Friday 9 December 2016

Tony Ward: Home side may have too much in reserve in crucial test for Foley's ambitions

Published 02/04/2016 | 02:30

When Anthony Foley says
When Anthony Foley says "securing Champions Cup qualification is his number one priority for Munster" you know he means it (SPORTSFILE)

the elite group of money men behind the English Premiership and French Top 14 clubs (whether wittingly or not) did the rest of us an enormous service when transforming the Pro12 League - our gateway to Champions Cup Rugby - into one based on qualification and meritocracy.

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Speaking as one who just could not warm to the Celtic League, to the Magners League, to the Rabo Direct or whatever it is you're having yourself, suddenly since the ERC (European Rugby Cup) became EPCR (European Professional Club Rugby) - driven by the English and French granted - the four-nation Guinness Pro12 has become a much more meaningful competition on the back of it.

Even the Italian derby has a more meaningful purpose when Zebre and Treviso meet biannually. Quite whether the rest of Europe share the same enthusiasm for their ongoing presence in either tournament I'm not so sure.

Given the Italian job soon to be undertaken by Conor O'Shea and Stevie Aboud, it is a subject to which we will return, but suffice to say that quite what purpose is served having an Italian presence in the European Champions Cup as of now escapes me.

Both Pro12 and Six Nations administrative bodies should have the Italian issue at the top of their 'most urgent' agenda.

So when Anthony Foley is quoted as saying "that securing Champions Cup qualification for next season is his number one priority for Munster," you know he means it. Equally, you know that Leo Cullen, Les Kiss and Pat Lam share the same overriding objective. Europe minus a strong Irish professional presence would be much the poorer for it but nowhere near as poor in the pocket as the Irish provinces would be minus the competition that makes the turnstiles click and fills the tank.

Pecking

The pecking order is now simple: it's Europe first, a place in the top four second, and on the back of that a push for a place in the top two thereby guaranteeing a home semi-final.

Up until the EPCR coup, qualification for Europe didn't exist unless you regard a development province supporting the other three as meaningful competition. But, as the poet said, 'all's changed, changed utterly' and domestic competition in this part of the world is much the better for it.

And while it might have lost some of its sheen in recent times, today at the Aviva we are blessed with still the biggest club derby in world rugby.

Over 40,000 tickets have been sold at a time when no Irish side has made it through to the business end of the premier European competition, yet Leinster against Munster has an appeal all of its own.

However, that appeal is now added to through the need for European Champions Cup qualification and a seeding that really matters.

The lack of an Irish presence in the last eight is hugely disappointing and yet due in the main to Connacht Rugby and how they are going about their business there is an interest in the Pro12 way above the ordinary.

My playing loyalties were to Munster and to Leinster but like a lot of people I would love to see the men in green come out on top but whatever they get they are going to have to earn over the final rounds of the campaign and the possible play-offs beyond that.

We don't want to over-hype what might lie ahead but given the incentives already outlined, this leg of inter-pros is right up there with the most critical 'must-win' matches in the series ever.

In days of yore the prize was bragging rights and maybe a Final Trial place leading to international selection - now it is cold hard cash and potential bums on seats. Fail to make the Champions Cup and season ticket sales will suffer dramatically.

With respect to Connacht in the upcoming quarter-final and to Leinster as previous winners, a place in the Challenge Cup measured against participation, never mind six outright wins in the main event (three to Leinster, two to Munster and Ulster in 1999) simply won't cut it.

For all four professional entities on this island, that is the fundamental objective to their season with Pro12 success the icing on the cake.

Qualification for Europe through the Pro12 is to rugby now what a top-four finish is to clubs in Premier League football across the water with a once-great competition like the FA Cup wiped in the process.

Champions Cup involvement is the be all and end all and, no matter what the rival fans say, is the biggest incentive on offer this evening.

Although the first inter-provincial took place between Leinster and Ulster in 1875-'76, the four provinces inter-provincial championship did not start until the 1946/-47 season. The radio promo for today's game flagged the more recent history in the fixture, specifically from 1980 on, but the first official Championship meeting was taken by Leinster in 1947 on a 15-11 scoreline.

For the anoraks amongst you, the teams in that 1980 clash (also played at Lansdowne) lined out as follows:

Leinster - Hugo McNeill (Dublin University); Frank Quinn (Old Belvedere), Ian Burns (Wanderers), Paul Dean (St Mary's), Freddie McLennan (Wanderers); Ollie Campbell (Old Belvedere), John Robbie, capt, (Greystones); Phil Orr (Old Wesley), Johnny Cantrell (Blackrock), Mick Fitzpatrick (Wanderers); George Wallace (Old Wesley), Jerry Holland (Wanderers); Ronan Kearney (Wanderers), Fergus Slattery (Blackrock) and Willie Duggan (Blackrock).

Munster - Micky O'Sullivan (Cork Con); Michael Kiernan (Dolphin), Rory Moroney (Lansdowne), Peter Rolls (Bohemians), Jimmy Bowen (Cork Con); Tony Ward (Garryowen). Colm Murphy (Cork Con); Brendan O'Connor (Young Munster), Pat Whelan (Garryowen), Gerry McLoughlin (Shannon); Brendan Foley (Shannon), Moss Keane (Lansdowne); Colm Tucker (Shannon), Christy Cantillon (Cork Con) and Donal Spring, capt, (Lansdowne).

Ulster's Stephen Hilditch refereed what I think was a fairly dour affair taken by Leinster 18-9.

Coincidentally, three of that Leinster backline - Johnny Robbie, Frankie Quinn and Freddie McLennan - emigrated to South Africa, while four others - Ian Burns, Micky O'Sullivan, Mossie Keane and Colm Tucker - sadly are no longer with us.

Fast forward and today we have second-placed Leinster seven points ahead of fourth placed Munster with just four rounds to go.

We won't go into the many and varied complexities of the matches remaining other than to say that defeat for Munster today, and with Ulster and Glasgow positioned to overtake in the final straight, and add in the token Italian Champions Cup qualifier, and the magnitude of this clash from Foley's perspective needs little elaboration. This is must-win territory.

To that end the Munster head coach has been bold in selection, specifically at hooker and out-half. He has backed up his high praise of Johnny Holland following last week's facile win over Zebre with re-selection for a game guaranteed to test his burgeoning talent not to mention his big-match temperament.

Preferred

With relative rookie Rory Scannell alongside at inside centre I don't think it rocket science to suggest it will be Leinster's preferred channel of attack. Expect Dave O'Callaghan and Tommy O'Donnell to be on protection alert.

Certainly for Jordi Murphy, who has slipped off the Joe Schmidt radar, opportunity knocks to make a very real statement well ahead of South Africa and all that entails.

Similarly for Niall Scannell, much like brother Rory and string-puller Holland, this is a fantastic opportunity to announce the emergence of yet another quality hooker to the Munster and Ireland ranks.

In Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Francis Saili down the outside channels Munster appear at least the equal if not better equipped than the home equivalent. For Gary Ringrose comes the opportunity to let his rugby do the talking.

Conor Murray's return is massive but in Eoin Reddan and Johnny Sexton Leinster should have the game-controlling edge. With greater impact in reserve - mind you, we thought something similar in Galway - it's Leinster to squeeze it.

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