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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 14 December, 2018
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Prospect of an all-Irish Champions Cup final thrilling for Munster and Leinster fans

The semi-finals in Dublin and Bordeaux next weekend promise to excite.

THERE ARE SIMILARITIES between Leinster and the Scarlets that should make next Saturday’s Champions Cup semi-final in Dublin an enthralling affair.

Both sides are keen to keep the ball alive, both constantly strive to keep width in their attack in order to stretch the defence across the pitch, both possess sharp attacking kicking games, and both have a degree of confidence that this is their European season.

Dan Leavy celebrates his try with Fergus McFadden Leinster have won all seven of their European games this season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

This day week, it will be Munster’s turn to have a crack at reaching the Champions Cup final, the southern province having failed to reach a decider since winning their 2008 title.

Standing in the way is a Racing 92 side that has been in fine form in recent months, counting wins over Toulon, Clermont, La Rochelle, Castres, Leicester and – of course – Munster in their results list since the New Year.

It’s a well-sized if, but if the Irish provinces can win then Irish rugby fans will get the dream final in Bilbao on 12 May.

The Munster-Leinster rivalry has somewhat declined in recent years, but nothing would better bring it roaring back into the public consciousness than a Champions Cup final between two teams desperate to return to the peak of the European game.

While the prospect of that final is a thrilling one, there is much hard work ahead before we can consider that match-up.

Leinster are the justifiable favourites for this Champions Cup title, having impressively dispatched back-to-back winners Saracens in the quarter-finals after winning all six of their pool games.

Their development under Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen over the past two seasons has been a joy to watch, with their rugby now approaching a complete level. Leinster can kick accurately, out-maul and out-scrum opposition packs, make hard yards in close and tear teams apart out wide with their passing and offloading game.

Johnny Sexton is a key influence, of course, but it was notable against Saracens how he was not at first receiver for some of the most important attacking passages.

James Lowe celebrates as Garry Ringrose scores a try Garry Ringrose scores against Saracens. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The build-up to James Lowe’s try was a prime example. James Ryan made important yards in a strong carry, before back row Jordi Murpy came storming around the corner and sent Sexton through for a linebreak with a slick draw and pass back inside.

“There’s a lot of pressure put on the forwards to be able to make decisions on the move and being able to chuck that pass,” explains Joey Carbery, who started at out-half in yesterday’s Pro14 clash with Benetton.

“That comes down to us playing a lot of unstructured stuff in training, so getting comfortable with being uncomfortable helps.”

It’s something Scarlets are also good at, with forwards like Tadhg Beirne, John Barclay and front rows Rob Evans and Ken Owens all being extremely comfortable at passing and offloading.

Another area where Leinster and Scarlets are both strong is their ability to run good support lines, often after passing to team-mates running into space.

Leinster have had plenty of good examples of this, including Garry Ringrose’s support play for his try against Saracens, when Lowe set him free to score.

“Rather than setting up waiting for the player outside you to be tackled, it’s about anticipating that he will break the tackle because then you can be there,” says Carbery.

“That’s a big one because you can always get back for the next phase, regardless, because there’s going to be a three or four-second ruck.

“Rather than expecting him to be tackled, anticipate that they will make the break or get around the defender. Stuart has driven that.”

Leigh Halfpenny celebrates with Scott Williams and Scott's son Seb Scarlets will have no fear coming to Dublin. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Of course, the set-piece exchange will be important on Saturday too.

Leinster may look at the Scarlets’ defensive maul as a possible weakness, with Beirne having been extremely lucky not to be sent to the sin bin in their quarter-final win against La Rochelle for collapsing at least two mauls close to the Welsh region’s tryline.

Wayne Pivac’s side have been written off before only to cause shocks but the fact that Leinster suffered at their hands in last season’s Guinness Pro14 semi-finals should ensure they nail their preparation and mindset this week.

If the eastern province can reach the final as expected, they will have the luxury of watching their opponents in Sunday’s second semi-final.

Munster have beaten Racing already this season and only narrowly lost on a 34-30 scoreline when they travelled to Paris, so there isn’t too much to fear ahead of this clash in Bordeaux.

Conor Murray remains their most important player and plenty will ride on his shoulders but this Munster pack has been working its way through the European campaign in somewhat underrated fashion.

Led by the hard-working Peter O’Mahony, the Munster pack isn’t stuffed with big names, aside from O’Mahony and CJ Stander, but they are technically savvy, fit and consistent. Players like Billy Holland, Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn are rarely out-worked.

Racing do have some impressive forward firepower of their own in the shape of the sensational Leone Nakarawa, undoubtedly one of the best players in the sport.

Peter O'Mahony celebrates after the game Peter O'Mahony's pack have been excellent this season. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The manner of their quarter-final win over Clermont, when they showed composure away from home, was impressive and they always looked like the best-equipped of the Top 14 sides to challenge for European glory this season.

With home country advantage, their favouritism does seem justified and though Munster have belief, the big question is whether they can produce their incredible ability to eke out a win in difficult circumstances away from Thomond Park.

Encouragingly, the midfield pairing of Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold were superb against Toulon in defence, while a back three including Simon Zebo and Andrew Conway will always be a threat.

 

The key for Munster, perhaps, is delivering a more complete attacking team performance against Racing, having shown glimpses of their improving quality in this area over the course of the season.

The inability to truly stretch Saracens in last season’s semi-final defeat was the glaring weakness for Munster, so it will be intriguing to see if they have come very far in that department in the last year.

Taking Munster into a Champions Cup final, potentially against Leinster, would be a huge achievement for Johann van Graan in his first season.

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Murray Kinsella

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