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Munster and Leinster must deal with knowing they contributed to their own downfall

Both teams entered last weekend’s semi-finals as favourites but came up short, their opponents deserving winners

Munster's RG Snyman and Peter O'Mahony against the Glasgow Warriors in their URC semi-final at Thomond Park, Limerick. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

In every sport there comes a time when teams are faced with matches they could win, should win, and need to win. In those differing pre-game circumstances tweaks are required in preparation relevant to the task in hand, mental and physical.

The peak performance of the Ireland mixed and women’s 4x400m relay teams at the recent European Championships offered one end of the spectrum, Rory McIlroy’s heartbreaking loss to Bryson DeChambeau in the US Open golf at Pinehurst the other extreme.

Pressure can suffocate, so the ability to execute when it is at its zenith is a cherished attribute. Just because you have done it before doesn’t grant you immunity next time. It’s conditional in the truest sense, and in some respects that’s what makes sport fascinating.

Munster and Leinster entered last weekend’s United Rugby Championship (URC) semi-finals as favourites but came up short, their respective opponents, Glasgow Warriors and the Bulls, deserving winners and worthy of their places in this weekend’s final in Pretoria.


A killer feeling in the wake of a defeat is knowing that you contributed to your downfall, and that’s what Munster and Leinster players must deal with now. It’s important to own the mistakes so as not to repeat them in the future. The debrief is painful but important.

Leinster had tried to create an internal edge, focusing on the opportunity to bounce back from the disappointment of their Champions Cup final defeat to Toulouse, but it didn’t materialise in performance terms on the highveld in Pretoria.

Munster appeared to have one eye on a final, where they would potentially enjoy home advantage for a third successive knock-out game. Graham Rowntree’s side was very much in “should win” territory. They dominated the opening 20 minutes, had a 6-0 penalty count in their favour, Glasgow secondrow Richie Gray was in the sin bin, and they enjoyed over 75 per cent in possession and territory metrics. The only underwhelming number was on the scoreboard; three points was a dismal return.

Glasgow's Sione Tuipulotu and Munster's Jack Crowley in the semi-final at Thomond Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Glasgow have been mentally weak in the past relative to the quality of players, and their record in knock-out matches is poor. It isn’t a given, though, that it will always be the way – the onus is on the opposition to bring it to the fore. When Munster didn’t accumulate enough points during that period of dominance they left the door open, and Glasgow happily walked through.

Centre Sione Tuipulotu was undefendable for most of the match, and his performance alone would have instilled belief in his team-mates. The Scottish team had a clear plan to disrupt and frustrate Munster by not committing numbers to the breakdown unless there was a golden turnover opportunity.

Credit where it is due, Glasgow defended with real intensity to which the Munster attack failed to adequately respond. Jack Crowley tried to do what was needed, to seek out space in behind with probing kicks when momentum went out of the attack but they lacked the required accuracy for the most part, while the chase line wasn’t as quick or co-ordinated as it should have been.

Crowley is really only 18 months into his senior Munster career, having been used sparingly under the previous coaching regime, and from time to time that lack of experience in the hot seat surfaces, occasionally in sticky games. He will be better for the experience, but the timing was unfortunate.

The decision not to start RG Snyman raised a few eyebrows, especially considering how different a team Munster have been when the towering South African plays; imagine the difference an accurate offload would have made in the opening 20 minutes.

Leinster tried to bring a semi-South African-style game plan to Pretoria, focusing on a strong, high defence line and attacking the ball carriers and the ruck. Former Wales, Lions and current French defence coach Shaun Edwards talked about it being a “heart first” type of defence; it isn’t technical, it is about aggression.

The Irish province met a Bulls team familiar with the substance of the style of play. For the second time this season when Leinster were in a match they had to win familiar fault lines were exposed. Their strength has always been that they are more than the sum of their parts, but this season has trained the focus on some of the parts.

The French media observed after the Champions Cup final defeat to Toulouse that Leinster’s bench consisted of replacements rather than finishers. On occasion in games players will have to stand on their own merit, be able to bring a skill set to bear that steps outside the system.

Bulls' Harold Vorster and Leinster's Jimmy O'Brien in their URC semi-final at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Steve Haag Sports/Deon van der Merwe/Inpho

When opponents have successfully attacked the Leinster breakdown and slowed down the ball individual moments come sharply into focus, and Leinster lost too many of these for the second big knock-out match in a row.

The Bulls’ aggressive defence pushed Leinster deeper and deeper on phase play, and the home side’s kicking game ruthlessly isolated the Leinster back three. James Lowe struggled to find a way into the game, as Willie le Roux and Johan Goosen tormented Jordan Larmour, Jimmy O’Brien and Ciarán Frawley, all three struggling with the ball in the air, backfield coverage and the high defence line.

In matches that are as close as this it is rarely the spectacular that wins games but usually the simplest things performed in an excellent manner. Leinster’s lack of a specialist replacement fullback for Hugo Kennan was clear and obvious. A high ball proved their ultimate undoing in terms of the final scoreline.

There are similarities to the way both Leinster and Munster attack, and there are similarities to the way Glasgow and the Bulls defended them. Neither of the Irish teams got to grips with the rucks, often over-resourcing or chasing the wrong ruck.

Munster, via Crowley, at least tried to change the picture they were showing Glasgow on a number of occasions but too often Leinster were far too predictable and rigid in their prescribed structure. One glaring example was from a Robbie Henshaw line break, rather than moving the ball away from the point of contact they opted to continue with the planned play which the Bulls defended easily.

Three weeks ago it was a season finale heavy with promise for the two provinces but it has unravelled disappointingly. It’ll be interesting to see how Ireland fare in the two Tests against the Springboks, the performances in which will tell a great deal about whether it was pilot or system error that undermined the provinces. That in itself will by instructive going forward.