Thursday 21 September 2017

All logic pointing towards an All-Ireland showdown

Captains Isa Nacewa and Peter O’Mahony will be hoping to lead their teams into the
Guinness PRO12 final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Captains Isa Nacewa and Peter O’Mahony will be hoping to lead their teams into the Guinness PRO12 final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Jonathan Sexton said a lot of interesting things last week at Newstalk's Off The Ball event but the most enlightening referred to last season's "failure" of a season with Leinster.

Leo Cullen's men had reached a Guinness PRO12 final which may have salvaged a dismal European effort; but losing it to Connacht in Edinburgh defined their campaign.

"It would have been the worst thing that could have happened if we had won the PRO12," he told his audience, "(because) then everyone kind of thinks it's okay, 'we'll improve in Europe and did enough to win a trophy'...

This season, they have sorted out the lapse in cultural practices that had so offended the returning out-half last year, returning to their rightful place at Europe's defining stages, such that the tables have now turned.

Leinster now do need this title to validate their enhanced credentials as a newly invigorated playing and coaching group.

"Hopefully we get what we deserve this year because an incredible amount of work has gone in and hopefully we can win a trophy to show that," Sexton added.

They have two games left to demonstrate they can do just that; the public reckons they can, but a familiar foe may lie in wait.

Unbackable

Leinster are unbackable 6/1-on favourites to win their semi-final against the Scarlets; the satchel-bearers chalk up the same odds for Munster in their home tie with the Ospreys; both are 11-point favourites on the spread.

Leinster are favourites to ultimately lift the grand prize, at 6/5 on, with Munster 6/4.

So while an All-Ireland Champions Cup final was denied us when the Reds and Blues lost in the semi-finals, the chances of a derby PRo12 decider are much greater.

Before the Aviva can re-stage the theatre of the epic European 2006 and 2009 clashes, or indeed the seminal 2001 Celtic League final - the catalyst for this rivalry in the professional age - there is the pernickety matter of those semi-finals to negotiate.

Two factors are persuasive: no home side has ever lost a semi-final in this competition.

Also, the standard of the opposition presented to Leinster and Munster is markedly below that of the pair who duelled so magnificently in Saturday's Champions Cup final.

Quite simply, Leinster and Munster are better sides than their Welsh opponents; now they just have to prove it. Fitness could also be key; all the Welsh regions have regularly subsided in the final quarters of games this term, especially against Irish rivals.

The Welsh have scrubbed up well to get here, though, and both visiting sides have the talent and the confidence to cause an upset.

Scarlets were thumped by Leinster in the RDS in March; an odd one just a week after winning in Munster's place; the half-time score was a neatly poised 12-9 before Leinster galloped to a seven-try 45-9 shellacking.

None of the Lions who will decorate Friday night feast - five for Leinster, three for Scarlets - were playing that night; still, a batin' is a batin'.

The west Wales men have responded stirringly to that test of their mettle.

Since that night, the Scarlets have won more points and scored more tries than any of the three other title contenders.

They have taken 24 out of a maximum 25 at the rate of exactly one try for every point; Munster over the same period have collected 23 points and 22 tries, Leinster 19 (15) and Ospreys ten points (10).

"We have been playing some great stuff since then," says one of the Scarlets' trio of Lions, Ken Owens. "We are quietly confident that if we get things right, we will put up a good show."

Elbow

His side haven't won the title since 2004 when both they and the competition were called different names and, until this month, only once in eight seasons of play-off rugby had they managed to elbow their way into contention.

That semi-final defeat came against Ulster three years ago.

Leinster's defeat in Belfast this month ended with them finishing second in the regular standings, swapping places and semi-final opponents with Munster.

Leinster had already complicated their European progress this season - deviating into a more difficult strand of the draw by messing up an away fixture in Castres - so they will hope that their sloppy slip in Belfast does not haunt them.

They will not dare to say it but Leinster would much prefer Ospreys in the semi-final.

Leinster have as gilded a history in this championship as they do in Europe: their tally of four titles puts them level with Ospreys, just ahead of Munster's three.

Munster's effort in topping the table is a wonderful achievement given everything that has happened to them this season but only guarantees them top seeding status; they will, however, have been quietly content to have nabbed the Ospreys as their prey.

These pair have a colourful history, featuring in five semi-finals; Munster winning two at home and three away, the last, heavily, in 2012 when their Irish rivals, Ulster and Leinster, were competing for a European final.

Munster have returned to Europe's elite now and, as much as they view this season a stepping stone towards future success under the guidance of Rassie Erasmus, a title would offer them a massive fillip.

Losing out, one tentatively suggests, would not necessarily constitute a "failure" for them as it did for Sexton this time last year. For the Irish out-half, defeat for Leinster in either the semi-final or final would.

One hopes that the argument could be settled by an All-Ireland final as it was when these sides last met in the knock-out stages of a competition, the 2011 Grand Final. The winners? Munster.

Irish Independent

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