Saturday 20 January 2018

Leinster and Munster take out big guns to edge closer to European glory

Andrew Conway celebrates with Simon Zebo after scoring Munster’s fourth try against Toulouse. Photo: Eoin Noonan
Andrew Conway celebrates with Simon Zebo after scoring Munster’s fourth try against Toulouse. Photo: Eoin Noonan
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you wanted an illustration of how much the picture has changed for Irish rugby in the space of a season then virtually full houses in Lansdowne Road and Thomond Park for Champions Cup quarter-finals was perfect. A year ago Ireland's leading provinces weren't mapped. Now Leinster are preparing for a semi-final in the Champions Cup, in France, while Munster are at the same stage of the same competition, though unsure as yet where they are headed.

At least Leinster know that they will be on the road, and by close of business in the Auvergne they will discover if that spin takes them to face Clermont or Toulon. Munster too have to wait on the outcome of the first of today's quarter-finals. If Saracens beat Glasgow in that tie in Allianz Park then Munster will play them in the Aviva; if Glasgow win then Rassie Erasmus's side will head to Edinburgh.

In very different games both Irish sides had to work very hard: Leinster only made the game safe with six minutes to go, while Munster ran over the top of Toulouse in the final straight, with tighthead John Ryan getting the man of the match award.

"They were a threat the entire game but credit to the lads, it was a brilliant defensive effort," he said. "Toulouse made a statement by coming over with a 6-2 split (on the bench) so we knew they were going to come after us in the scrum and maul. And I thought we handled it well. We didn't exactly have massive dominance but I thought we really held our own well."

Leinster's man of the match was from the other end of the spectrum. The attacking play of Joey Carbery lit up a game where Leinster were hugely dominant in the first 40 minutes against a woefully careless Wasps side.

The English league leaders weren't helped by Springbok Willie le Roux dropping the ball in the act of scoring a try in the first half - under no pressure from anyone in blue. It summed up Wasps' day, just as Carbery typified what Leinster were about.

"He's 21 and it's all come very quickly for him," Leo Cullen said afterwards. "He stays grounded and hopefully he will have a big part to play. Having him as a second receiver certainly takes some of the pressure off Jonathan Sexton."

Leinster will travel in confidence regardless of the opposition, and Jack Conan - with his eighth try of the season - slotted seamlessly into the gap left by the injured Jamie Heaslip.

"It will be an exciting challenge but very tough," Cullen added. "We've lost a couple there against Toulouse and Toulon, but won one against Clermont too. The margins are tight. We were a bit exposed a couple of times but that's the risk you take. We want players to express themselves in front of 50,000 people who have paid money to be here. There is a risk but we will get better with more time. There are definitely areas we can improve upon, we misfired in the lineout a couple of times."

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