Saturday 20 October 2018

Are Scarlets right to cry foul over Leinster's Aviva advantage?

Analysis: Eyebrows have been raised over tomorrow's venue, but does it really make a difference?

Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets celebrates after his team’s victory over Munster in the PRO12 final in Dublin last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets celebrates after his team’s victory over Munster in the PRO12 final in Dublin last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is a debate that GAA fans will find familiar. The big boys in blue, playing neutral games at a venue in their home city not too far away from their nominated home.

Indeed, the distance between Parnell Park and Croke Park is a couple of kilometres more than the short stroll from the RDS to the Aviva Stadium even if Leinster do play far more games at their actual home than the Dublin footballers.

Under tournament rules, Leinster earned the right to designate a home country stadium to host their semi-final. With GAA stadia off-limits, the Aviva was the only venue that would satisfy the criteria.

Rather than stay within Paris, Racing 92 chose Bordeaux's Stade Chaban Delmas as their home country stadium for their meeting with Munster. Clermont hosted Leinster in Lyon last season, Munster took on Saracens in Dublin.

It is a convenient reality for the Blues that they only have to go over the road. It guarantees the organisers a big crowd, but it gives the visiting team a chip to take with them on their shoulder.

It was former England international Stuart Barnes who first flagged the idea that having the Aviva Stadium as a neutral venue for the European Champions Cup semi-final is, as he put it, "a farce" and the Scarlets have not gone out of their way to disagree this week.

Do they have a point?

Well, Leinster could point to their home semi-final record at the venue as a straight-up dismissal.

They have hosted a quartet of last-four encounters in the 17-year history of this competition, winning just one.

Respectable

In 1995, Cardiff beat them in the first semi-final in front of just 7,350 spectators, while Perpignan won at the venue in the 2003 encounter which attracted a far more respectable 37,000 through the gates. It was famously a sea of red when Munster raided in 2006, before they finally got over the line in 2011 against Toulouse in front of 50,073 fans.

In reality, all four of those results bear little relevance to tomorrow's meeting between the three-time champions and the Guinness PRO14 champions.

Leinster play two regular-season games a season at the Aviva Stadium, while they also use it when they earn home quarter-finals.

Since the stadium was re-opened and re-branded in 2011, they have played 22 games at Lansdowne Road, winning 18 of them.

Since Joe Schmidt took over as Ireland coach, 38 Leinster players have played a Test match at the venue. In that time, Ireland have lost four times in 27 internationals.

So, it is a place they know well. Twelve of Leo Cullen's likely starting XV saw action there during the Six Nations. Barnes believes that the venue is an unfair advantage in the Irish province's favour.

"My comment was not a criticism of Leinster just a reflection of the farcical unfairness from the perspective of the other teams in the tournament," he said. "That is a farce. Anywhere else that can take 50,000 or so other than Croke Park? Not that I didn't love the place.

"When we come to the semi-finals is it really a neutral venue at the Aviva Stadium when Leinster play the Scarlets? No, it's not.

"It is an advantage and Leinster can't say it isn't because they make so much of the crowd being so supportive of them. There should be a way of moving that (semi-final) to a neutral venue.

"I know from speaking to Simon Halliday (EPCR chairman) that it is difficult to schedule these things and change them at the last minute, but if you wanted to be entirely neutral then move it, even if it's last minute."

That didn't happen and it has given the Scarlets a little extra edge in their public dealings this week.

There is defiance behind their words and with good reason since they won a semi-final at the RDS and a final at the Aviva to secure the PRO14 title last season.

"The Aviva is not exactly a neutral venue," Wales centre Scott Williams said, "it's basically Leinster's home ground.

"But we went to their home patch in the semi-final last year and won. They've got some outstanding players and, more importantly, players who are playing well."

Coach Wayne Pivac was even playfully goading the Leinster support.

"We can certainly take a lot of confidence out of the fact we went to Ireland two weeks in a row, with one of those at the Aviva (the final). But it was 12 months ago," he said.

"It is a venue where we played in the final last year and we really enjoyed it, a magnificent stadium.

"There will be plenty of support for the locals, they won't have too far to travel, but I know one Scarlets supporter probably makes up for 10 of the opposition.

"Hopefully, there will be something like 5,000 Scarlets fans there by the sounds of it, a great number. I don't know if it will be the cauldron that some people think.

"We have a lot of players who have played at international level. It is just another big stadium with a great atmosphere and that is the way we will be approaching it.

"We have worked really hard to get to the semi-final and to be quite honest wherever we played it, it was never going to bother us.

"That is for other people to decide what is neutral and what is not.

"For us, it is a semi-final, it is an opportunity, it is 80 minutes away from creating history, being in our first grand final. That is the way we are approaching it."

It seems a sensible approach.

There is no doubting the fact that playing in the familiar surrounds of Ballsbridge in front of a large home support offers Leinster an advantage but there is no alternative on the island and taking it to the UK would diminish the occasion.

Leinster's last three semi-finals were all in France.

They won't lose too much sleep over this one.

Irish Independent

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