Munster and Leinster savour sweet scent of two Champions Cup semi-finals

It will be a cause of much celebration, not least in the Neuchatel offices of the Champions Cup organisers, that the Irish are back at the summit of European rugby.
Munster and Leinster savour sweet scent of two Champions Cup semi-finals

The combined attendance of 75,000 that filled the Aviva Stadium and Thomond Park within a five-hour period on Saturday demonstrated once again what the Irish bring to this tournament.

With regard to making the final in Murrayfield, the odds may be against both Munster and Leinster but, right now, neither bunch of supporters will be worried about that.

While the Leinster faithful have to travel to Lyon to meet the competition’s perennial underachievers Clermont Auvergne, Munster’s Red Army is set to march on Dublin and take over Ballsbridge.

With everything that has happened in the province in recent times, it feels longer than three years since Munster last contested a European semi-final but for a side whose very being in the professional era is defined by its exploits in this great tournament, all within the province will feel they are back where they belong.

When the dust settles on Saturday’s 25-point victory, incredibly one more than the 47-23 win against the same opposition at this stage three years ago, there will be a recognition within the camp that there will need to be a significant step up in their performance for what looks a fascinating semi-final against reigning champions Saracens.

The only major setback for Munster on the day arrived before a ball was kicked with confirmation, an hour before kick off, that Conor Murray had failed to negotiate his early morning fitness test.

Toulouse too were hit on that front when they lost Scottish man mountain Richie Grey in the hours before the game.

In some respects, given the excellence of the performance delivered by Duncan Williams, the loss of Grey proved more significant in that, without their 6’10” totem, Toulouse failed to compete in the air on the vast majority of Munster’s lineouts. That is a fatal mistake against a side that puts so much stock on playing off that key phase.

Couple that with the fact that Peter O’Mahony picked up where he left off against England, athletically poaching Toulouse’s opening lineout throw to set the tone for the afternoon. The biggest weapon this massive Toulouse pack bring to proceedings is a punishing set piece.

When Munster made it clear from the outset that the French visitors would get no change out of their scrum, and forced their lineout into a constant state of panic, the writing was on the wall from an early stage.

Given the final margin of victory, it would be easy to overlook the fact that Munster appeared to lose their way somewhat after O’Mahony was forced off injured on 48 minutes, having produced a blistering start to the second half, with eight points in as many minutes.

Like Leinster earlier in the day, they took their foot off the gas for a period in that second half when Toulouse worked their way back into the contest, closing the gap to eight points. One has to ask why Jean-Marc Doussain reneged on a very kickable penalty during that phase to reduce the gap to five but, even during that period of ascendancy, Toulouse never played with the type of conviction needed if you entertain any hope of winning in Thomond Park.

It didn’t help the Munster cause when, following the loss of Murray and O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Keith Earls were also forced off. That would test any side but the fact that Munster worked their way back to completely dominate the closing 10-minute phase will stand to them.

That was testament to the work rate and intensity displayed by Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland, and Tyler Bleyendaal along with the increasing maturity brought to proceedings by the likes of Niall and Rory Scannell, John Ryan, Dave Kilcoyne, and Darren Sweetnam.

What separated Munster from Toulouse on the day was their ability to do the basics with such clinical efficiency.

The set-piece platform delivered and had their bigger and heavier opponents in trouble. The maul, as ever, proved that superior technique will conquer size all the time and Munster’s opening try from eventual man of the match Ryan after only five minutes was proof positive of that.

It helped that Toulouse were already down to 14 men at that stage, with No. 8 Francois Cros occupying the naughty boys chair having received a yellow card for a stupid late hit on Williams with only 1.48 on the clock.

To have any chance of winning in Limerick you have to carry the game to Munster in the opening quarter. That early card enabled the hosts to race into a 10-point lead in as many minutes. For a team with a solitary victory in their last six outings and only four wins in 14 away fixtures all season, even at that early stage, you felt they would not find a way back.

When they were vulnerable in that second half, Toulouse didn’t have it in them to make Munster really sweat. The fact that Munster regained control in the closing phase to finish with two tries will stand to them for what’s coming down the track.

To have delivered yet another European semi-final in a season when not a whole lot was expected is a huge testament to this ever-improving squad. They can now look forward to that contest at the Aviva Stadium in front of what is likely to be a massively partisan home support. Munster have been down this road before, huge underdogs against the best English rugby has to offer. You can read the script already.

Leinster set the standard for everyone to follow in the first of the weekend’s quarter-finals, defeating Aviva Premiership leaders Wasps with all the ease the 32-17 scoreline suggests. Having led by 22 points at the 49-minute mark, the only concern for Leo Cullen will be the fact that they allowed a disappointing Wasps side back into the contest when they managed to narrow the deficit to eight points.

Facilitated by some really poor play by Wasps, coupled with an appalling error at a crucial time when Springbok Willie le Roux dropped the ball in the in act of scoring a try without a Leinster player within 10 metres of him, the hosts owned the opening half, dominating every single facet of play.

Leinster were shorn two of their most experienced and decorated campaigners in Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, yet two of their best performers on the day were their respective understudies in Joey Carbery and Jack Conan. That strength in depth is exactly what’s required to prevail at this level.

Graham Henry singled out Carbery as a very interesting talent after his brief three-week consultancy stint with Leinster last August while Stuart Lancaster sees him as the perfect addition to a talented backline in the second receiver role.

That was seen to such great effect in the superb pass by Carbery that set up Isa Nacewa for Leinster’s key opening try, while he also had two touches in creating their second, scored by Conan, just two of several key moments contributed on the way to a man- of-the-match performance.

While Leinster delivered everything that was expected of them, in contrast, Wasps were really poor. All too often, they looked for the magical play behind the scrum without having any forward momentum. That facilitated the excellent defensive pressure that Leinster delivered in spades, with their Ireland midfield combination of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose putting in massive shifts on both sides of the ball.

With three weeks of uninterrupted preparation and two PRO12 outings ahead of them, Leinster will be even better by the time that Clermont semi-final comes around. They will travel in great shape and high expectations.

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