There will be a strange dynamic surrounding Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final between Leinster and Munster at the RDS. It’s been a difficult ten days for both Irish provinces but for different reasons.
Leinster were correctly ranked as one of the best two sides in Europe this season - and still are - but the gap between them and newly crowned champions Saracens is a bit wider than most appreciated before last Saturday’s decider in a wonderfully atmospheric St. James’ Park.
Saracens played within themselves when beating Munster in the Champions Cup semi-final at the Ricoh Arena. They knew they would have to up their level of performance to beat Leinster, even more so when the holders started with such composure and authority in building up a ten point lead just before the break.
Leo Cullen may die wondering what might have transpired had Luke McGrath kicked to touch, to kill an opening half of breathtaking intensity leading 10-3 rather than box kicking and conceding a penalty that ultimately enabled Saracens draw level and gain the psychological upper-hand.
Such was Saracens level of dominance after the break that, I suspect, they would have found a way to win the game anyway. In a sport where size and power has become king, Leinster, despite starting with 14 internationals and a Maori All Black, finished a clear second in that department.
Scanning the programme before kick-off, the bulk of the Saracens front five was worrying from a Leinster perspective. Mako Vunipola (19st), Jamie George (17st), Titi Lamositele (20st 6lbs), Will Skelton (18st 11lbs), George Kruis (18st 5lbs).
Bear in mind Wallaby second row Skelton has shed nearly three stones under the direction of former Ulster, Ireland and Lions strength and conditioning coach Philip Morrow who controls the Saracens training regime.
Wallaby coach Michael Cheika will have been watching his former Leinster charges from afar last Saturday but the performance of Skelton must have caught his eye with a view to the World Cup. He was outstanding.
Supplementing that gargantuan front five, an explosive back row with Maro Itoje a relative lightweight at 17st 4lbs and Mako’s brother Billy who can play as effectively as he did at No 8 - he was practically unstoppable - despite weighing in at 20st 2lbs.
Dealing with that level of power and physicality just wears you down. There are many a French club pack out there - think Montpellier, La Rochelle and Toulouse - that could match Saracens on the weighing scales but without having anything like the dynamism the English side carry. They use their bulk to far greater effect than their French counterparts who are lazy by comparison.
Saturday’s contest was a rude awakening for Leinster. One of the key differences on the day was a vastly superior bench that slotted in seamlessly when introduced. When Saracens lost both starting props at the same time, only 30 minutes into the game, you felt that Leinster might profit.
It made no difference however, as Springbok tight head Vincent Koch and Richard Barrington picked up the baton without any deterioration in the power of their scrum. Leinster’s bench appeared lightweight by comparison. The loss to injury of Dan Leavy and Josh Van Der Flier didn’t help while the departure of key players in Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery last June further diluted their options while Jack McGrath is also set to relocate to Belfast next season.
The impact made by the Saracens bench will only serve to finally convince Leo Cullen and the Leinster professional game board that the directives from the IRFU in strengthening the options for the national management by relocating Leinster international squad players to other Irish provinces is having a detrimental effect on their ability to compete at the very top level of the European game.
It will be interesting to observe what direction that particular discussion takes in the future. As a consequence of the number of Leinster academy graduates populating the other Irish provinces, it was only a matter of time before Cullen decided to fire a few shots of his own. If I was sitting in his seat, I’d do the exact same.
Sick to the teeth of seeing talent that Leinster nurtured, fly the nest to another Irish province, Cullen decided to go on the offensive and give one of his closest rivals a taste of their own medicine.
Craig Casey was recently upgraded from a Munster Academy contract to a Development one, despite only completing a year in that programme. Having watched him perform superbly at scrum half throughout Ireland’s Grand Slam winning U20 Six Nations campaign, Cullen decided to put out a feeler. When a club like Leinster come calling, you just never know. Cullen liked what he saw with the Irish U20s and, having lost one of his up and coming No 9s in Nick McCarty to Munster next season, decided to reverse the trend and chase someone from another provincial academy set-up.
Having met him briefly at the recent Munster Awards dinner in Limerick, it’s clear Casey is dyed-in-the-wool Munster. He was never going to leave. He is the big winner, however, who, as a consequence of Cullen’s interest, finds himself elevated to the senior squad a bit quicker than anticipated. If anything, this promotion should help to accelerate the development of a young man who appears to have all the right ingredients to make it.
Holding onto Casey and extending Tadhg Beirne’s contract to June 2020 is about the only bit of good news emanating from Munster recently. Confirmation that Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery are not prepared to accept new contracts, apparently on increased money, to remain on the Munster coaching ticket is disturbing. The timing of this announcement couldn’t be worse and has left the province with a massive hole to fill just six weeks out from pre-season training.
Whereas only a month ago Johann van Graan confirmed he wanted to augment the existing coaching set-up with the addition of a new attack coach, he now finds himself looking for three new coaches at a time when most of the leading contenders have already committed themselves to positions elsewhere.
Take Ronan O’Gara for example. It’s clear he hasn’t been sitting on his hands, wondering what’s going to happen when his two-year deal with the Crusaders finishes in July. He was only going to stay in New Zealand for two years, having hoovered up as much experience as he could while, at the same time, adding value to a very strong Crusaders coaching group.
These moves are planned out well in advance and not left to the last minute. Quite how Munster allowed this current situation to develop is worrying, as these contractual issues should be tied down by February at the latest in the knowledge that, should someone decide to move on, as Flannery and Jones have decided to do, you have a minimum of four months to fill the void.
There is obviously more to this than meets the eye. Flannery and Jones may well have been offered an improved contract, but if their job description and areas of responsibility changed, then that didn’t sit well with either.
The optics for Munster aren’t great, but they remain a very attractive proposition for any potential coach, given their consistency in continuously making it to the business end of both domestic and European competitions.
Whatever happens in Dublin on Saturday, this Munster squad isn’t that far off making the final step up. That is why it is now absolutely crucial that the professional game board, working in tandem with van Graan, get the decisions on who will fill those vacant managerial slots spot on.