DONAL LENIHAN: If defence wins trophies, Munster are in a good place

It will be Sunday evening before we know for sure which two of the four sides left standing in this season’s Champions Cup got their preparations spot on for the semi-finals, but at this juncture it would be a surprise, notwithstanding they are playing in France, if Munster isn’t one of them.

Of the four semi-finalists, Munster were the only ones to emerge triumphant from their domestic league game last weekend, despite the fact they were performing 8,500 miles away from home and playing at 5,000 feet above sea level in Bloemfontein. 

Scarlets and Racing 92, both fielding understrength sides, were beaten by embarrassing margins, while Leinster suffered their first ever defeat in Dublin in 18 attempts against Italian opposition to an improving Benetton side.

The only thing we can say with certainty right now is that, for all four teams, last weekend’s results were consigned to history by Monday morning.

However, if Munster do progress to the Champions Cup decider in Bilbao in three weeks’ time, it will be difficult to dismiss the role that last-gasp stand against the Cheetahs, while also having to deal with the effects of altitude, played in getting there.

Munster arrived back into Dublin airport at midday last Sunday from a successful two-week trek around South Africa, knowing full well another airport lounge lies in wait at Shannon next Saturday morning. 

Yet, you wouldn’t find a dissenting voice within the group.

With the squad split between the demands of the Six Nations and the Guinness PRO14 in the build up to the Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulon, the fact that coach Johann van Graan had unfettered access over a concentrated period to work with the players will hopefully lead to even more unity of purpose, if that’s possible, in Bordeaux next Sunday.

It’s not so much the work that was done on the field, but the opportunity to spend so much time together, working hard on the training ground, enjoying each other’s company and doing the things all tourists do when in Cape Town, such as scaling Table Mountain,.

The two South African sides, Southern Kings and the Cheetahs, may have found the going tough at times this season, especially as they have had two seasons rolled into one, but beating both — especially the Cheetahs away from home — was a significant achievement.

The Cheetahs had only previously lost to Glasgow Warriors in Bloemfontein and they will be a serious proposition in the Guinness PRO14 next season. Munster had to really dig deep to win. 

If defences win trophies then Munster are in a good place entering the final weeks of the season.

The quality of their defensive effort at the Free State Stadium was the standout feature of the game, especially the feat in keeping the quality of the Cheetahs offloading game at bay during the 10 minute period in the opening half, when Simon Zebo was yellow carded for a professional foul.

The character of the side really shone through during that period, as it did in the last 10 minutes, when the effects of the altitude really hits home. The fact that Munster stood strong, controlled the tempo of the game and prevailed in the most challenging of circumstance puts them in a good place leading into the Champions Cup semi-final.

If the impact Conor Murray made off the bench against the Cheetahs was spectacular — he is a player totally at ease with the quality of his game at present — the big plus from Munster’s first ever visit to South Africa was the impressive form shown by some of the emerging players, in particular Calvin Nash, Alex Wootton, Dan Goggin, and Stephen Fitzgerald, against the Southern Kings. 

Nash scored a superb try on the stroke of half-time when Munster were feeling the pressure. He looks comfortable on the ball. 

Wootton has enjoyed a fantastic season, starting both Champions Cup wins over Leicester and the breathtaking quarter-final win over Toulon. He invariably beats the first man and is a very elusive runner.

Fitzgerald has suffered a lot of injuries since starring for the Ireland U20 side a few seasons ago, but made a big contribution off the bench against the Kings and, having bulked up a bit during his period on the sidelines, he looks more physically capable of handling the demands of the modern game.

At a time when Munster are exposed in the centre due to injuries to Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute, it was great to see Goggin look increasingly comfortable at this level, while the performance of Sam Arnold against an abrasive Cheetahs midfield was really eye-catching. 

Superb against Toulon, he refuses to take a backward step and is a strong, destructive defender. 

His developing partnership with Rory Scannell will be crucial in Bordeaux, but he appears to have the temperament for the big games. His attitude is superb and he never appears overawed by the quality of his opposition.

As for a line of form on Racing 92, one should ignore their 42-27 reversal to Toulouse on Sunday, when they made 12 changes from their strongest side. 

Their highly impressive 17-28 away quarter-final defeat of Clermont Auvergne is the game on which Munster will base their analysis. That and the pool matches between the sides over the last two seasons.

The most relevant of those contests was the 34-30 defeat at the U Arena in Paris last January, a game where the losing bonus point offered some consolation in the immediate aftermath of defeat, laced with the knowledge that they could well have won that contest. 

Munster need to take the learnings from that game, not least the pummeling they took in the opening quarter, to fashion a blueprint to win in Bordeaux.

Just like Racing, Leinster will have quickly parked that surprise defeat to Benetton last weekend as they prepare for a familiar foe in Scarlets. 

Everything in this semi-final points to a Leinster win, which leaves them slightly open to an ambush if they fail to get their preparation spot on.

Scarlets, under the next Welsh coaching duo in waiting, Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones, have taken pretty impressive scalps in this season’s Champions Cup, in Toulon and La Rochelle. Playing at the Aviva Stadium won’t faze them, either.

Yet, it’s difficult to look beyond Leinster. With only a handful of survivors from their last Heineken Cup triumph six years ago, it’s the new generation of stars in Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw that is driving this campaign, aligned with the experience, leadership and direction that Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa bring to bear on proceedings. 

At 35 years of age, Nacewa’s influence on the quarter-final win over back-to-back champions Saracens was incredible.

Leinster have the perfect mix in a side laced with hungry young talent, many of whom already have a Grand Slam to show for their efforts this season, along with a hardcore of experienced internationals, proven winners on the club and international circuit.

Twelve months ago this weekend, Munster and Leinster contested Champions Cup semi-finals at the Aviva Stadium and in the south of France only for both to come up short. This time out, I feel certain that there will be an Irish presence in the final, with the home draw offering Leinster a clear advantage.

Given the way Munster have performed recently — subject to the caveat that the travel commitments over the last few weeks haven’t taken too much out of them — I wouldn’t bet against them toppling another French giant in the same stadium that propelled them to a first ever final appearance, when they beat mighty Toulouse at the penultimate stage back in 2000. 

Time for history to repeat itself.


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