Whether you have been waiting for a trophy for seven years or seven days, hunger is never the differential when it comes to meetings between Leinster and Munster.
Peter O’Mahony is certainly not expecting any hangover from his Champions Cup- winning opponents in blue when he leads the southern province into this afternoon’s Guinness PRO14 semi-final at a sold-out RDS Arena.
Munster may have watched their rivals conquer Europe four times since last lifting the Heineken Cup in 2008, as well as claim the league title twice after Paul O’Connell raised the Magners League trophy in 2011, but they know better than to assume Leinster will be satisfied with just one trophy this season when a second is flashing its eyelids in their direction.
Leo Cullen’s side took receipt of the Champions Cup last Saturday in Bilbao, thanks to that 15-12 win over Racing 92 and the incentive to secure a first double is the next priority, particularly given the head coach was captain when Leinster failed to add the PRO12 title after their Heineken Cup wins in 2011 and 2012. O’Mahony was, therefore, quick to dismiss any notion his players are about to stumble into a team drunk with glory.
“You’re dealing with the ultimate professionals on both sides,” said the Munster skipper. “They have guys who are leading the way, as do we. You’re going to get the best of Leinster at the weekend and they’ll show that’s their standard. It’s a semi-final for them, at the end of the day. They’ll be ready to go, whatever it takes.”
Whatever it takes. Munster have plenty of unfinished business themselves, as they head into this contest. They enter the RDS this afternoon having lost two league finals in the last three seasons and consecutive European semi-finals, the absence of silverware compounded by those near misses.
Having failed to take their chances in those key games, they are a side in need of a breakthrough and this game provides such an opportunity, though the often majestic form of Leinster this season and the dogged way they eked victory from a tense European final last week suggests it will be an uphill struggle for the visitors today.
There will be positives aplenty for Munster to point to, not least an extra week’s rest and the fact that Leinster last season were the first team to lose a league play-off game at home when they went down to eventual champions Scarlets at the RDS. For that matter, their last home game in the penultimate round of this season’s regular league campaign also ended in defeat, to Benetton Treviso.
Even so, Munster’s home and away PRO14 defeats to Leinster this season do not bode well, particularly the 34-24 reverse at Thomond Park on December 26, when a full-strength home side went down to a below-strength visiting outfit in a game highlighted by a wonder solo try from 20-year-old starlet Jordan Larmour.
Cullen has again mixed things up in terms of selection post-Bilbao and he will be delighted with the way his team did the same at San Mamés Stadium against a Racing side determined to stop them playing expansive rugby.
It was a performance that caught the eye of Munster centre Rory Scannell, who said: “They showed they can adapt. They probably prefer a more running game than they played at the weekend, but that was more down to Racing slowing the tempo of the game down and a few lads going down injured, slowing down at the set-piece, I don’t think that would have been Leinster’s choice going into the game.
“They showed they can adapt and, when they need to get into an arm wrestle, they are able to do that, take their three points when they come, as well, which got them over the line at the weekend.”
If Leinster were impressive for their flexibility to play a game suited to the terms dictated by the opposition, Munster have this week made no secret of their admiration for the way Racing set out their stall to stymie those expansive instincts.
The question is whether Johann van Graan’s side have what it takes to keep their opponents as shackled as the French club managed.
“So, your set-piece needs to work,” said the Munster head coach. “You need to apply pressure and I thought both teams did that pretty well over the weekend. In games like that, the fact that there hasn’t been any tries means there was a lot of pressure, a lot of penalty goals, one or two missed as well.
“So, your set-piece needs to function. Your decision-making, especially between the two 10-metre lines, I think that’s where they cause a lot of havoc to teams. They’re pretty good, defensively; when they concede momentum, they fan out and put 13 guys in the frontline, so you have to make sure that you don’t fall into their trap, of their defence.”
Van Graan’s praise for Leinster included a namecheck of the stars who got the job done in Bilbao: Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Dan Leavy, Isa Nacewa and Scott Fardy. Yet, only Nacewa starts, captaining his side for the final time at the RDS. Yet, his conclusion that “there’s no apparent weaknesses” remains credible.
In Ross Byrne they have a fly-half who ran the show in Sexton’s absence against Munster in Limerick on St Stephen’s Day, while an all-Ireland Test back-row of Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan will still give O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue and CJ Stander the toughest of examinations, as Leavy watches from the stands and Fardy warms the bench.
If Munster can win the breakdown battle, which they failed to do against Racing in the opening 30 minutes of their losing Champions Cup semi-final last month, they will have achieved part of their objective.
What is clear for Munster, however, is that van Graan needs to send out his side with the intent not only to stop Leinster playing, but also make better use of the possession they enjoy. There have been only glimpses of attacking intent in recent weeks and Munster owe it to an exciting back three of Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and the soon-to-depart Simon Zebo to get ball in their hands.
If they do not and Leinster manage to break out of the straitjacket Racing wrapped around them last week, then Munster could be in for a very difficult afternoon. Whether it is Garry Ringrose and Larmour, denied the opportunity to showcase their talents as starters, unused sub Joey Carbery or left-at-home James Lowe, there is a lot of pent-up frustration in this Leinster backline in need of a release and Munster will have to be at their best to keep a lid on the simmering pot or their season really will be cooked.
LEINSTER: J Carbery; J Larmour, G Ringrose, I Nacewa - captain, J Lowe; R Byrne, L McGrath; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Conan.
Replacements: J Tracy, C Healy, A Porter, S Fardy, M Deegan, N McCarthy, R O’Loughlin, B Daly
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Cronin, R Marshall, J Ryan; J Kleyn, B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, J O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.
Replacements: N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, C Parker, G Grobler, R Copeland, D Williams, I Keatley, D Sweetnam
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa).
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