'It's absolutely irrelevant how many games we've won prior to this semi-final'

Stuart Lancaster and Leinster have shifted their mindset ahead of the clash with Munster.

IT’S HARD TO argue against the notion that if Leinster deliver something close to their best in Friday night’s Guinness Pro14 semi-final, then Munster won’t have enough to stick with them.

Munster will do everything in their power to disrupt firm favourites Leinster, of course, and they have breakdown, lineout and aerial strengths that could be very useful in that regard.

The southern province’s attacking game will need to be at its most clinical but Johann van Graan and his coaching staff will also be hoping that Leinster’s usual performance levels dip, that their machine-like efficiency slips and they give Munster an opening to upset the odds.

garry-ringrose-and-damian-de-allende Leinster and Munster renew their rivalry on Friday. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

A team that has won 23 games in a row in all competitions could potentially be in danger of suffering from complacency, but Leinster believe they have an in-depth defence against any temptation to rest on their laurels.

“‘I think it’s the internal competition, if I’m being honest,” said Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster yesterday, having enjoyed watching the province’s ‘second string’ team beat Ulster 28-10 last weekend.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the favourites thing but if you’ve been through a series of games you’ve won, the easy thing to do is to think ‘Well, we’ll win the next game.’ It’s not conscious complacency but it’s a subconscious mindset that can develop.

“It’s very, very difficult for that to seep in here because you’ve always got very good players who are always striving to get into the team and the team is constantly being rotated and freshened up, so no one sits there comfortably thinking, ‘I’ve got this in the bag’. That’s the real strength of Leinster’s competitiveness at the moment.”

The experienced Lancaster hasn’t seen depth of this kind in many other places in European rugby and he points to the wild scorelines in the Premiership as an indicator that many of the English clubs are struggling with a hectic schedule that demands wholesale changes from game-to-game.

On top of the competition for places keeping Leinster’s players sharp, Lancaster explains that they have attempted to switch their mindset this week as they head into knock-out rugby after winning all 15 of their Pro14 regular-season games.

“It’s absolutely irrelevant how many games we’ve won prior to this semi-final,” said the former England boss, who rejected the idea that Leinster might be attempting to plan ahead for next month’s European quarter-final clash with Saracens in the background.

“I remember in the 2016/17 season we played some great rugby across the board, scored 90-odd tries in the season but we lost against Scarlets in the Pro14 semi-final and that defeat still sticks in everyone’s throats until this day.”

conor-murray-at-the-base-of-a-ruck Munster's box-kicking is a strength. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Respect for Munster’s qualities has sharpened minds this week too, even if the southern province are up against it on a five-day turnaround after a weekend that saw Leinster’s front-liners resting up following an intense training session last Friday.

Conor Murray’s kicking was a prominent feature when the provinces met two weekends ago, as Munster regained possession in the air several times.

“He’s very, very good at it and they were very, very good in the air,” said Lancaster.

“We’ve got to make sure that we don’t present those opportunities in the first place, try and get as much pressure as we can at the ruck without compromising ourselves, trying to get pressure on Conor Murray at the base, look the help the taxiing back… and ultimately it comes down to the technique and winning those aerial battles, and I thought Munster came off better in those areas than us.”

With Tadhg Beirne back to add to the breakdown threat alongside Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander – who won four breakdown turnover penalties two weekends ago – there is another obvious Munster strength for Leinster to manage.

The breakdown area has been keenly debated in recent weeks as referees attempt to strictly police the existing laws, leading to some high penalty counts as turnover specialists thrive. Lancaster hopes to see what is currently a messy area settling down.

“I saw Wayne Barnes referee Bristol v Exeter [in the Premiership], I thought he got it right and got the big stuff. You could pretty much penalise everyone at every breakdown if you really wanted to. We’ve got to make sure we hit that balance in the game.

“We want the game to flow, don’t we? Hopefully it will settle down, but it’s a big game for whoever is refereeing this Friday, that’s for sure.”

stuart-lancaster Lancaster hopes to see a big defensive performance. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Munster scored three tries against Leinster last time out and we can be sure Lancaster has been pushing his men hard to be nailed on defensively as they look to shut down Stephen Larkham’s developing attack.

“I’ve always thought Munster have played a bit more rugby than people give them credit for if I’m being honest, even before he arrived,” said Lancaster.

“Since his arrival, you can see more width in their game and that balance between what Munster are traditionally strong at – the set-piece, the attacking game near your tryline – but the two tries they scored [in the second-half] against us were good tries, both Andrew Conway and Keith Earls.

“I know we were down to 14 at the time but I was disappointed to concede those tries, but you have to give credit to Munster’s attack for what they achieved and the way they manipulated us.

“So there’s clearly been progression made in the lockdown period and this pre-season and it’s up to us defensively to make sure we’re as good against Munster as we were against Ulster this weekend.”

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