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Daunting semi-final against Leinster ahead as Munster look to take next step

Friday night at the Aviva Stadium should be an intriguing battle between the provinces.

JOHANN VAN GRAAN will be hoping his Munster players slept well last night after their seven-try win against Connacht because they only have four more of them before they take on the daunting task of attempting to topple Leinster.

For the third season in a row, these two provinces meet in the Guinness Pro14 semi-finals and, again, the contest takes place on Leinster soil.

While the absence of crowds statistically reduces the impact of home advantage, there is no doubting that Munster will be very much up against it on Friday night.

johnny-sexton Johnny Sexton's Leinster are favourites for Friday night. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The five-day turnaround is a factor after a weekend in which Leinster’s frontline players were all rested, having trained together on Friday as they plotted ahead for this semi-final clash with Munster.

While van Graan was able to get his key men off the pitch early in yesterday’s 49-12 win, all of them seemingly unscathed, he would have preferred to be in Leinster’s shoes. 

Reflecting back on this 2019/20 season, it’s hard not to pinpoint the 16-18 defeat to Edinburgh in Musgrave Park back in November as the moment Munster botched their chance of topping Conference B ahead of the Scots, which would have meant Munster facing Ulster this coming Saturday.

Either way, Munster would almost certainly have had to beat Leinster to win this Pro14 and now they must produce something special on Friday [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport, deferred coverage on TG4 at 9.45pm] to cause an upset against the defending champions, whose second-choice team made it 23 wins in-a-row by beating Ulster on Saturday.

“We’ve only got literally 60 minutes of training on Tuesday and we need our bodies to recover, so we’re only going to go with what we have and that’s the beauty of sport,” said van Graan yesterday.

“We’ve got a challenge ahead of us, they’ll be firm favourites, unbeaten in the Aviva Stadium, so all we can do is focus on ourselves and make sure we recover.”

Leinster’s cast of stars, pure efficiency levels, and intelligent decision-making mean they are the early eight-point favourites, but Munster will back themselves to cause Leo Cullen’s side problems.

The breakdown, where CJ Stander won four turnover penalties against Leinster two weekends ago and where Munster caused further havoc yesterday versus Connacht, will be a key battleground.

peter-omahony-is-tackled-by-ryan-baird Peter O'Mahony is among Munster's breakdown threats. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Munster came very physical, very aggressive at the rucks so we just have to make sure we deal with that threat,” said Cullen on Saturday.

“Munster have multiple poach threats with Tadhg Beirne, Stander, Peter O’Mahony. That’s a big part of their game and of their make-up, so we have to make sure we deal with them.”

Van Graan explained that Stander and co. have been working hard on their breakdown detail in recent months.

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“The way that the laws are applied currently, poachers will get rewarded,” said the Munster boss.

“We’ve got to find good balance though, we’ve burned some numbers in the breakdown as well, so the balance between a poach and having numbers on feet.

“But between CJ, Tadhg, Pete, Chris [Cloete], then Damian [de Allende] and Chris Farrell, we’ve got a good mix of poachers on the pitch.”

Munster will feel their lineout can disrupt Leinster too and doing so will be vital if the southern province are to limit the eastern province’s attacking flow. Cullen felt his team’s inaccuracy in this department two weekends ago was “the biggest factor” in allowing Munster access into the game.

Knock-out rugby heightens the importance of every single decision and every moment of poor discipline. The penalty count is something that van Graan feels Munster have shot themselves in the foot with in their various semi-final failings in recent seasons.

johann-van-graan Johann van Graan is hoping to lead Munster into their first final since 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“In the semi-final last season, we said after the game that our discipline wasn’t good enough and that was because of pressure that Leinster applied,” said the South African.

“You need to apply scoreboard pressure on them. In the semi-final two years ago, we were eight points behind with a few minutes left and we came within a point, so I think the important thing is we learn from the past two semi-finals and hopefully we can come and deliver a performance on Friday night.”

While Munster lost Springbok lock RG Snyman, as well as Ireland internationals Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn, during this two-week return to rugby, Leinster came through more positively with Dave Kearney the only one likely to be ruled out through injury on Friday.

Leinster even had Dan Leavy and James Ryan – “not a million miles away” – along for their warm-up on Saturday as their comebacks draw nearer.

It’s fairly straightforward business predicting the two starting XVs this week, although it will be interesting to see what Leinster do in their back three with Dave Kearney expected to miss out. 

Rob Kearney starting at fullback and Jordan Larmour shifting to the wing is one possibility, particularly with Leinster sure to face some aerial tests from Munster.

“It was good to get through the 80 minutes as well for Rob,” said Cullen after the Ulster game. “I thought a number of the backs did well so it’s nice and competitive and the players are putting it up to us as selectors, so we’ve tricky calls now ahead.

“It means a lot to the players, they all want to be involved in these big games coming up, so overall that’s probably the most pleasing piece of the last two weeks.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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