The enormity of the challenge facing Leinster and Munster in their respective Champions Cup quarter-finals this weekend is capably captured by the fact their opponents, Saracens and Toulon, have won the last five Heineken/Champions Cups between them, writes Donal Lenihan.
That’s some reward for the two Irish provinces finishing first and third seeds respectively at the conclusion of the pool stages of this season’s competition. At least both have home advantage which, in this tournament, counts for a lot.
At what stage does the law of diminishing returns apply to rugby? That thought crossed my mind as Munster powered their way to a seven-try, 48-3 demolition of Castres in round six last January.
A penalty try on 57 minutes, Munster’s third of the day, extended their lead to 27-3 which, given results elsewhere, was enough to secure a crucial home quarter-final against debutants La Rochelle.
Another Munster try would tack on a bonus point which, in all probability, meant hosting three-time European champions Toulon instead.
Did that prospect resonate at any stage in the Munster coaches box?
Given a choice, who would Munster prefer to play, La Rochelle on their maiden voyage in the top tier of European competition or a Toulon side with a proven pedigree and a squad packed with quality internationals?
At that point, are you so happy to have secured a home draw that the opposition becomes irrelevant?
In any event is it practical or even possible to get a message on to the leaders on the field that, on this occasion, we might be better off not scoring a fourth try?
Even if that discussion was taking place on the sideline, which I very much doubt, events on the pitch took over at a rapid pace when Simon Zebo registered a fourth Munster try within two minutes of their third. With the bonus point now in the bag, you might as well go for broke.
With the Six Nations championship on the horizon and the certainty that Munster wouldn’t be in a position to field their strongest side again until that European quarter-final, better for the team to finish on a high. A facile 45-point winning margin over a side sitting high in the Top 14 would certainly add to the feelgood factor for when the squad would meet French opposition again.
Despite the confidence that Ireland’s Grand Slam winning heroes brought with them on their return to training last Monday, that positive vibe from the huge win over Castres must feel like a long time ago.
Since then influential new signings Chris Farrell, outstanding on his Six Nations debut against Wales, and superb open side Chris Clute have been lost to injury.
Andrew Conway hasn’t played a game since injuring his knee in training with the national squad in the week following that round six win and Keith Earls has been cruelly struck down by another injury that forces him out of Saturday’s game.
With doubts also surrounding the availability of Simon Zebo due to a hamstring strain — the indications are that he will be fit to start — and the additional loss last weekend of Tommy O’Donnell, Rory Scannell’s head injury assessment could not have been more ill-timed. A great two months for Irish rugby has proved a bit more taxing for Munster.
At least Toulon, with only a handful of players involved with France during the Six Nations tournament, had issues of their own to deal with, not least the fallout from their shock defeat away to lowly Oyonnax.
So annoyed was multi-millionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal that he refused the squad permission to fly back to Toulon on the club jet along with placing members of the coaching staff on gardening leave.
When the paymaster general cracks the whip, there is bound to be a reaction.
That was duly delivered back at the Stade Felix Mayol last Sunday when they dismantled fellow Champions Cup quarter-finalists Clermont Auvergne 49-0 with a display of power, pace, and physicality that has put everyone on notice. Once this crowd have their heads in the right place, they can be devastating.
The strong overseas influence means that Toulon can’t be bracketed in the same space as the majority of French clubs, such as the once mighty Toulouse who succumbed with embarrassing ease in their 41-16 quarter-final defeat in Limerick last season.
Seasoned internationals such as All Black Ma’a Nonu, Argentina’s Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Springboks Duane Vermeulen, Bryan Habana, and JP Pietersen, England’s Chris Ashton and France’s two recent Six Nations captains in Guilhem Guirado and Mathieu Bastareaud will be more energised than intimidated at the prospect of playing at Thomond Park.
With Farrell, Taute, and Earls all hors de combat, the availability of Scannell to man the midfield with the ever-improving Sam Arnold is absolutely crucial given the options available to Toulon coach Fabien Galthie.
Just signed as a medical joker to supplement Nonu and Bastareaud in that critical area — another All Black in Malakai Fekitoa.
Zebo has cause to remember Fekitoa as he nearly decapitated him playing for New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in November 2016 when his yellow card should have been red. So circumstances decree that, despite the Thomond factor, Munster enter a home quarter-final as underdogs against their powerful, cash-rich French opponents. Sound familiar?
Munster have been down this road on so many occasions in the past, you dare not write them off. The reality, given the quality of opposition and the injury woes, is that a ninth home quarter-final win at the famous venue would represent Munster’s best ever at this juncture.
The big difference between Munster and Leinster at the moment is the reserve strength available to Leo Cullen and the fact he might choose to start Sunday’s quarter-final against Saracens without some players who contributed to Ireland’s Grand Slam heroics.
When the news broke late last week that Jordan Larmour would miss the game due to a leg injury, nobody batted an eyelid. Robbie Henshaw and Josh van der Flier were further injury casualties of that memorable campaign, but Cullen has so many more experienced alternatives available to him than Johann van Graan.
The vagaries of the draw not only has top seed Leinster hosting back-to-back champions Saracens in the tie of the weekend but the fact that five of England’s starting team from that St Patrick’s Day defeat offers the likes of Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje an opportunity for some individual redemption.
Both have had poor seasons by their standards, not helped by an enormous workload since the Lions tour compared to their Irish counterparts. Returning to the bosom of their club, with whom they have enjoyed so many memorable days of late, will only serve to reinvigorate them.
At their best, Saracens are a stronger, more balanced side — not least in the back row even if Billy Vunipola doesn’t make it back in time from injury — than England.
With so many Grand Slammers on board for Leinster, how does Cullen’s side compare with Ireland? To beat Saracens, Leinster will quickly have to find the composure and clinical edge that many of the same players deliver regularly under Joe Schmidt.
Yet there is a clear hunger within this Leinster squad as evidenced by the spectacular feat of emerging unbeaten from a massively challenging pool against current Top 14 leaders Montpellier, Aviva Premiership leaders Exeter Chiefs and runaway Pro 14 Conference A leaders Glasgow Warriors. They badly want their European crown back.
The fact Saracens beat Munster at the Aviva Stadium in last season’s Champions Cup semi-final will prove a help in coming to terms with the challenge of playing away but Leinster still hold all the aces in what promises to be a classic European encounter.
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