This time 12 months ago, Munster and Leinster felt bulletproof as they approached their respective Champions Cup semi-final deciders against Racing 92 and Scarlets, with both squads densely fortified with players from Ireland’s all-conquering Grand Slam team.
Despite the fact that Munster were on the road, in Bordeaux, against a Racing side that displayed both resilience and class to beat Clermont Auvergne away at the Stade Marcel-Michelin in their quarter-final, many fancied Johann van Graan’s chances of leading his new charges to a first European Cup final in a decade, just six months into his tenure.
Leinster had dethroned the reigning champions and tournament favourites Saracens at the quarter-final stage and the prospect of an All-Ireland showdown in Bilbao was anticipated by everyone, except perhaps the tournament organisers given the chaos that would ensue in trying to find sufficient planes to charter at the outset of the holiday season to cater for an Irish invasion into northern Spain.
Munster were so far off the pace in the opening half against Racing at the Stade Chaban-Delmas that the prospect of a showdown against Leinster, just like those potential Munster based charters, never got off the ground.
The one concern entering that contest against Racing was the fact that Munster had just returned from a demanding two-game, Guinness PRO14, schedule that had them traipsing around South Africa, oscillating between Cape Town, George, Bloemfontein, and Johannesburg, in the fortnight leading up to that decider.
Munster won both games against the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs, offering Van Graan an extended period of time to get to know all of his new charges, off the field as well as on it. But it only served to mask the effect the extended homeward journey from Bloemfontein, via Johannesburg, Dubai, and Dublin — only five days before having to board another flight to the south of France — had on the team.
Munster were listless in the opening 30 minutes against Racing and the Parisians capitalised on the rare vulnerability in Munster’s defensive mindset. By the time they found their second wind, the contest was over. The one thing we know with certainty is that Munster will be fresher and sharper going into next Saturday’s encounter in Coventry’s Ricoh Arena than they were at the same stage last season.
They will have to be, given that Saracens too are a far meatier opponent than the team Leinster disposed of at the Aviva Stadium last season. By that stage, with so many of their forwards running on empty after the unrelenting demands placed on their front five by both England and the Lions tour to New Zealand the previous summer, Mark McCall’s men were vulnerable.
Despite the fact that both clubs contributed five players each to that Lions tour, the contrast in the minutes played due to Ireland’s superior player management programme meant that Leo Cullen’s main men were in prime shape to deliver, and deliver they did.
Despite sitting comfortably in second place in the Gallagher Premiership, last Saturday’s defeat to Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears was Saracens’ fifth consecutive away defeat in the league, something they hadn’t experienced in 10 years.
Will that losing streak prey on their minds in what, in theory at least, is a home match in Coventry?
Unlikely, even if the game will appear like a home fixture for Munster given that they are guaranteed far more support at the Ricoh than their hosts.
McCall only started about four of his first-choice team in that last- minute defeat to Bristol, with the Munster game in mind.
While all their big hitters in the form of Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell, and Liam Williams are sure to return for Saturday’s encounter, the injury-enforced absence of powerhouse loose-head prop Maka Vunipola will hurt their cause.
Speaking of hurt, the pained image of captain Peter O’Mahony being interviewed in Bordeaux after Munster had suffered a sixth defeat at the penultimate stage of Europe’s premier competition, since last winning it in Cardiff in 2008, was there for all to see. It wasn’t so much that the harsh lessons of defeat over the previous decade hadn’t been absorbed, it was more the realisation that, reaching the last four was about as far as that Munster squad was capable of travelling.
The addition of Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery, Alby Mathewson, Arno Botha, and Mike Haley has served to add more class and depth in key areas this season. The question remains as to whether they are sufficient to breach the semi-final glass ceiling that has stifled Munster’s efforts towards revisiting former glories.
Always great to welcome unexpected guests to training! (Until they start chewing on your @Adidas boots 😄)— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) April 15, 2019
Preparations have begun for Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final! 🐶🐶🐶#SARvMUN #RedArmyRising pic.twitter.com/U4Ttux7oG7
To do that, the limitations in Munster’s attacking game that have proved so costly at this stage in the past must be overcome to have any chance of advancing. The absence of Carbery doesn’t help in that respect, even if his replacement Tyler Bleyendaal is in top form at present.
O’Mahony articulated earlier in the week that Munster “had a few more strings to their bow with regard to our attack” this season.
Munster have made decent strides since that defeat to Racing 92 but the doubts remain as to whether they possess the all-round game to punish Saracens when those rare opportunities present themselves. Next Saturday’s game will tell us a lot.
Leinster go into Sunday’s intriguing contest against a rejuvenated Toulouse with a cloud over their current form and a slight dilution in the indomitable cloak that enveloped them throughout last season’s successful Champions Cup campaign.
Without a win in their last three outings, and with very limited collective game time for their first-choice side, Leinster will have to hit the ground running from the outset in order to keep Toulouse in check. The last thing Leinster need is to allow them grow into the game.
Despite a disappointing defeat to Glasgow Warriors last Saturday, there were a number of positives for Cullen, not least the fact that Sean O’Brien made a serious impact, Devin Toner played the entire match and Robbie Henshaw bagging 60 minutes of action which puts both firmly in the frame to start next Sunday. Cullen also expects that Johnny Sexton will be available to start.
The challenge for Cullen and Stuart Lancaster is striking a balance in selection by not including too many players short on recent game time, as Ireland found out in their opening Six Nations defeat against England, when some of their recently injured players looked distinctly under-cooked.
Toulouse are at the strongest for some time and have a great mix of homegrown French talent, supplemented by an impressive array of seasoned imports including All Black World Cup winners Jerome Kaino and Charlie Faumuina, Samoan and Scottish second row giants Joe Tekori and Richie Gray, along with Springbok try-scoring sensation Cheslin Kolbe.
Tikori should count himself extremely lucky to still be available for selection after receiving a yellow card from referee Romain Poite for a horrific shoulder-to- head tackle that necessitated Clermont Auvergne hooker Yohan Beheregaray being stretchered off in a neck brace in a Top 14 classic last Sunday.
I can’t believe Tikori hasn’t been cited, which only serves to compound the inconsistency surrounding the punishment for such dangerous tackles. It marred what was a fantastic game, with Toulouse boosted further going into next weekend’s game by beating the current league leaders 47-44. Toulouse are back. Leinster have been warned.