By Phil Rice
As if Munster or Leinster ever need additional motivation to beat each other, Munster would take huge pleasure in turning over the new European Champions in the sides’ Guinness Pro14 semi-final at the RDS.
Leinster’s narrow win over Racing 92 in Spain made them record equalling, four-time winners of the coveted trophy.
The Leinster management team have been outstanding in the way they have steered their team through the pitfalls of a modern day professional season, but getting the team to take on a hostile Munster side just seven days after celebrating a European Cup victory will demand all the skills they possess.
The four best teams in the Pro14 have made their way to two very competitive semi-finals. Glasgow Warriors host Scarlets in the first match on Friday evening, while Munster visit the home of the European Champions on Saturday afternoon.
Just what frame of mind the Leinster players will be in is anybody’s guess, but Munster will be chomping at the bit to overthrow their long-time rivals.
Given the professionalism the Dublin side have shown thus far, it would be no surprise if they were totally focused for the match. While this is largely a young Leinster side there is a core of experienced heads who exert huge influence over the team’s performances.
Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Isa Nacewa and Devin Toner have been the cornerstones of Leo Cullen’s team this season.
Even when they went three points down with eight minutes remaining last Saturday, there was no panic and they calmly played their way into position to score the necessary points to overcome a very competitive Racing team.
Club captain Nacewa recognised the crucial role the Leinster support team contribute to the club’s success, he said: “There’s a lot of hard work put in behind the scenes and people don’t get the credit they deserve for the hard work that goes on.
“The back office staff, the back room staff, the coaches and players who weren’t involved today. It was a massive day for everybody.”
Leinster had to grind out a victory in “a different way,” as Nacewa described it, and the way they responded to Racing’s smother defence says a lot about the maturity of the team and the influence of the senior players and management team.
To progress through the toughest pool and beat the reigning champions and a strong Scarlets team, without losing a game, confirmed that the Dublin team are undisputedly the kings of Europe.
As we know, Munster are no respecters of reputations and they will be desperate to end their lengthy period without silverware. If it involves overthrowing their great rivals, so much the better.
It is perhaps surprising that the game will be played at the RDS with its 18,000 capacity when these teams would undoubtedly fill the 50,000 seater Aviva Stadium.
Munster have been erratic this season, putting in a superb performance against Toulon in their Champions Cup quarter-final only to doze-off for the first 20 minutes against Racing in the semi-final.
They don’t have the composure that Leinster displayed last weekend, but can produce one-off performances to match the very best. It would be no surprise if they deliver something special this weekend.
Key to Munster’s chances will be the influence of Conor Murray at scrum half. Luke McGrath battled bravely last Saturday, but was clearly ring rusty. He will improve for that game but Murray will be keen to put his Irish deputy in his place.
The choice between Ian Keatley or JJ Hanrahan at fly half will be a close call for Munster. Keatley’s superior place kicking accuracy might swing things in his favour. Hanrahan struggled to get his backline moving against Edinburgh in the quarter-final, but he poses a greater threat than Keatley when he attacks the gainline himself.
It was Munster’s pack that outplayed the Edinburgh forwards and ultimately led to victory, but Leinster will pose a greater threat up front.
Leinster’s James Ryan has matured beyond even the expectation this quality player promised. He was deservedly man of the match in the Champions Cup final.
It is remarkable that he has played 21 matches for Leinster and Ireland this year and has yet to finish on a losing side. At 21-years-of-age he has an enormous future ahead of him for both club and country.
Dan Leavy has taken his opportunity with the absence of Sean O’Brien and Josh van Der Flier at flanker, with both hands. He has established himself for both Leinster and Ireland and will take some shifting.
His lines of running and abrasive style have carved vital openings for his team-mates. He tops the tackle count and carries in almost every match in which he plays.
Munster will have to be at their belligerent best if they are to get anything out of this game, but you take them lightly at your peril.
The fact that the Leinster players were talking about this match as soon as they finished the European final shows how focused and professional they are.
Guinness Pro14 Semi-Finals
Glasgow Warriors v Scarlets
Friday 18th May
Scotstoun Stadium, 7:45pm
Leinster v Munster
Saturday 19th May
RDS Arena, 3:15pm
Five memorable Munster v Leinster matches
Heineken Cup Semi-Final 2006
Leinster were fancied to go all the way having scored 41 points away to Toulouse, but Munster had other ideas. Known as the nearly-men having frequently come up short, the Ronan O’Gara inspired team trounced Leinster at Lansdowne Road, 30-6. Filipe Contepomi had been outstanding to this point but was completely eclipsed by O’Gara. Munster went on to win their first European crown against Biarritz in Cardiff.
Heineken Cup Semi-Final 2009
Leinster reversed the result from three years previously when they comprehensively overcame their rivals, 25-6, at Croke Park and went on to lift their first Heineken Cup. Rocky Elsom played a huge role during the campaign for Leinster and was particularly influential in this match. Contepomi was substituted by Johnny Sexton during this game, as the rising star got his first taste of the business end of the European Competition.
Magners League 2009
Leinster were keen to prove that their victory over Munster in the Heineken Cup semi-final was no flash in the pan and they duly trounced Tony McGahan’s team 30-0. Sexton scored 15 points and Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan scored tries. John Hayes was sent off on a dismal night for Munster.
Magners League Final 2011
Munster had home advantage for this match but Leinster had just won the Heineken Cup the previous week and were strong favourites. But the home team won 19-9 in front of a jubilant crowd. Doug Howlett and Keith Earls scored for Munster, as Leinster seemed hung-over after their exertions of the previous week. Could there be a deja vous scenario this weekend?
Rabo Direct Pro12 2013
This was to be Brian O’Driscoll’s last match against Munster. Played at Thomond Park, O’Driscoll duly scored after 71 minutes and led his side to a 22-16 victory. Leinster went on to beat Ulster in the final.