As Leinster and Munster discovered to their cost in Europe this past month, knowing the threat that is coming your way and being able to deal with it are different matters entirely.
The protagonists in today’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final at the RDS knew what to expect from Saracens in advance of their Champions Cup knockout dates yet neither found a way to dodge the oncoming juggernaut.
Leinster are expecting a similarly bruising encounter in Dublin today as they bid to reach a second final of the season and having failed to retain their European crown seven days ago in Newcastle, will need to find solutions to the questions posed by a Munster outfit desperate to end an eight-year wait for silverware.
If head coach Leo Cullen and captain for the day Rhys Ruddock mentioned the inevitability of an intensely physical, disruptive opposition approach to today’s collision between these old foes they mentioned it 100 times yesterday and the side named by Munster boss Johann van Graan did nothing to disappoint them.
🔵 v 🔴
Who’s looking forward to tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final?! 🙋♂️🙋♀️— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) May 17, 2019
It was a hardly a surprise given Munster’s ability to throw the PRO14 champions out of their stride during the regular-season encounter at Thomond Park last December 29, which left Leinster severely rattled and lured into indiscipline that saw props Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong sin-binned and wing James Lowe red-carded in a volatile first half on the way to a 26-17 defeat.
Two converted tries apiece that night but it was the penalty count that separated the sides, Joey Carbery’s four to Johnny Sexton’s one the difference on the scoreboard as Munster celebrated a first win over their arch-rivals since December 2016.
Cullen described that most recent meeting as having “lots of chaos” against a team that gets “involved” and put defeat down to his players not “getting a very good handle on it”.
He will expect a better reaction today, not least from a Munster back-row that sees CJ Stander beef up the openside flanker position and Arno Botha come in as the starting No.8 Ruddock, who replaces the benched Sexton as skipper this afternoon, is steeling himself for the mother of all breakdown battles against his Ireland squad-mates Stander and opposing captain Peter O’Mahony for a sell-out 18,977 crowd to relish.
‘Well I think the benefit of someone like CJ is probably that he has the ability to still have an influence on the game at the breakdown,” Ruddock said yesterday, “I don’t know whether I’m as good over the ball.
“He’s obviously a big breakdown threat and then you’ve also got the likes of Tadhg Beirne as well in the second row so we’d sort of looked at their team and thought about the combinations they could go with and they have a number of guys who could have possibly played there but CJ brings a big physicality to the game, a lot of leadership and then he’s got that ability to get over a ball as well and be a nuisance at the breakdown and Pete a well.
“It’s obviously a physical challenge. No-one there is usually an out and out seven, they’re more ball carriers and physical presence so we’ll just have to be ready for that threat.”
The return to fitness of both wing Keith Earls and fly-half Joey Carbery after more than six weeks out through injury, though, finally gives Munster more than just one threat as they bid to rebound from a testing quarter-final win over Benetton a fortnight ago.
Munster have struggled to find a cutting edge in their absence and whether or not the presence of Carbery and Earls against Saracens in the European semi-final would have made any material difference to the 32-16 outcome, their presence at the RDS gives the visitors hope they can execute the opportunities they are capable of creating.
Furthermore, the dynamic is also altered by the fact Leinster will come into this game as losing European finalists rather than recently-minted champions, as was the case 12 months ago when they closed out a 16-15 victory on the same ground at the same stage of the PRO14 play-offs.
Munster head coach van Graan is sure the defending champions will not miss a beat, that Leinster will rebound from the loss of their European crown last Saturday and pull together, yet it was a bruising encounter that has cost them the services of Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien and forced Cullen to rethink his replacement options.
You would not bet against Leinster regrouping and keeping a grip on their one remaining trophy from last season’s historic PRO14 and Champions Cup double but after a fortnight in which coaching departures have dominated Munster’s headlines, there is an air of backs-against-the-wall desperation in the visiting camp that may just produce an upset.
It will make for fascinating viewing this afternoon.