Wednesday 13 December 2017

Injury casting a pall over Leinster’s Euro ambition

IN the wake of Ireland’s Six Nations disappointment, Friday night in Limerick was just the tonic for players and supporters ahead of next weekend’s return to Heineken Cup action.

Leinster and Munster contrived to serve up a game of international intensity, with just the necessary soupcon of needle, to a packed Thomond Park and a huge TV audience.

It was a nice little appetiser, if any of these games could ever be described as such, for what everyone knows to be the really serious business next weekend.

Much was made last season of the knock-on effect generated by the Grand Slam and the additional impetus it brought to Leinster's push for their breakthrough in the Heineken Cup. The situation this time around is somewhat different. Not only did the Six Nations campaign finish on a negative note but now, with their quarter- final a mere five days away, injury casts a pall over their preparation.

Doubts remain concerning three quarters of their firstchoice three-quarter line; Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan. In addition, Sean O'Brien and Kevin McLaughlin will be unavailable through longerterm injuries, Nathan Hines only returned from injury in time for the tussle at Thomond, a game from which Stan Wright had to retire injured, late on.

Michael Cheika’s selection of Leinster's pack for Friday night was something of a talking point, with Leo Cullen and Devin Toner in the second row, Hines on the blindside, and Cian Healy making his provincial return from the bench at half-time behind Wright and CJ van der Linde. While it can be argued that, in relation to Cheika's secondrow selection, with Hines on the flank, his rationale was to take Munster on up front and target their line-out, I don't see this as a realistic option for the Clermont game. No disrespect to Toner, who continues to show great potential, but I've yet to see him consistently present a case for himself as a realistic option capable of dealing with the sustained intensity required at Heineken Cup knock-out level. At the same time, Stephen Keogh has shown probably his best form in a Leinster jersey in recent weeks and he could very well be rewarded with inclusion for this Friday, with Hines returning to his preferred engine-room position alongside skipper Cullen at Toner's expense.

The champions will be presented with a massive physical challenge by Clermont and Cheika's selection needs to be right on the money if they are to stand toe-to-toe with their visitors. Jonny Sexton's placekicking will be crucial, but a repeat of the ‘dog’ shown in the last quarter at Thomond and the Kurt McQuilkin-inspired defensive performance should combine to provide the outhalf with the higher margin of error from the boot he seems to need at present.

Either way it should be one of the best games the RDS has seen to date, in what is Leinster’s first home quarter-final since their defeat by Leicester in 2005. That Leinster team of five years ago, however, wouldn't have been capable of going to Thomond and quarrying out a victory in the manner of Friday's and the French may well come to realise that this particular Leinster team don't do easy rollovers.

The Thomond game is probably slightly easier to call. Munster are gnarled old pros and proven masters of the type of challenge Northampton will present, and it will take a lot more than Friday night's setback to dilute that reputation.

When it comes to Munster and the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup, I need a lot of persuasion as to the qualities of any visiting team — statistics just don't lie.

On the plus side for Northampton, they are going well in the Premiership, in second place with a game in hand on leaders Leicester; they have already beaten Munster this season; and they ran them very close at Thomond in the last round of pool games. But they are still a work in progress and a squad which has yet to prove itself to be an experienced and battle-hardened team of winners of the quality needed to survive in Limerick.

Having said all that, Friday night's performance, and result, will not sit easily in Munster. In the short term, the return of Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls will provide a huge, and timely, boost but the long-term absence of No 8 Denis Leamy is now impacting hugely, with David Wallace obviously uncomfortable in the middle of the back row and no other contender staking a realistic claim.

The fact that the remarkable Alan Quinlan, on the wrong side of 35, is an automatic selection gives an indication of Tony McGahan's predicament and also brings a focus to the disappointment surrounding the performances of imported back-row signing Nick Williams.

Regardless of their selection issues, it would be a surprise if they were to mess up next weekend. There's already a long and distinguished list of visiting quarterfinal casualties at Thomond, and my gut feeling is that it's likely to be extended next Saturday with the addition of Northampton Saints.

Long before the advent of professionalism, the Limerick venue was for generations a veritable coliseum for knockout rugby competition, the legend and lore of Munster Cup games played at the venue lends an incalculable aura to occasions such as next week's and the real Munster supporters won't be found wanting at the hour of what could well turn out to be their team's greatest need.

The prospect of the Munster- Leinster trilogy being extended by at least one, and maybe even two, games is a heady one. Croke Park may not yet have seen its last oval ball and, were it to come to pass, Stade de France would never have seen anything like it — World Cup finals included, soccer or rugby.

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