Donal Lenihan runs the rule over the Heineken Cup semi-finalists
There are so many examples in sport where one player's misery represents opportunity for someone else. Tyler Bleyendaal has suffered more injury setbacks than most in a career that promised so much from an early age.
With Joey Carbery missing out on what would have been his biggest game in Munster colours to date, Bleyendaal has a massive role to play today. It helps that he knows exactly what to expect, having started against the same opposition at the same stage at the Aviva Stadium two years ago.
You have to be a special talent to represent New Zealand, in the famed All Black jersey, at any level of the game. Captaining and leading the rugby obsessed nation to glory, as Blyendaal did at the 2010 Junior World Cup in Argentina, marks you out as an individual of strength and character.
On the winners' podium as Bleyendaal held the trophy aloft after contributing 28 points to his side's 62-17 victory over an Australian side coached by current IRFU director of rugby David Nucifora, stood future All Blacks Julian Savea, Luke Whitelock, Liam Coltman, Jeff Toomaga-Allen and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
Bleyendaal gave up that dream when arriving in Munster back in November 2014 but his progression has been stifled by a series of serious neck injuries that could so easily have seen him throw in the towel. The fact that he refused to go down that road, displaying admirable mental strength to back himself, will stand to him today.
On six occasions since Paul O'Connell lifted the Heineken Cup in 2008, Munster have contested a semi-final with their conquerors going on to lift the trophy three times. To buck that trend today, Munster must find a way to score tries against a side renowned for it’s energy and solidity in defense. Bleyendaal’s tactical acumen and calm resolve under pressure offers something different to the pace and spontaneity that Carbery has brought to the No 10 role this season.
To beat Saracens, Bleyendaal will have to squeeze the maximum out of the centre partnership of Rory Scannell and Chris Farrell in attack. For that to happen, the forwards must find a way to commit Saracens numbers to the breakdown but still recycle quickly. Even then the incalculable loss of Keith Earls outside that midfield duo to finish off any semblance of a line break is a devastating blow that could prove the vital difference.
A measure of the challenge facing Munster today can be gleaned from the manner with which Saracens disposed of Glasgow Warriors in the quarter-final at Allianz Park. Glasgow currently lead Munster at the top of Conference A of the Guinness PRO14. The seven-try demolition, in an outstanding all-round performance, served notice that Saracens are back delivering the quality rugby that secured back to back Champions Cup titles in 2016 and 2017.
Without the player welfare system which has played a key role in having the Irish players as fresh as possible for their provinces come the knockout phase of European rugby, Saracens struggled last season in the wake of the demands placed on their players after the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand. While they timed their run perfectly to regain the Gallagher Premiership title from Exeter Chiefs, Europe proved a step too far.
With four of the England and Lions front five, the likes of Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola, in particular, were running on empty and short the huge physical impact we have come to expect of them. As Ireland found out to their cost in the opening game of the Six Nations in Dublin, both are back to their menacing best this season.
The fact that Mako was passed fit yesterday after being injured on England duty is a huge boost and adds even further to the stifling power of the Saracens pack, best represented by the options available to Mark McCall in the second row alone, where he is tasked with pruning two from four international locks.
It comes as no surprise that Maro Itoje and George Kruis, both 2017 Lions, make the cut while Wallaby giant Will Skelton pips another England international Nick Isiekwe due to the greater physical impact he offers from the bench. Skelton’s mammoth frame will also add greatly to the impressive Saracens maul that is not only explosively powerful, but also technically superb.
While Munster have to cope with the loss of Carbery and Earls, Saracens have also been boosted by the return of their underrated and highly influential captain Brad Barritt to marshal their renowned defensive structure.
Managing your players through the multiple demands presented over the course of an arduous and physically demanding season, especially when so many of your squad is also involved on the international stage, has become an art form in itself.
When is it more prudent to stick with the player more in tune with your current patterns of play and, of even greater importance, more battled hardened in terms of recent game time, over a superior and more experienced performer just back from injury?
