A case of history repeating: all the signs point to a reprise of the result in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final and the recent Magners League clash in Thomond Park (above) when Munster recorded convincing victories over their Leinster rivals

THE Leinster people who bristle whenever their team's very credibility is called into question should really cool their jets and accept that what Munster have, they're probably never going to have. Call it unquenchable spirit, stubborness, self-belief or balls, it doesn't really matter. If Munster are a side with an identity, Leinster have yet to find theirs. Why pretend it's otherwise?

During Ireland's now famous think-in at a county Meath hotel back in December, Rob Kearney wanted to know if stepping out for Ireland meant as much to the Munster players as representing their province. Because it recognised the indefinable quality that separates Munster from the rest, it was the sort of issue that had been parked for years.

Although one or two of the Munster contingent in the room took grave offence, Ronan O'Gara understood what the Leinster full-back was trying to get at. Although he had undoubtedly turned over a stone, there was more than a hint of admiration in Kearney's words.

"Rob was saying that the Munster lads seem to play with a bit of an x-factor and it was said in positive terms. It wasn't begrudging," O'Gara revealed later. "But still, for a Leinster fella to say that to a group of Munster players is a big thing."

With their impressive Lions' share, with Paul O'Connell putting one over on Brian O'Driscoll for the captaincy, with their Heineken Cup triumphs in the bank, and with the Magners League title about to migrate south, the Leinster faithful are probably sick at having all things Munster rammed down their throats.

And with the scars of the 2006 semi-final still raw, there is now the possibility of another confidence-crushing defeat when the two rivals meet at a sold-out Croke Park on Saturday.

But instead of privately bitching and moaning about Munster's occupation of Irish rugby's penthouse, and pointedly avoiding the elephant in the room, Leinster could do worse than taking a leaf out of Kearney's book. Munster are the best side in Europe, and these days, they are expected to win whether they play Treviso or Toulouse. Next weekend, they go in as strong favourites, and surely Leinster can live with that.

Now in his second incarnation with Leinster, and a former coach of Munster to boot, Alan Gaffney is as well-placed as anyone to understand how the scales are balanced. While the wily Australian is eminently capable of fuelling the mind games which will go a long way to determining Saturday's outcome, you get the feeling he's calling it as he sees it.

"I don't necessarily think Munster have a psychological edge over Leinster. I mean, I was here in 2000, and could Leinster have ground out a 6-5 win over Quins in a tough game like that eight or nine years ago? I suspect not. There's a harder edge to Leinster than there once was. That said, you're comparing them with one of the hardest teams that has existed in recent times. To try and say we're at the same level as them, I wouldn't suggest that's the case."

When they looked into their hearts after that humiliating 30-6 defeat in 2006, Leinster realised that the all-singing, all-dancing sort of game that had propelled them to an astonishing quarter-final success in Toulouse wasn't necessarily going to work on a regular basis.

Although they had Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan and Felipe Contepomi in their prime, as well as Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald coming on stream, the rapier had to be compromised by a bit of bludgeon. In order to cope with Munster's savvy physicality, they had to be more ruthless at the breakdown and sort out their defence.

However, if Michael Cheika has infused some mongrel into his pedigrees, as evidenced by the battling performance against Harlequins, it has been at the expense of the flair that was once his team's trademark. Much has correctly been made of Leinster's concession of just three tries in seven Heineken Cup games this season, but they've struggled with ball in hand, and the memory of the way Wasps were blitzed at the RDS in October is now dim and distant.

Simply fronting up to Munster as they did for a time at Thomond Park earlier this month won't be enough. Gaffney is aware that Leinster have to find something more. "We haven't played as well as that home game against Wasps. We haven't been consistent this year. We've come a long way in recent times, but we're not playing to our capabilities. We've got to be accurate, because that's one thing Munster have.

"We have to work out what ball we need to play off, and although I wouldn't say we're going to be more expansive, that's the wrong word, I think you'll find we'll play with a lot more ball in hand. We've got to go into the game confident that we're going to play. One thing Munster have in spades is belief in everything they do, but to a man, the Leinster guys believe they can win the game. What's gone before is gone. We're going to have to be on the money. Even if Munster are slightly off, we've got to be on the money."

During Leinster's unconvincing evolution from poodles to pit bulls, Munster have been adding layers of sophistication. The pack that trampled all over Leinster at Lansdowne Road three years ago is still largely intact, but for all the qualities the likes of Shaun Payne, Anthony Horgan, John Kelly and Trevor Halstead brought to the table, they have been replaced with some serious firepower in the guise of Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi, Keith Earls and the in-form Paul Warwick.

"Munster have evolved into the best side in Europe, without question," says Gaffney. "They can play it as hard as you want up front, or then can play it through midfield with Mafi and Earls, or they can play it wide with Howlett or Dowling. There's a lot of armoury there. Even if they're on the back foot, Ronan has the kicking game, and then you find yourself playing out of your own 22. And you can't put too many people back for the kick, because if you do, they'll attack you."

The bonus of those two Magners League wins over Leinster this season on an aggregate scoreline of 40-5, as well as the recent demolition of the Ospreys, suggest that for Leinster to reach a first European Cup final, Munster will have to leave their A-game in Limerick next Saturday.

Their coach, Tony McGahan, is adamant that his players' desire to defend the Heineken Cup, and to pick off the Magners League title into the bargain, is as intense as it was at the start of the season.

"I've been asked a number of times if the performance against the Ospreys might have been a peak, and I've responded with another question. Is someone saying that's the best we can play? We certainly don't think we played to our full potential that day. Who says we've peaked? Who makes that claim? Why can you not play well and continue to go forward with that?"

McGahan, who was the defence coach in 2006, won't be banging the drum from that game during this week's build up. "It doesn't really have much relevance now. Both sides have moved on immensely with their playing styles. Leinster's forward play has developed dramatically, and we know they have individuals who can score points from virtually anywhere. There will be comparisons with 2006 as it was a marvellous occasion for Irish rugby no matter who got the result, but time has moved on."

And so have Munster. Talented, ruthless winners. Ian McGeechan paid the province the ultimate compliment when he used it as his template for Lions selection. Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes and Donncha O'Callaghan will be playing in their eighth Heineken Cup semi-final. Leinster will be respected, but they are an obstacle in the path of the juggernaut.

"It's a huge game, and we know what the challenge is," says Gaffney. "Most sides who go in against Munster now are trying not to lose, but we've got to go out there to try and win the game. We can't go in thinking about defending it, we've got to attack it. That's got to be the mindset."

Although Leinster will be battle-hardened after withstanding the onslaught at the Stoop, if Munster have anything like the same amount of possession as Harlequins, they'll be more likely to score five tries rather than a mere five points.

Without forgetting the resolve that has got them this far, Leinster probably need to be truer to themselves and take a few risks. Any attempt to simply slug it out will end in tears.

On the Croke Park pitch next Saturday, you're likely to have 11 current Lions, 14 players who won the Grand Slam, New Zealand's all-time leading try-scorer, Rocky Elsom, Felipe Contepomi, Lifeimi Mafi and the sort of partisanship that was sorely missing in 2006.

Leinster, meanwhile, will feel like they're standing on a track in front of an express train.

Got a ticket?

Heineken Cup semi-final

Munster v Leinster

Saturday, Croke Park, 5.30

Live Sky Sports 1, 5.15