Gerry Thornley: Two mighty games stand in the way of all-Irish final
Leinster and Munster have vanquished past champions but there’s plenty of work to do
Dan Leavy carries to score during Leinster’s win over Saracens. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Springtime for Ireland and the provinces. The possibility of an all-Irish, European Champions Cup final in Bilbao on May 12th is two games away, albeit two mighty big ones. Leinster will host the Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium, at the same stage where they beat Leinster in last season’s Pro12, while Munster will face Racing 92 in Bordeaux.
The dates and kick-off times will be known soon, possibly on Monday, and most likely the Leinster-Scarlets semi-final will be on Saturday, April 21st, with the Racing-Munster semi at the Stade Chaban-Delmas the following day.
Leinster sealed their place by dethroning the back to back champions Saracens 30-19 in a see-sawing, tetchy, full-on quarter-final at the Aviva on Sunday, after which Leo Cullen reminded us that the Scarlets beat Munster at the Aviva Stadium in the Pro14 final last May.
“The Scarlets are a team which will not be fazed by coming to the Aviva. The last time they played here in that PRO12 final against Munster, they looked pretty impressive. They’ve caused us problems, even over the last few weeks when we played them during the Six Nations. They are a very well coached team.
“It is great for the Pro 14 with Scarlets in there as well against the heavyweights of Europe. It is great to see for the League. Some of you guys have given it a hard time in the past,” he said, smiling. “It’s slowly developing. It’s slowly developing guys.”
Leading 13-12 at the break, Leinster upped their game to another level in the third quarter through tries by the awesome Dan Leavy and James Lowe, before again withholding a proud rally by the outgoing champions, who died with their boots on.
Sarries’ Director of Rugby, Mark McCall, conceded generously: “I think they are outstanding. They were the best team in the pool stages. When we analysed them, there were not many weaknesses to find.”
“They were good today. They had to defend for a long time and they did it really well. They’ve got some people on their team who can really hurt you on attack as well, so they are a very good, all-round team.”
The young tyros, notably Leavy and James Ryan (who made 34 tackles and 29 carries between them), provided much of the vigour, while Johnny Sexton, fired up by a mixture of good hits and cheap shots, ‘oul man Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney, who is also on the crest of some wave, all rose to the occasion.
Of the late hits on Sexton, Cullen said: “Three times I could see after he has passed the ball, so that’s why he is getting a little bit grumpy.”
The French TMO, Philippe Bonhoure, ought to have intervened in particular when Richard Wigglesworth jumped and led with his shoulder into Sexton. Asked if he’d expect such incidents to be policed more, Cullen merely said: “I will have to have a look back at those incidents.”
Following on from Munster’s drama-fuelled 20-19 win Toulon at Thomond Park on Saturday, it means the two Irish teams have knocked out the combined winners of the tournament for the last five years.
This will be Leinster’s 10th semi-final, having won three of their previous nine. Leinster hold a 5-2 win-loss record against the Scarlets in Europe, if one includes their original incarnation as Llanelli; winning the last four with doubles over them in the pool stages in 2009-10 and 2012-13.
Racing beat Clermont 27-18 in the latter’s Stade Marcel Michelin yesterday, the game pivoting on a highly contentious decision by Wayne Barnes to permit a try by Marc Andreu despite a forward pass by Dan Carter, to reach the semi-finals.
This being a record 13th semi-final, Munster have been here before, in many ways, winning four and losing eight. Stade Chaban Delmas was also the venue where the Red Army was born, on a blistering hot and humid day in May 2000, when they memorably beat Toulouse 31-25 to reach their first final.
Along the way, Munster and Racing have met six times, with Munster winning four. They also qualified from the same group - Munster winning the first meeting in Thomond Park by 14-7 and Racing the second in their new U Arena by 34-30.
Whereas Leinster have upcoming games at home to Zebre and Treviso over the next two weeks, Munster’s squad will travel via Dubai today to South Africa, the match-day 23 against Toulon will be joined by Brian Scott, Dave O’Callaghan, Conor Oliver, Dan Goggin and academy player Calvin Nash. They will be based in Cape Town, and travel to George and Bloemfontein for their respective Guinness PRO14 encounters against the Southern Kings and Toyota Cheetahs.
It hardly seems ideal.
“It’s an interesting scenario,” said Johann van Graan wryly. “When I took the job it was one of the first things that I saw. At that stage, getting to a quarter-final was a long way away. To play in a quarter-final, hopefully win it, fly to South Africa, play two away games in the PRO14, one at altitude and then fly back and go into a European semi-final was always going to be, if you think about it, tough. Now, it’s a reality.”
Last Saturday enters the pantheon of great Munster days in this competition, and reflecting on it, van Graan’s feeling was of “gratitude”. He added: “Once we got onto the bus and drove to the field, to see what this team means to the people of Munster, you see young people, old people, really supporting their team. Like I said before, I want to make people happy. The fact is it’s about life lessons; it’s not always how you start, it’s how you finish.”
“Hopefully this team can give a lot of people hope and hopefully we can keep this legacy of Munster going forward in the future. There have been so many eras before us and I hope some of these players become real legends in the Munster jersey.”