AFTER the high of the Aviva Stadium, the low of the Aviva Stadium. Two weeks can be an eternity in sport. On a day when 100 minutes of captivating action was topped off with the drama of a penalty shootout, Munster fans spilled out onto the leafy suburbia of Lansdowne Road after the Champions Cup quarter final pumped to the gills with a mixture of pride and connection to where they come from.
Fast forward to last Saturday and with eleven of the Munster side that started against Toulouse pitted against a mix of Leinster’s second and, in some positions, third choice players, a clear pathway towards a home URC quarter and potential semi-final was a tangible expectation for the Munster faithful returning to Dublin 4. After all, not a single starter from Leinster’s convincing defeat of Toulouse in their Champions Cup semi final was pressed into action in this one.
Driven by a long wait to end the trophy famine, not to mention the financial imperative of hosting two knockout games at Thomond Park for a province where increasing losses are becoming unsustainable, a win on Saturday was a must.
Irish rugby is in a good place at the moment. Nothing highlights this more than the fact, on three successive Saturdays, a combined audience of over 115,000 people turned up to watch Munster and Leinster in European and domestic action. To put that in context, New Zealand will attract nowhere near that over the course of the upcoming three test series against Ireland in Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington.
In terms of outcome, Munster ended up with the least worst option in defeat for their quarter-final clash, a four hour trip up the road to Belfast. It could have been so much worse. To think their reward for a try in the closing stages could have been a long trek to the high veldt in Pretoria to face the Blue Bulls. That would have been a complete disaster.
A clash with Ulster looks a far more palatable outcome, especially with Munster having won at the Kingspan Stadium only a few weeks ago. While there’ll be major soul-searching going on in the Munster camp this week, Ulster too have reason to take a deep look at themselves, despite securing that home quarter final on the back of a win over the Sharks on Friday night.
Dan McFarland’s men continually manage to look both impressive and vulnerable over the course of the same game. After fluffing their lines in the closing stages on successive weekends of European action against Toulouse, to concede 14 points to the Sharks between the 75th and 79th minute to reduce their lead to three points, will hardly fill an already brittle squad with confidence for the knockout phase.
In any event it all seems a little academic. With a path already secured to play the entire knockout phase at home, be it at the RDS or the Aviva Stadium, Leinster will have to experience a major European hangover not to capture a fifth domestic title in a row. At the moment, the biggest challengers for their crown comes courtesy of their seconds in training during the week.
Last Saturday’s game was always likely to prove challenging for Munster, given the make up of the two teams and the fact that Leinster had nothing to lose. Despite the presence of so many of their starting team, Munster continue to struggle when both Peter O'Mahony and Tadhg Berne are missing at the same time.
In effect Leinster had a free shot. The recent trip to South Africa has served to bond the younger cohort of Leinster players even tighter. The manner with which they negotiated two very tough encounters against the Sharks and Stormers, both of whom finished higher up the URC league table than Munster, has lifted their confidence levels even further.
All those players were already guaranteed a place on the Leinster charter to Marseille this weekend as part of the wider squad. They knew that a win over Munster on Saturday night would mean they could board that plane with a sense of entitlement. The manner in which they delivered a four-try, bonus point win by a margin of 10 points, will have further fed the feel good factor within the entire organisation this week.
Meanwhile down south, the heartbreak of the Toulouse defeat has turned into a mix of embarrassment and humiliation after what transpired in this latest loss to Leinster. Right now Munster appear spooked by the very sight of the Leinster jersey.
How else do you explain the total collapse after the penalty try and accompanying yellow card for Niall Scannell on 50 minutes. Munster were leading 18-22 prior to that incident but, within four minutes, they trailed 32-22 and appeared dead and buried.
For a team with far more experience on board and sufficient time left to rescue the game, their inability to find a way back into the contest was deflating. The strange thing is that Munster played some really positive rugby in the opening half, with further evidence of their ability to play to the wide channels and with exciting passages of excellent continuity, fashioned by the handling skills of Thomas Ahern, Alex Kendellen and Jack O'Donoghue up front, all of whom looked really comfortable in possession.
Looking at the two sides in action, Leinster, despite resting up to 20 front line players, were far superior in terms of structure and in the understanding of their individual and collective roles. That is a triumph of coaching. Sadly, despite entering the closing phase of a long season, Munster are nowhere near as fluent.
No wonder Leo Cullen looked so energised in his post match interview. His charges have reached the spot he has planned for so assiduously all season as they continue on a journey of redemption in Marseille, driven by the pain of successive defeats since last winning the trophy in Bilbao in 2018.
Sharpest in their minds is the loss to La Rochelle last season. Leinster have been on a mission of atonement all season, the culmination of which comes at the Stade Velodrome on Saturday. They disposed of the challenge presented by Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers and French champions Toulouse with insouciant ease over the last two rounds, with both contests more or less in the bag by half time.
That is unlikely to happen this time out. Ronan O'Gara has managed to instill a strong spine and impressive resilience in his squad. They didn’t play well in their Champions Cup semi final against Racing 92 but, over the years, this tournament is packed with some really tense and turgid games when French Top 14 opponents clash.
Understandably, Leinster are clear favorites for a fifth Heineken Champions Cup but I expect La Rochelle to come with something different to challenge the champions in wait. O'Gara knows that the power game alone won’t be sufficient. His side will have to score tries to beat Leinster.
For me, selection will shape the outcome. Will Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe be fit to start for Leinster? Will World Cup-winning All Blacks Victor Vito and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, along with Wallaby destroyer Will Skelton, all be fit to play some role for La Rochelle after their injury scares? Friday’s team announcements will tell us a lot.
What we know with certainty is that Leinster’s starting side will be stronger in a number of key area to the side that lost last year’s semi final. O'Gara and his coaching team, which includes another passionate Munster man in Donnacha Ryan, have a lot of work to do to succeed where their Munster counterparts have continuously failed in attempting to stop this Leinster juggernaut.