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Why not Munster? Van Graan's men out to upset the odds against Leinster

Leo Cullen’s side are the firm favourites as they look to secure a spot in the Pro14 final.
Sep 4th 2020, 12:00 PM 26,074 33

WHY NOT US?

That’s the question Munster assistant coach Graham Rowntree posed this week as he looked ahead to tonight’s Guinness Pro14 semi-final against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport and eir Sport Facebook page, deferred coverage on TG4 at 9.45pm].

Why not Munster? Well for starters, they’ve lost to Leinster at this stage of the Pro14 in the last two seasons. The southern province have only won two of the last 12 fixtures between the sides, and were second best just a fortnight ago.

garry-ringrose-is-tackled-by-conor-murray Conor Murray tackles Garry Ringrose. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Johann van Graan’s side are missing key men like RG Snyman, Dave Kilcoyne, Jean Kleyn, and Joey Carbery, and they’re coming off the back of just a five-day turnaround after last weekend’s win over Connacht.

The vast majority of Leinster’s team for tonight had their feet up last weekend as their second-string side stretched the province’s winning run to 23 games in all competitions, a streak that extends back into last season.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have recalled a host of Ireland internationals for tonight, including captain Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, Cian Healy, Caelan Doris, and Jack Conan – so they’re in very good nick on paper.

Leinster have been a truly efficient force for the entire 2019/20 season, with their ability to defend ferociously matched by an adaptable attack that can grind teams down, tear them apart in a flash, or manipulate them with a clever attacking kicking game.

Why not Munster? There are several more reasons we could touch on here but it’s clear exactly why Leinster are the eight-point favourites to advance into the Pro14 final to defend their crown against Edinburgh or Ulster next weekend.

And yet…

Munster severely disrupted the Leinster lineout two weekends ago, ensuring that Leo Cullen has picked 34-year-old Devin Toner in an attempt to shore up that area of possible weakness. Ryan Baird’s athleticism will be deployed off the bench as a result.

CJ Stander won four breakdown turnovers last time out in a breakdown onslaught that has ensured Leinster have spent plenty this week talking about winning the race to the tackled player to prevent anything similar. Munster have since welcomed jackal specialist Tadhg Beirne back from injury, while Peter O’Mahony, Damian de Allende, Chris Farrell, and a few others in this team are capable of making steals.

Conor Murray’s superb box-kicking caused Leinster problems last time out too, with Munster regaining four of them as Andrew Conway and Keith Earls chased aggressively and accurately.

johnny-sexton-is-tackled-by-tommy-odonnell-and-billy-holland Johnny Sexton captains Leinster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster matched Leinster’s three tries on that occasion and even though two of them came with the eastern province down to 14 players after Toner’s sin-binning, there were signs of an improved attack as Stephen Larkham’s influence behind the scenes seemed a little more obvious.

Those are the kind of things that van Graan and co. will have been focusing on.

Leinster completely deserve their favouritism and it wouldn’t be any surprise to see them delivering a much-improved performance to what they offered a fortnight ago, but there is certainly plenty of intrigue in this latest edition of the rivalry.

On the selection front, van Graan has opted for Billy Holland’s lineout nous ahead of Fineen Wycherley’s greater dynamism in the second row, while Jack O’Donoghue returns to the back row to add even more lineout and mauling strengths alongside his mobility.

Tighthead prop Stephen Archer rotates back into the starting XV, but Munster otherwise have a settled side. On paper, Leinster’s front five looks the more powerful, but Munster’s backline has huge quality as van Graan gives them a third consecutive game together.

As for Leinster, Cullen and Lancaster have made bold calls in backing 24-year-old pair Hugo Keenan and Will Connors to start ahead of players with greater reputations and more extensive CVs. Their form over the course of the 2019/20 has been rewarded.

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Despite his struggles under Murray’s box kicks two weekends ago, Jordan Larmour continues at fullback, with Leinster avoiding the temptation to bring Rob Kearney in.

As ever in knock-out rugby, the man in the middle – Andrew Brace – will be an important figure as both sides look to get on the right side of the big decisions. Speaking yesterday, Cullen voiced his concerns over whether Munster have consistently been  on their feet when making breakdown turnovers. Adapting swiftly will be everything.

leinsters-jordan-larmour-and-munsters-keith-earls Munster caused problems in the air two weekends ago. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster came out on the wrong end of 17-9 penalty count two weekends ago, but Munster have had the poorer discipline in this semi-final fixture for the past two seasons, something van Graan alluded to at the start of the week.

It would be a shock to see Leinster beaten, of course, but the hope is that this contest comes down to the bounce of the ball, the drop of a goal, or a last-gasp try in the corner.

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Hugo Keenan
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Ronan Kelleher
3. Andrew Porter
4. Devin Toner
5. Scott Fardy
6. Caelan Doris
7. Will Connors
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Ed Byrne
18. Michael Bent
19. Ryan Baird
20. Josh van der Flier
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ross Byrne
23. Rory O’Loughlin

Munster

15. Shane Daly
14. Andrew Conway
13. Chris Farrell
12. Damian de Allende
11. Keith Earls
10. JJ Hanrahan
9. Conor Murray

1. Jeremy Loughman
2. Niall Scannell
3. Stephen Archer
4. Tadhg Beirne
5. Billy Holland
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Jack O’Donoghue
8. CJ Stander 

Replacements:

16. Kevin O’Byrne
17. James Cronin
18. John Ryan
19. Fineen Wycherley
20. Chris Cloete
21. Craig Casey
22. Rory Scannell
23. Mike Haley

Referee: Andrew Brace.

- Originally published at 01.00

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Murray Kinsella

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