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Opportunity knocks as Leinster aim to put disrupted period behind them

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A week can feel like a very long time in these surreal times, but a week without any top-level Irish rugby to watch felt even longer.

So, after a barren weekend staring at the four walls at home, what better way to ease ourselves back into the swing of things than a full-blooded Leinster-Munster derby clash this weekend?

That's certainly how the players will be feeling because after a disrupted Christmas schedule, the last thing anyone wanted was further postponements.

However, once again, Covid-19 had other ideas, and with the rising concerns surrounding the spread of the virus, the French government intervened and essentially called a halt to the final two rounds of the Champions Cup, which would have served as an ideal stepping stone towards the upcoming Six Nations campaign.

Unfortunately, the last year has highlighted how quickly things in everyday life can change, and rugby is no different in that regard as 'adaptability' has become the name of the game.

Leinster's plans have been thrown into disarray over the last few weeks, and it all began in the build up to their St Stephen's Day clash against Munster, which as we now know, was postponed due to issues around 'false' positive Covid tests within Leo Cullen's squad.

Leinster did not take any chances, and although there was huge disappointment across the board when the eagerly-anticipated inter-pro was postponed, the flip side is that we are now looking at the prospect of the two old rivals going head-to-head on Saturday with two fully locked and loaded teams.

The squad that Leinster were due to send to Thomond Park over the festive period was shorn of most of their big hitters due to the player management programme, but the side that Cullen is likely to pick this weekend will have a very different look to it.

Exciting winger James Lowe is back in training following a recent groin problem, while the down-time will have allowed key players like Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose extra time to recover from their respective injuries.

It has been a tricky few weeks for Leinster because just after they managed their way around the postponed Munster match, Connacht arrived at the RDS and sprung a major shock by ending the champions' 26-game winning streak in the Guinness PRO14.

If the Munster encounter not going ahead wasn't part of Leinster's grand plan, then losing at home to Connacht certainly wasn't.

In time, Cullen may look back at that defeat as something of a blessing in disguise, particularly if his young players came away from it having learned something.

We got a glimpse of the next generation that night as Max O'Reilly and Andrew Smith made their senior debuts in the back-three. The electric Academy duo are very much ones for the future and supporters should certainly be keeping a close eye on their progress throughout the course of 2021.

James Ryan branded the disappointing loss to Connacht a 'wake-up call' and that the Ireland lock and his team-mates immediately bounced back the following week by beating an in-form Ulster side, was crucial.

With Cullen having restored many of his internationals to the starting XV, Leinster secured a bonus point win, and in the process denied Ulster a losing bonus point, which come the end of the season could prove to be decisive.

With only one team from each Conference to advance to the PRO14 final, Leinster took a giant step towards winning their fourth league title in-a-row, and a record eighth overall.

Although Cullen's men remain five points off leaders Ulster, their destiny is firmly in their own hands, as they have played two fewer games than their northern rivals.

One of those games in hand is set to be played in Thomond Park this weekend, and it promises to be a pulsating affair, which will serve as a final trial for many Irish players before Andy Farrell names his Six Nations squad.

The Ireland head coach will have a fair idea of the bulk of his squad, but for those on the fringes, this is the perfect opportunity to stake their claim.

With the Champions Cup put on hold for now, Leinster's remaining two pool games against Northampton and Montpellier are highly unlikely to be played at a later date.

Due to the congested nature of the rugby calendar, a revised format, which would see the tournament moving directly into the knockout phase, will almost certainly be introduced in order to ensure its completion. 

Either way, Leinster are sitting pretty at the top of Pool A having won 10 points from a possible 10 in their previous two meetings with Northampton and Montpellier.

Europe will very much be put on the back-burner for the next few months, as Leinster switch their focus to Munster this weekend, before the Six Nations takes centre stage once again.

For those who aren't selected for international duty, as always, there will be a huge onus on them to keep the show on the road as, all going well, the PRO14 ticks along without any further hiccups. 

Leinster have traditionally performed well during these Test windows, and with a plethora of hungry players chomping at the bit for game-time, the next few weeks are likely to be no different, as live rugby makes a welcome return to our television screens.

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