Pro12 novice Rassie Erasmus hoping for one more miracle

Lions now have 30 of their 41-man squad in place, but several players have injury worries

Not the dream final that the Pro12 or sponsors Guinness banked upon, but Munster’s miraculous campaign marches on. Next Saturday evening at the Aviva stadium the province Rassie Erasmus has stitched back together faces the Scarlets for a trophy the 44-year-old barely knew existed when snatched away from the ailing Springboks last summer.

“I didn’t really know how the Pro12 totally worked,” said Erasmus after a typically efficient 23-3 dismissal of an Ospreys side headed up by Lions trio Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Justin Tipuric.

"I didn't even know what teams were in the Pro12 when I arrived. I just knew Munster because I followed them when it was still the Heineken Cup. It was on television in South Africa.

“To be honest, when I arrived here, I wasn’t even sure how the tournaments are intertwined and how you play over Christmas and you are eventually going to be in week 47.”


The relentless northern hemisphere season rolls into one final weekend without Leinster and, even more surprising, Saracens, as Lions coach Warren Gatland is gifted 11 key players quicker than expected after both Pro12 and English Premiership favourites lost their domestic semi-finals.

Not in jeopardy

It also looks like Jack McGrath’s involvement in the upcoming tour of New Zealand is not in jeopardy. The St Mary’s prop is expected to recover despite being forced off after only nine minutes of a game that saw Leinster’s seasonal goals comprehensively shattered by the Scarlets’ 27-15 victory, which also ended a 28-month unbeaten record at the RDS.

“The players have produced a lot of special moments this season and it’s almost as if we saved our worst home performance for our last game,” said Leinster coach Leo Cullen.

No almost about it. Leinster were abysmal, with another prospective Lion, Tadhg Furlong, hindered by cramp while Johnny Sexton almost played to the bitter end despite requiring the usual treatment to his upper body following routine contact on 18 minutes.

Other tourists, Seán O’Brien (calf) and Ospreys scrumhalf Rhys Webb (groin), cried off before either semi-final got underway.

All told, 30 of the 41-man squad have now entered the Lions environment after double-double chasing Saracens were caught cold by a Gareth Steenson-inspired Exeter Chiefs.

Pat Lam’s revolutionary years at Connacht also concluded following a 21-15 defeat away to Northampton in the Champions Cup qualifier.

In search of silverware

That leaves Munster standing alone, in search of silverware for Irish rugby, as they return to the scene of their most disappointing defeats this season.

“Listen, I think there are two games where we have been terrible this year – Leinster away and Connacht at home – but Leinster away didn’t typify the way we play, which is with spirit and fight,” said Erasmus.

“We all but gave up with 10-15 minutes to go. The other games we’ve lost against Saracens, we were outplayed. We didn’t stop playing, they were just better than us. We go there again and hopefully it’s third time lucky . . . We are happy that the final is in Ireland.”

Saturday also marked unwanted departures as man-of-the-match Francis Saili and 33-year-old Donnacha Ryan played their last home games at Thomond Park because Munster cannot afford to keep them. Erasmus opted to re-sign fellow countryman Jaco Taute, over the more expensive Saili, as the club's sole foreign centre next season, while Ryan leaves for Racing 92 after 13 years of service.

“Munster means everything to me,” said Ryan. “I got to play with my heroes. Spent my whole adult life here. I know nothing else. Jesus, I hope to God I’m not playing against them!”

James Cronin (back), Andrew Conway, who damaged his shoulder finishing an outstanding individual try, and Keith Earls (shin), who twice lent a hand in the creation of Simon Zebo’s length-of-the-field score, are all expected to recover in time to play the Scarlets this Saturday (kick-off 6.15pm).

Lions still attached to clubs: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon), George North (Northampton) Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Liam Williams (Scarlets), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Jack Nowell (Exeter), Elliot Daly (Wasps), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), CJ Stander (Munster), Conor Murray (Munster).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent