Saturday 21 April 2018

Analysis: Time for Munster and Leinster to show they’ve learnt from last season as Bilbao final beckons

James Ryan (centre) starred in Leinster's win over Saracens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
James Ryan (centre) starred in Leinster's win over Saracens. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Irish fans giddily considering a run at the Bilbao final may want to heed the warnings of history before booking. We've been here before several times and only once has an all-Irish final materialised and never between Munster and Leinster.

For the provinces, the last four has so often proven the most difficult hurdle of all. Since Leinster claimed the trophy by beating Ulster in 2012, they and Munster have been back to this stage five times between them but there has been no final appearance.

Munster have a 33.3pc success rate in semi-finals, Leinster a marginally better 37.5pc.

There are no guarantees at this stage of a highly competitive tournament. As far back as 2003, there was giddy talk of an all-Irish final in Dublin only for the city to welcome Toulouse and Perpignan instead. The script is rarely straightforward.

Still, there are reasons for the red and blue armies to be hopeful of going a step further this time around and booking a final spot.

Having emerged from a difficult pool unbeaten and ended the reign of Saracens with a comprehensive win last weekend, Leinster are justified favourites with home advantage in their favour against the Scarlets in their semi-final.

Munster's Andrew Conway. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Andrew Conway. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Munster must do it the hard way, however, as is their wont; returning to Bordeaux where their European story kicked into overdrive when they beat Toulouse in 2000.

Racing 92 stand in their way and the bookies have made a clash between Leinster and the Parisians the more likely final.

Munster have always liked upsetting those odds, but they came up short on the last two visits to France for semi-finals, losing to Clermont in Montpellier in 2013 and Toulon in Marseille a year later.

Racing are a familiar foe who they have beaten three times in the four pool meetings over the past 18 months and the Parisians' fan-base is not known for creating hostile atmospheres for visiting teams.

Bordeaux looks like a cracking opportunity for Johann van Graan's side.

The South African is fond of using the phrase 'back to zero' and that is where Munster and Leinster find themselves now.

They both exited the tournament at this stage last season and they've worked mighty hard to get back to this stage.

A year ago, Rassie Erasmus was in charge and he and his Munster men knew that they faced a tough challenge against an imperious Saracens side at the height of their powers.

Despite heavy backing from a large majority of fans at the Aviva Stadium, the Reds came up short and a day later Leinster were left to rue a slow start against Clermont.

A year on, Leo Cullen's men look a stronger side while Munster have proven as difficult to beat as ever.

Leinster strengthened in the transfer market and their young guns are a year down the tracks. Munster have managed the coaching transition as well as they could have and have soldiered on despite a difficult injury list and the loss of Donnacha Ryan who will be a pivotal figure in the Racing ranks in just under three weeks' time.

Both coaches have asked young players to step in and up and they've gotten the desired response. Jack O'Donoghue, Alex Wootton and Sam Arnold stood tall against Toulon last weekend, while James Ryan and Dan Leavy were the stars in Leinster's win.

That duo are indicative of the strength of the Leinster production line and while Munster are not creating the same number of players from within, their clever recruitment strategy is keeping them competitive.

Few who saw Andrew Conway light up the schools competitions for Blackrock College doubted he'd make a mark on the professional game.

Munster offered him the quickest route to success and he took it. Arnold and Wootton were part of the Exiles programme, Jean Kleyn and CJ Stander were shrewd acquisitions from South Africa.

Their first generation of European heroes were largely home-grown, but after a troubling two-season dip, the standards have been reinstated by a determined leadership group and a strong supporting cast who punch well above their weight.

In both squads, the Grand Slammers are all brimming with confidence and the accuracy with which both provinces are playing should stand them in good stead.

Still, danger lurks. Scarlets know what it takes to win in Dublin and if Leinster are considered the best side in Europe currently, then the Welsh region are not far behind.

They are enjoying an unforgettable run, building on their PRO14 success in Dublin last season with some memorable wins over formidable opposition and only a fool would underestimate them.

Racing, meanwhile, could spring Dan Carter off the bench to win in Clermont. Any team with those sort of resources must be respected.

Munster have two weeks in South Africa to get their ducks in a row before they travel to Bordeaux, Leinster take on both Italian sides which means they can manage their resources in order to be ready for the Scarlets.

They've worked hard to get back to this point, but now they have the opportunity to go at least one step further than last season and end the six-year wait for an Irish finalist.

Bilbao beckons, but the hard work is just beginning.

Irish Independent

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