Saturday 21 April 2018

Munster and Leinster put seasons of progress on the line

Rhys Ruddock is tackled by George Earle during Saturday’s Pro 12 match at the RDS. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock is tackled by George Earle during Saturday’s Pro 12 match at the RDS. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

One of the things that was lost when the Heineken Cup went south was the grace period that club and provincial coaches got in the wake of the Six Nations.

Whereas once they had three weeks to gather their troops and translate the language of international rugby into their own vernacular, now they face an unseemly rush to put things into place.

Cullen: “There is a challenge for sure, yeah, but we’ve known about it for a long time.” Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Cullen: “There is a challenge for sure, yeah, but we’ve known about it for a long time.” Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

This morning, Leo Cullen and Rassie Erasmus will formally begin preparations having tried to get a head start with their returning internationals last weekend.

This afternoon they will have their full squad available for training for the first time since January. On Saturday, they will play what could prove to be the defining games of their seasons.

For Leinster, Saturday's narrow win over a competitive Cardiff Blues team could prove a blessing in disguise. Certainly it will be worth more to them than Munster's crushing defeat of Zebre in Parma.

Both teams were without their front-line Ireland stars, unlike fellow quarter-finalists Glasgow Warriors, who fielded Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and a number of their Scotland Six Nations starters against Connacht on Saturday.

Cullen said he had the option of fielding the likes of Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw et al and didn't take it, but given that all four provinces gave those who were heavily involved over the last eight weeks the weekend off it looked more like an IRFU decision.

Whatever the ins and outs of it, Leinster's opponents Wasps also chose to rest a host of their England players for their league game against Worcester yesterday, while Munster's foe Toulouse unsurprisingly pressed most of their France contingent into action against Bordeaux.

Pivotal

"There is a challenge for sure, yeah, but we've known about it for a long time," Cullen (below) said.

"It is what it is, we'll just get on with it. When we came off November it was pretty similar and we went into a Friday game against Northampton, so we've already dealt with it once this year."

It is a pivotal weekend for both provinces as they put their seasons of progress on the line.

Although Toulouse are the more storied European team, it appears Leinster's task in taking on the English Premiership's pace-setters is the more difficult task.

Read more: Munster angry with IRFU as Ryan heads off for Racing 92

Dai Young's side handed Leinster a record defeat in last year's tournament and then broke it in the return fixture. Although Charles Piutau has departed, they can boast names like Kurtley Beale and Willie le Roux in their back three, while Nathan Hughes, Joe Launchbury, Elliot Daly and James Haskell will be keen to right some perceived wrongs on their return to Dublin two weeks after their Six Nations campaign ended in defeat.

With Stuart Lancaster adding a couple of new strings to the Leinster bow they have impressed at times this year, but there are doubts about the calibre of team they overcame in a poor pool and the loss of Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney lessens their experience levels.

"The two guys have played such key roles in the success of the team over a number of years," Cullen conceded.

"They have been through it all if you think of all the Tests they have. The experience, yeah, it's hard to replicate that, but the nature of the Leinster model is to invest a lot of time in younger guys and maybe this is their chance to step up.

"So we will miss those guys, but it will afford someone else an opportunity. There's a level of relevance to (last year's games). They were pretty tough outings. You talk about that Wasps game. We'd maybe 70pc possession.

"But there's no point in saying that after the game. We were well beaten on the scoreboard.

"We need to manage the game better and take some learnings from those games."

For Munster, this week's game marks a return to the knockout stages after a two-year hiatus from the sharp-end of European rugby.

It is a new challenge for Erasmus, who has been mightily impressive in steering the ship through a period of grief and managing that emotion into displays of real grit and quality.

Connacht exposed Toulouse's limitations when the two teams met in the pool stages, while the Thomond Park faithful have fond memories of the four-time champions' last visit when they were routed by Rob Penney's men.

That was the last time knockout rugby came to Limerick and they will be determined for a similar result.

The key for Erasmus this week will be the health of Conor Murray, who was said to be close to inclusion for the Ireland squad against England. The Patrickswell native is the most important man in the Reds' squad and while Duncan Williams is enjoying a good season, the loss of Murray would be an invitation to Toulouse to come and play.

Kingpins

Back in January, Connacht captain John Muldoon reflected that the kingpins had discovered their joie de vivre, but they've lost their way a bit since squeezing their way out of the pool and their record on the road won't strike any fear into Munster.

Like Leinster, much will depend on Erasmus's ability to pull it all together this week as he integrates his internationals back into the fold.

News that Donnacha Ryan is off to Racing 92 won't help matters, but if he can harness their Test match quality and field a fit and firing Murray, he'll be confident of booking a semi-final place.

The big issue for both provinces is that cohesion and they are banking on the intensity of the Six Nations performances carrying into the European window.

Both teams have worked hard to get back to this arena and earned the lucrative home fixtures that swing these games, but there is still much work to do in the coming days.

It is now five seasons since either of them reached their Holy Grail and the next step begins this morning.

They'd prefer another week to get things together, but they'll have to make do.

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