Sunday 30 April 2017

How good are Leinster and Munster really? We'll find out this weekend

Billy Holland beats Greg O’Shea to the punch as Munster players try a different ball game. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Billy Holland beats Greg O’Shea to the punch as Munster players try a different ball game. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

There is a familiar look to the way the 2016/17 season is shaping up.

Munster and Leinster are sitting pretty on top of their Champions Cup pools and riding high in the Guinness Pro12, Ulster are flattering to deceive and face a European pool exit while an injury-riddled Connacht are heading towards a forgettable season.

Leinster’s Isa Nacewa puts his boot to ball during training yesterday. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Isa Nacewa puts his boot to ball during training yesterday. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

The good times appear to be back again for Ireland's most successful provinces.

There was no Irish representation in the last eight of Europe's top competition last season and, while you have to go back to 2007 for the last campaign before then when no province made a semi-final, it seems quite a while since the two sides who claimed five of the seven Heineken Cups between 2006 and 2012 were in such rude health.

Yet, there remains a question mark over the progress both sides have made. Undoubtedly, they are in a better place than they were a year ago, but how far have they really come?

This weekend will give us a firmer indication as they both look to secure quarter-final berths and move closer to lucrative home ties in the last eight.

On Friday, Leinster host Montpellier at the RDS in a game that should test their credentials. A day later, Rassie Erasmus' resurgent Munster travel to Glasgow in search of a second successive away win that would put them through.

You might argue that it is unfair to question how good Munster really are given all they've overcome in the last two months and after their clinical dismantling of French champions Racing 92 in Paris last Saturday.

But, for all that the Irish province played brilliantly and honoured the memory of Anthony Foley, it was one of those occasions when you question the value of the exercise because of the insipidness of Racing's performance.

It seems clear that Munster will make the knockouts because they will host a weakened Racing side in Round 6 and have already amassed 16 points, but the real test of their mettle is their ability to secure a home quarter-final.

Similarly, it appears highly unlikely that Leinster will miss out on the business end of the campaign given they sit five points clear of Friday's opponents with two games remaining, but there is a real sense that for all their progress, Leo Cullen's men have yet to be truly tested this season.

It has been a curious campaign when it comes to judging the value of results and performances.

Both Leinster and Munster have had big wins in what looked like tricky pools, yet there is still a sense that the real tests lie ahead. Even when they met face to face over Christmas, the national team protocols kicked in and Leinster rested a host of their front-liners.

This weekend, there will be no weakened teams and two opponents whose minds will be fully focused on the task at hand. Glasgow can wrest control of Pool 1 back from Munster with a win in Scotstoun, while Montpellier can give themselves a chance of leapfrogging Leinster with a win.

Perhaps due to their large overseas contingent, the mega-rich Top 14 side are one of the league's better travellers and should have more than two losing bonus points from their European road games

For Munster and Leinster, things are certainly rosier in the garden than they were 12 months ago, when both teams were preparing for Round 5 dead rubbers for the first time in almost two decades.

Cullen started a host of Academy players and got a temporary fillip with a win over Bath, but the wind was removed from his sails a week later as a Leinster team full of internationals failed to show up against Wasps and slumped to a record defeat.

Munster, meanwhile, were reeling from their humiliating hammering at the hands of 14-men Stade Francais and, while they won the return fixture at Thomond Park and rounded their campaign off with a win in Treviso, it was of little significance.

The Reds never really recovered and opted for a coaching restructure; Leinster rallied and reached the Pro12 final but their limitations were ruthlessly exposed by Connacht at Murrayfield. It was a season to forget.

Rather than obliterate it from their memory, both operations sought to change, adapt and grow their way out of the doomsday scenario they found themselves in by restructuring their coaching tickets.

Erasmus and Stuart Lancaster have filled different roles in their hierarchies; the South African is definitively the decision-maker at Munster who implements his own game-plan, picks the team and controls transfer policy; the ex-England supremo works underneath Cullen in the structure but appears to take a leading role in setting the game-plan and is a vocal presence on match-day.

Aided by improved clarity from the coaching staff, their playing rosters are standing up to scrutiny albeit aided by favourable injury situations.

Despite a lack of high-profile acquisitions other than Robbie Henshaw and the premature retirement of Luke Fitzgerald, Leinster's investment in their academy is bearing fruit behind the scrum and they've managed to get through a prolonged Johnny Sexton absence without any undue problems.

Their pack is among the strongest around and their back-row options are the envy of Europe, yet their recent wins over Northampton Saints, Ulster and Zebre all came with little challenge. Perhaps their last true test came in Montpellier and they wilted badly before Garry Ringrose and Isa Nacewa hauled them back into bonus-point range.

Munster have been allowed to recruit heavily in Erasmus' first season as they look to build depth, and the retention of Jaco Taute suddenly opens up selection possibilities and enhances competition.

The director of rugby still fears injury to certain key players, with Conor Murray the man they can't afford to lose and Tyler Bleyendaal growing in importance.

The bookies are increasingly convinced by the Irish big-two's performances. Although Saracens and Clermont Auvergne are the market leaders, Leinster are now 13/2 joint-third favourites with Wasps for the Champions Cup.

Those encouraging numbers are based off a strong start to the season, but we'll know far more about their merits by Saturday night.

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