Clinical Leinster have more room for improvement

Munster will strain every sinew to end their semi-final jinx but the holders remain the team to beat

Guinness Pro14 semi-final: Leinster v Munster, Aviva Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm. Live on Eir Sport 1 and Premier Sports 1. Highlights on TG4 at 9.35pm.

In keeping with these abnormal times, this has been both a long time coming and yet, it’s also arrived with unusual haste.

Fully 343 days after they kicked off their respective campaigns with wins over Treviso and the Dragons, but now just three weeks into the resumption, Leinster and Munster put their 2019-20 Guinness Pro14 seasons on the line.

For Munster, as in the last two campaigns, it again constitutes the point of no return against their oldest, closest and toughest opponents. Lose another semi-final and they will have a couple of idle weeks before readjusting their sights to a tenth campaign to end their trophy drought.


The absence of fans makes this, according to Leo Cullen, "somewhere in between" a home match and one at a neutral venue. Certainly Munster fans, long since weary of losing treks to the capital, will be less put out by the closed gates.

In their last 15 visits to Dublin to face Leinster, they have lost 14 times, and this venue was also the graveyard of their ambitions in both the Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens and the Pro12 final against Scarlets three seasons ago.

However Cullen also concurs with Graham Rowntree in conceding that past meetings, along with their perfect 21-game season to this point, will mean nothing come kick-off, all of which will make him as nervous as ever.

“I’m always nervous about it. I was nervous last week because I wanted that group of players to go well and I will be nervous again this week. I think nerves are a positive thing as long as you can channel them in a positive direction.

“It means a lot to all of our guys here. They want to put on a good show for each other because they know there’s guys unlucky to miss out,” he added, also noting the 53 players who have contributed to this stage as well as staking claims for the big-game schedule ahead.

“They know there’s so much coming but there’s lots at stake which is positive.”

Even so, Leinster appear to be in the better place again. Hugo Keenan, Devin Toner and Will Connors are retained from last week, and thus represent the only changes to the team which stated against Munster under a fortnight ago alongside a recharged dozen.

Given Jordan Larmour’s difficulties from Andrew Conway and Keith Earls in dealing with Conor Murray’s steepling box kicks two weeks ago, there had been speculation Rob Kearney might be named at fullback again. But while this may have had short-term and sentimental appeal, it would have gone against the management’s backing of Larmour.

For Munster’s part, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland and Jack O’Donoghue are restored from last week, the net effect being that Jeremy Loughman, Tadhg Beirne and O’Donoghue are the only changes to the starting XV from the teams’ last meeting.

Ten of this side are starting their third game in a row after a five-day turnaround, whereas a dozen of this Leinster XV have had a 13-day turnaround and probably an extra three training sessions in between.

Hence, while Munster may benefit in some respect from an unchanged backline for the third game running, Leinster may have more scope for improvement.

No less than Lancaster earlier in the week, Cullen was up-front in highlighting the need to improve their work at the breakdown and lineout, as well as discipline – the latter being inextricably linked with the former two.

CJ Stander won three key turnover penalties at the breakdown in the first meeting, two of which led directly to three-pointers. That threat is augmented by Beirne’s return.

More width

Ultimately, the feeling persists that Leinster’s machine-like efficiency in the opposition 22 makes them better equipped to translate pressure into tries. All their six tries have been against 15-man defences.

True, it’s not Munster’s fault that their opponents have been reduced in number for 75 minutes of their two games to date. Indeed, Toner’s sin-binning was due to Munster’s accuracy stressing Leinster’s defensive lineout.

Munster have added more width and Damian de Allende has given them more oomph alongside Chris Farrell. Earls and Conway have looked razor sharp, while Conor Murray and JJ Hanrahan have been on top of their games, contributing a host of try-scoring assists.

Along with Peter O’Mahony, Stander and all the other longer-serving players, they are long since sick of semi-final defeats. They’ll be hugely motivated and will bring their ‘A’ games.

Yet tries still look harder work for them, and of their ten to date, one was against 15 men, four against 14 and five against 13.

Leinster are fully aware of the threat Munster pose and Rowntree’s bullishness, while justified, will only make them more alert. As in every game they go into, the holders are entitled to be favourites.

LEINSTER: J Larmour; H Keenan, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton (Capt), L McGrath; C Healy, R Kelleher, A Porter; D Toner, S Fardy; C Doris, W Connors, J Conan.

Replacements: S Cronin, E Byrne, M Bent, R Baird, J van der Flier, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R O'Loughlin.

MUNSTER: S Daly; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Loughman, N Scannell, S Archer; T Beirne, B Holland; P O'Mahony (Capt), J O'Donoghue, CJ Stander.

Replacements: K O'Byrne, J Cronin, J Ryan, F Wycherley, C Cloete, C Casey, R Scannell, M Haley.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU).

Last five meetings: (2018-19) Leinster 30 Munster 22 (Aviva Stadium); Munster 26 Leinster 17 (Thomond Park); s/f Leinster 24 Munster 9 (RDS). (2019-20) Munster 6 Leinster 13 (Thomond Park), Leinster 27 Munster 25.

Betting (Paddy Powers): 3/10 Leinster, 17/1 Draw, 13/5 Munster. Handicap odds (Munster +8pts) 10/11 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Munster.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times