So here we are, a little sooner than expected, but later in the year than normal. Sooner in terms of a shortened regular season campaign, and later in terms of it normally being the beginning of a new season as opposed to the knockout stages of the previous one! Anyway, isn’t is brilliant to have the rugby back and another semi final to look forward to?
There’s a lot at stake for both sides. Munster are coming into this game with high hopes of ending their trophy drought and will be hungry to put themselves into the final next week. Leinster and Munster have faced off in the last two Pro14 semi finals, both with Leinster coming out winners, and then overall champions in both seasons. As a result, Leinster are looking to create more history by going on to win 3 successive Pro14 titles; if that happens the auld GAA phrase of “the drive for…” will sneak into the headlines. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves (too much), we still need to show up and beat a Munster team that will undoubtedly be out to cause havoc, prove that they’re a force to be reckoned with, and shock the naysayers.
There’s evidence from two weeks ago that show Munster as a formidable opponent for Leinster after they faced each other on the first day back on the pitch following the COVID-19 lockdown. On that day, Munster were very close to drawing the match only for a missed try conversion from JJ Hanrahan. Leinster were far more clinical that day whereas Munster lost some key men in the first half which forced them to make some early changes around the field. That being said, it looked like Leinster were in control for most of that game and the win was much deserved. Munster will take a lot of learnings and confidence from that performance given that they were a whisker away from downing the boys in blue for the first time this season. Leinster has developed a never say die attitude and have racked up 23 wins in a row as a result. This has helped Leinster to play confidently and change up their style week on week, it’s as if they can tailor a team based on the strengths and weakness of their opponents. This has helped Leinster overcome close battles and develop an ability to score out of nowhere when needed.
Munster have developed a very strong squad so they’ll be out to disrupt this momentum and bring their hunger to the fore this evening.
Below is the team Cullen and Co. have selected:
15. Jordan Larmour (47)
14. Hugo Keenan (15)
13. Garry Ringrose (73)
12. Robbie Henshaw (45)
11. James Lowe (44)
10. Johnny Sexton (164) CAPTAIN
9. Luke McGrath (124)
1. Cian Healy (217)
2. Rónan Kelleher (12)
3. Andrew Porter (63)
4. Devin Toner (246)
5. Scott Fardy (59)
6. Caelan Doris (30)
7. Will Connors (17)
8. Jack Conan (90)
16. Seán Cronin (183)
17. Ed Byrne (54)
18. Michael Bent (137)
19. Ryan Baird (8)
20. Josh van der Flier (81)
21. Jamison Gibson-Park (90)
22. Ross Byrne (86)
23. Rory O’Loughlin (68)
A very strong team selection as expected in most areas. Cullen has been highly praised throughout his time as head coach for giving the young crop of academy players game time and subsequent senior contracts ahead of time. This evening we will see three of these young guns selected ahead of the more seasoned starters; a credit to their incredible form and reward for strong performances.
The three players I’m referring to are Hugo Keenan, Will Connors and Ryan Baird. All three have put in very strong and stand out performances for Leinster consistently each time they’ve been selected. This consistency has been rewarded with a chance to play in their first semi final with the senior squad. It could be said that this is a risk but I strongly feel that it’s a sign of the confidence within the squad and the trust that the coaches have on the players. You could see last weekend against Ulster, these young lads in the squad aren’t afraid to step up and take on the more seasoned squads.
With a potential final to look to next week, and then a quarter final against Saracens a week later, Cullen is doing a brilliant job with managing his resources so that he’ll have a large squad to choose from.
Everywhere else on the team sheet is covered with experience and strength. Sexton will return as captain, Mc Grath comes back in at scrum half, and Larmour will take up the full back position. A lot has been said about Larmour’s last game at full back against Munster two weeks ago ie; he didn’t perform too well. I don’t think he played too badly given that it was the first game back in almost 6 months. I have a feeling that he’ll up his game this evening and we’ll see him stand out more.
Where the game will be won.
On paper, Leinster look stronger than Munster overall. There are areas of course where Munster are more experienced, the back 3 for example. Conway, Earls and Daly have played the last two games together so you’d imagine they’re more prepared than the more experimental back 3 of Keenan, Larmour and Lowe. That being said, there’ll be an unknown for Munster in terms of what to expect from this change up for Leinster which I believe is an advantage for Cullen’s preparations.
What Leinster need to do to win this game is stay patient, stick to their game plan, and keep cool heads. I feel that Munster will try to entice Leinster into an arm wrestle and try, slow the ball down and deploy a kicking game. Munster will also try to get in the Leinster players’ heads early in an attempt to rattle them a bit. This worked very well the last time Munster defeated Leinster, they bullied them for 80 minutes and successfully disrupted their focus. Leinster can’t allow an ounce of this to creep in this time around as Munster will be absolutely desperate to not only defeat their rivals but also end their long run of defeats both to the boys in blue and at the semi final round. Expect to see lots of aggression and back slapping from the Munster players throughout this game, they’ll be looking to feed off each other and celebrate every success in the match.
Leinster need to be very switched on for this game, they need to maintain 100% focus and deploy that very confident front-football approach that we as supporters have been delighted to watch, and the players have had immense success with. When Leinster is switched on, they are devastating, and they will dismantle Munster’s onslaught if they bring their A-game.
I think Munster will look to throw the ball around, especially to Earls and Conway on both wings, very much looking to score early and defend a lead. If they do that, they’ll most likely play a more defensive game to keep Leinster at bay. Leinster will need to keep their defence air tight and control territory so that Munster will need to deploy a more open game plan. JJ Hanrahan has had the best kicking percentages in the competition so discipline will need to be really strong in our half, otherwise we’ll get punished by his boot. Of course, Munster need to manage Sexton too who was in excellent form two weeks ago and was arguably man of the match in my opinion. I feel that he will marshal the team around well and look to create some of his own scores early on. It’ll be the team that keep their cool and are patient in terms of taking their opportunities that will win this match.
Munster has only won 2 of the last 12 encounters with Leinster which clearly shows you which team should feel more confident, and why the bookies have Leinster as winners. Munster are capable of putting out big performances when they are painted as underdogs by the media, I very much expect to see a big performance from them tonight. However, Leinster has built up an incredible level of momentum leading up to this game. Cullen mentioned during the week that the semi-final defeat to Scarlets in 2017 still pains the squad and they have been determined ever since not to let that happen again, and they haven’t. I don’t expect Leinster to lose tonight, I think it’ll be close in the first half but the cohesion in the squad, the hunger from the young lads newly integrated into the senior team, and that championship winning mentality will overcome whatever Munster bring to the table. My cheeky prediction is that Keenan will score and solidify a place on the team sheets going forward. 3 is the magic number; 3 semi-final losses for Munster and a potential 3 Pro14 titles in a row next week for the boys in blue.
Leinster 30 – Munster 20
Match Day Result: Leinster 10 – Munster 3