them by the outstanding Niall Ronan, ensured Munster picked up a bonus point into the bargain.
They also held a tough Glasgow side scoreless throughout the second half, throwing everything into contact under their own posts to keep Sean Lineen’s men out in the dying moments.
From Denis Fogarty’s superb contribution in open play to Doug Howlett’s customary brilliance in the defensive department, this was a great display from a Munster side that looked anything but ring rusty.
“This was a tremendous victory for us because it’s some time since an Irish team has won here,” said Tony McGahan, reflecting on the first win recorded by an Irish side at Firhill since Leinster won there in May ’06.
“And all the more so, because Glasgow produced a good performance and had us on the rack for periods in the game.
“But we hung in well and defended well in the last few minutes when Glasgow pounded our line. This typified our performance throughout the game.”
Darragh Hurley replaced Freddie Pucciariello to great affect in the closing half-hour, while front row colleague Tony Buckley produced a long-awaited 80 minute performance of substance.
Ronan has been a rock of consistency for Munster this season, proof of the province’s embarrassment of back row riches.
The former Leinster man is now pushing hard not only to start next Saturday but on Easter Sunday when the Ospreys come to town for the ERC quarter-final. It’s what can only be described as a nice problem for McGahan.
Hat-tricks from back rows are few and far between, but that’s exactly what Ronan delivered last Friday, a trio of scores which beautifully complimented a superb all-round display.
At fly-half, Paul Warwick controlled the second half thanks to a series of excellent deep kicks to touch.
On the day that his future to Munster was finally secured after the province reached agreement with London Irish to draw a confusing episode to a close, Warwick played like one hell of a happy camper.
His all-round game was the polar opposite of that produced by Glasgow number 10 Dan Parks, who, not for the first time interspersed his effort with both the sublime and the ridiculous.
Warwick brings a wealth of options to the table, capable of slotting into midfield and full-back comfortably.
Should Rua Tipoki’s injury problems continue, McGahan has a ready-made partner for Lifeimi Mafi, should he opt to put Keith Earls at 15.
Injury denied Earls a shot at Ireland’s Grand Slam squad, which should have him chomping at the bit to end the season on a high with his provincial team mates.
He weighed in with a try in Glasgow last Friday and will relish facing Brian O’Driscoll if selected in the midfield slot.
With Denis Hurley also looking solid in the full-back role after his ‘comeback’ game last week, McGahan has options aplenty across his back line.
Speaking of which, Peter Stringer delivered another fine performance at scrum-half, meaning the great Stringer/O’Leary debate is set to rage all the way ‘til season’s end.
Leinster picked up the bonus point at the death against Ulster on Sunday and will certainly feel a stronger team at Thomond Park than they did at the RDS.
Both coaches know that two defeats over the next two weekends would effectively derail their seasons, more so for Leinster, given that they’re still playing catch-up to Munster in the league.
“Every game is different in this, what would you call it, love story between us and them.” Cheika said after Sunday’s win.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for them as a team and their players. It’s going to be a really good game down there.
“If we get our mentality and get our preparation right, then we’re going to be in with a shout. If we don’t get our mentality right, then we better look out, because they’re a good team. You saw that again on Friday night.”
The intriguing prospect of a largely Grand Slam winning pack facing a largely Grand Slam winning set of backs will have them packed in good and early this Saturday.
Throw in big game heavyweights like Rocky Elsom and Doug Howlett into the mix and it’s clear that, once again, all the ingredients are in place for another titanic tussle in Limerick.
The prospect of their meeting again in a sold-out Croke Park for an ERC semi-final would prove the icing on the cake for the Irish rugby year, but let’s not indulge in too much chicken counting.
That the Six Nations and Triple Crown trophies may be paraded into the stadium by either captain this Saturday would also prove a wonderful moment ahead of the province’s latest head-to-head.
That it will compel and enthral again goes without saying. A Munster victory will bring the title even closer but, as usual, it will be anything but easy against a formidable Leinster side eager to avenge their September defeat.
All things considered, it should be a cracker, the only pity of it being the restricted TV audience that’ll get to enjoy it.