It’s a dilemma that Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt have battled all season with mixed results. There is no doubt that if Schmidt could dial back the clock, his selection for Ireland’s opening Six Nations contest against England might be different.
Cullen and Stuart Lancaster had to think long and hard about the composition of their side for tomorrow’s mouthwatering clash and whether it was prudent to reintroduce all of the recently incapacitated trio in Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner and Johnny Sexton at the same time after having limited or no game-time with the side this calendar year.
All three are absolutely vital to the Leinster cause in a game where the holders will need to rediscover their very best form if they are to advance to another Champions Cup decider. The Leinster management are satisfied that, based on the evidence of the last two weeks training at their UCD headquarters, all three are primed for a game of this magnitude. They will have to be.
Selection is such a a key issue when it comes to getting the maximum out of the resources available to you. Perhaps the most important one here could yet be the inclusion of Māori All Black James Lowe on the wing. He has never failed to deliver on the big stage for Leinster but his European appearances have been compromised since his arrival by rule 3.7 of the competition which dictates that only two non-Europeans can appear in the matchday squad.
With 14 Irish internationals in the team, this is the strongest combination that Leinster has been able to field this year. The only barrier to a fifth final appearance is whether, with such limited game-time together this season, they are able to find their cohesion and true form against a side more that capable of exploiting any chinks on that front.
From the outset of European rugby in 1995/6, when Emile Ntamack lifted the inaugural trophy as captain of Toulouse, the French side became the standard bearers and the side that everyone, not only admired, but set out to emulate. It helped that they played a style and quality of rugby that few club sides were capable of matching at the time.
As the first side to win the Heineken Cup on four occasions, their absence at the top table since 2010 has been missed. Now, with the elevation of several young stars who have progressed through their underage system, former Heineken Cup winner and head coach Ugo Mola has gone back to the club's roots, playing the classic offloading game that separated them from the rest in the early years of European competition.
Despite being reduced to 14 men when out-half Zach Holmes was dismissed after 22 minutes in their epic quarter-final clash away to Racing 92, Toulouse trusted the creative qualities that had got them to that point. When Racing winger Teddy Thomas was yellow-carded six minutes after Holmes’s dismissal, Toulouse seized their moment, scoring two incredible tries.
The manner in which they reshaped their back line after the out-half’s red card says everything about their management's faith in the youthful exuberance at their disposal. Given that Emile Ntamack’s son Romain had played the majority of the Six Nations at No 10 for France, in partnership with his Toulouse teammate Antoine Dupont, most coaches would just have reunited those two to help steady the ship after the dismissal.
Not Toulouse. Instead they introduced their reserve scrum-half Sebastian Bezy for back rower Francois Cros, shifted the outstanding Dupont to out-half and left Ntamack in midfield. Their skillset was so interchangeable that they combined to deliver in the most testing of circumstances against a quality Racing side that many expected to go all the way this season.
The fact that one of those tries, finished spectacularly by Maxime Medard, came courtesy of an audacious offload from the previously unheralded Lucas Tauzin, who was only in the side as a late replacement for the experienced Yoann Huget, offered further evidence of the revolution taking place in Stade Toulousian at present.
That performance in Paris, coupled with their win over Leinster in Toulouse at the pool stage last October, has placed Leo Cullen’s charges on notice. Cullen will also have noted that a key element in their win over Toulouse in the reverse pool fixture at the RDS was the fact that the visitors started regular full-back Thomas Ramos at out-half, where he struggled badly.
Despite that magnificent win in Paris, centre Sofiane Guitoune is the only member of the Toulouse back line left starting in the same position tomorrow, with French scrum-half Dupont handed the No 10 jersey from the outset and Ntamack demoted to the bench. Tauzin doesn’t even make it that far.
Only a French side could tinker with a winning formula to that degree. Despite those changes, Toulouse will fancy their chances of sprinkling some more attacking gold dust at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow. Leinster know exactly what’s coming their way.