The price of success
They say success breeds success, but for Leinster and Northampton it breeds problems.
The last thing either Heineken Cup finalist needed was a Celtic League/ Premiership semi-final the week before the biggest game of the European season. Sure, the RDS and Welford Road provided the type of big-match intensity guaranteed for Cardiff again in four days' time, but at what price?
Hopefully, Brian O'Driscoll, Richardt Strauss and Isaac Boss will recover in time to take their places in the match-day squad, but whether they'll be fully match fit I'm not so sure. While for Northampton -- Chris Ashton apart -- the post-match scars are mainly psychological. I've no doubt Jim Mallinder will lift the Saints back to where they need to be ahead of Saturday's showdown, but it's an added burden he could well do without.
In the Magners semi-finals, it was a case of mission accomplished for Leinster and Munster in two hugely disappointing games. Leinster did what they had to do but if Ulster were there until now, they still wouldn't force a line break. With or without the ball, Joe Schmidt's charges look comfortable. In defence, they use the touchline as an ally and an extra defender but have the added ingredient of being able to strike from anywhere at any time.
Schmidt probably doesn't need to hear this, but they are the complete article. Toulouse in their pomp is who I equate Leinster to now. Does that guarantee the Heineken Cup title? No, but if they perform anywhere close to their potential then even Northampton at their very best won't prevent Leo Cullen and company completing the first leg of a unique double over the next 10 or so days.
The real beauty is that in every game there is a collective consistency in performance but intertwined with some real class individual contributions, which vary from one match to the next. On Friday at the RDS, Strauss and Jamie Heaslip were again sublime while Fergus McFadden managed (on the wing) to take his recent impact to another level. Declan Kidney has some serious decisions to make in midfield and his back three ahead of World Cup squad selection.
On the criterion of versatility alone, McFadden is prime material for World Cup inclusion. Add to that his place-kicking ability plus extraordinary consistency of form and it begs the question as to how he can possibly be left out, despite not yet nailing down a regular place on the Leinster starting XV.
There are two others worthy of mention whose impact of late has been striking and that's Stan Wright and David Kearney. Wright is made of serious stuff and is some ball-carrying unit, while Kearney is at the other end of the ball-carrying spectrum in terms of pace, agility and lines of running. Isa Nacewa could yet have 'Kearneyitis' when sibling Rob rejoins what is sure to be a three-way scrap for the full-back position.
The big calls for Schmidt will be at scrum-half and the quest for balance in the back row, assuming the in-form Shane Horgan returns in place of McFadden on the right wing. I have a feeling Eoin Reddan will edge Boss to start. Equally, Kevin McLaughlin's line-out potential could swing it at six, with Sean O'Brien operating on the open side of the scrum alongside Heaslip, leaving Shane Jennings for impact cover. Whether it is McLaughlin or Jennings to start, I have no issue either way.
As for Munster? Suffice to say that, like just about everybody else, I was taken aback at the marked absence of the brave and faithful in Limerick for a Magners League semi-final against the reigning Celtic League champions. For sure, Munster are victims of their own success if new-age fan interest is anything to go by. On this evidence, sadly, the word 'fickle' applies perfectly.
On the field, too, it ran hot and cold, with the Danny Barnes-inspired Munster deserving of their win and a place in the Thomond Park Grand Final on Saturday week, when the ground will be heaving, irrespective of what transpires at the Millennium Stadium seven days earlier.
It may have been a poor-quality match, yet a win is a win and Munster are now where they deserve to be -- in the final -- and what a way it is to crown off the Irish rugby season. God be with the days when it was the genteel Old Belvedere Sevens held in mid to late April to polish it all off.
Munster will have the huge advantage of a two-week rest, never mind home comforts for the final. For Leinster, it is the last thing on their minds as all attention focuses now on Northampton and, as Munster know better than any, the trophy that matters most of all.
After topping the league table by 13 points, the southern province deserve to take the Celtic title now. Yet even should they succeed, it will offer little solace other than, as Marcus Horan suggests (should Leinster arrive in Limerick as European champions) as "a way of gauging ourselves as to where we're at after the disappointment of falling out of the (Heineken Cup) competition."
Our attitude will undoubtedly change this time next week, but right now, as all eyes turn to Wales, does the Celtic League really matter?