22 August 2020 14:32
Were we not in the midst of a global pandemic, Leinster v Munster, which was originally scheduled for 18 April, would have likely drawn close to a full house to the Aviva. But this evening's Guinness Pro14 game, which marks the return of professional rugby on the island following the enforced hiatus, will be played in front of a grand total of zero fans in a stadium fit for 51,000. It's going to be quite a change for the professionals from the four provinces that run out at the Dublin 4 arena this weekend. But all has changed and after the fireworks and the over-enthusiastic stadium announcer's job is done the players will hear Andrew Brace's whistle and the next sound will be the first crunching tackle on the first ball-carrier. And that's something that former Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne got a taste of last weekend when Bristol Bears dug out a hard-fought 16-12 win over Saracens at Ashton Gate when Premiership rugby got under way again.
"It was definitely different," Byrne, who has played against Munster for Leinster at the Aviva, tells RTÉ Sport. "In a normal game with a crowd there you are trying to block out distractions, like after a try when the crowd is there you really buzz off that but when you are setting up for line-outs or scrums, you are just going through your process. "We spoke in advance about creating our own energy on the pitch and celebrating the small wins would be important because we needed to get energy from the group that was playing. "We knew we weren't going to get the energy from the crowd so you wanted to make sure you were celebrating the small wins, like winning a penalty." Leinster and Ulster have been training at their respective home venues, RDS and the Kinsgpan, and Byrne revealed that Bristol Bears, under former Connacht coach Pat Lam, went through full match-day procedure in advance. It was just 40 minutes but we treated it like a proper game," said the 26-year-old.
"They should celebrate every win, whether it's a scrum, a penalty, a successful line-out, all those little things that you just try and ebb away at the opposition's confidence. Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw is among the front-line players named in a strong Leinster side for the cross-conference clash. We've been training in an empty stadium so it's about trying to create that atmosphere. Follow Leinster v Munster (7.35pm, Saturday) and Connacht v Ulster (4.30pm, Sunday) via our live blogs on RTÉ.ie/sport and the News Now app, or listen to live commentary on RTÉ Radio 1 Leinster v Munster, Aviva Stadium, Saturday 7.35pm – Live Eir Sport (deferred TG4) In theory here follows nothing more than a pre-season affair – the first day back in an empty stadium – that just happens to include the strongest teams Johann van Graan and Leo Cullen can muster. Josh van der Flier remains at openside but Leinster are trialling a six forwards and two backs split in their reserves, with Max Deegan covering centre, en vogue since South Africa launched RG Snyman and the "bomb squad" during the World Cup.
"We think there is the potential to be a big, physical toll in the game," Cullen added. "The arriving tackler assist or poaching player, he's getting a little more joy now, because he's been rewarded so he's not being managed off the ball by the referee," Cullen explained some more. Well, it means for the team in possession, they need to make sure they're into that ruck space nice and early so they can deal with that player, and obviously they're arriving through the gate and legal. LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Dave Kearney, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter; Ryan Baird, Scott Fardy; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. And the imports, particularly those from South Africa, have the physical edge that can help them take Leinster into a dark place. Leinster head coach Leo Cullen said yesterday: "South Africa are a hugely physical team. South Africa were the better team in that regard (in the final), particularly around the scrum as it gave them a lot of access into the game in terms of field position or kicking three points. "Around the contact they are hugely aggressive and they had some very good 'D' sets where they dug in well for each other and came out with some big turnovers on their own try line. "So I am sure Munster have a little bit of that, as there are lots of South Africans in their squad now, and they have a big physical presence. "We know they're two very good players, we all saw them at the World Cup," he said. "Damian de Allende has a good skill set, is strong in terms of his running but he's also got subtleties to his game, good footwork. We know it's a huge game for Munster because of where they sit in their conference and trying to get ahead of Edinburgh. "It's trying to put him into the game and seeing how he copes with demands," Cullen said. Munster arrive in the capital with their newly-signed Springboks Damian de Allende and RG Snyman on board and Cullen has stacked his bench with six forwards to counter the power game of their arch rivals. 'It's certainly played a factor for sure,' the Leinster head coach explained. 'A lot of it, because it's the first game of the season really, and normally when we play a pre-season game we're using 30-odd players and you make a lot of changes, sometimes you play 14, sometimes you play 16 and off you go and make changes again the following week and everyone gets a bit of that exposure. 'We think there is the potential to be a big, physical toll in the game, so we have to wait and see.'