Pro14 final: Munster won’t die wondering in bid to end trophy drought
Leinster have the winning habit and a bench which could prove key in fraught endgame
CJ Stander starts at number eight in Saturday’s Pro14 final. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
What should have been a standout, end-of-season highlight has instead been sandwiched between the Six Nations and the return to Europe with indecent haste. Yet, while another ill-timed first round meeting in the Rainbow Cup three weeks’ hence may suggest one can have too much of a good thing, no matter how you look at it, this is the most significant clash between these two in a decade.
True, Leinster have beaten Munster in three successive semi-finals, but this is the first time since the 2010-11 Magners League final that there is a trophy at stake. Fittingly, this 20th anniversary of the tournament in its various guises, is also a repeat of the inaugural final in 2001 which Leinster won.
That 2011 triumph, of course, was also the last time that Munster lifted a trophy and this is reflected in their selection. For Munster, there is no tomorrow, never mind Toulouse in the Champions Cup last-16 next Saturday at Thomond Park.
With Joey Carbery starting just his second match since his comeback and their Six Nations contingent reinstated en bloc, with even David Kilcoyne on the bench, this is the strongest possible selection Munster could field save for long-term absentee RG Snyman.
It means that Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander and Keith Earls may have to go again in seven days’ time on the back of successive Test matches, but the same will be true of the Toulouse quartet in Paris on Friday night, namely Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont, Cyril Baille and Julien Marchand.
In addition to Carbery, the only other changes from the Munster side beaten 13-10 by Leinster at Thomond Park in January are Niall Scannell and Andrew Conway - prompting Leo Cullen to cheerily note the return of two players from his own alma mater, Blackrock.
Cullen also restores 16 of his Six Nations contingent to the Leinster 23, although has kept some big hitters on the bench while also rewarding many of those who have been key figures in taking them to a ninth final in the last 11 years.
They’ve also been hit harder, with James Ryan, Will Connors and Garry Ringrose joining Caelan Doris on the sidelines, as has Scott Penny, their leading Pro14 try scorer this season.
Compared to January, Rónan Kelleher, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan come into the starting pack, as does Devin Toner, who will be eclipsing Gordon D’Arcy as Leinster’s most capped player of all time.
Rory O’Loughlin comes in for Ringrose and three other mainstays of their season, Luke McGrath (who will captain the side), Ross Byrne and Dave Kearney have all been preferred to Jamison Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton and James Lowe, albeit the latter three join Tadhg Furlong and Ryan Baird on an imposing bench.
However, if we know anything about Leinster is that players seamlessly slot into this winning machine.
Munster’s need, not only to lift silverware but to stop a five-match losing run against Leinster, is palpable. They have the added motivation of wanting to send Stander and Billy Holland riding off into the sunset with medals.
Against a lean and hungry looking Munster, Leinster appear sated and fatted, yet that hasn’t stopped them before.
“I think our guys enjoy competing,” notes Cullen matter-of-factly, while also pointing out they’ve the prize of winning four titles in a row.
“We’re at home and it means a huge amount to the players, who they represent, what they represent as well. There’s a huge amount of players who have had to work incredibly hard to get into this position, so there’s a great responsibility on the 23,” said Cullen, who has used 57 players in this abbreviated campaign, while Munster have used 53.
“We know that we’re playing against a hugely motivated team, what’s changed there really? I think they’re always pretty motivated to beat us.
For us, it’s to make sure we’re motivated to beat them because if we lose it won’t be an enjoyable feeling.”
They too could also yet be bidding farewell to stalwarts such as Toner and Scott Fardy.
Cullen also cited the refereeing interpretations of Scotland’s Mike Adamson at the breakdown and the set-piece, while Johann van Graan has identified Leinster’s ability to win scrum penalties and go to the corner as key to the way they build pressure - witness their recent win over Ulster.
Cullen had some post-match quips about Munster’s aerial bombardment in last September’s semi-final, but Leinster, and Jordan Larmour in particular, struggled to cope in this department in January.
“I know we talked and maybe joked about it a little bit after some of the last games, but the aerial challenge will be a big part of the game. You can see it’s a strength of Conor Murray in terms of his box-kicking and in terms of their chase,” admitted Cullen, who is also mindful of the threat posed by Beirne and Stander over the ball.
Munster’s scrum has been good this season and they look better equipped than most to cope with Leinster here. In truth, it was Leinster’s defensive lineout which did more damage last time, although they’ve no Ryan this time.
They are five-point favourites yet the advent of Gavin Coombes alongside Stander, Beirne’s form, Carbery’s creativity, the midfield’s physicality and the cutting edge of their outside three, makes this the most potent looking Munster side in a decade. It would be some irony if JJ Hanrahan emerged as the match-winner.
Besides, given a daunting European draw and the South Africans’ arrival next season, you’d wonder if not now, then when?
But that creates its own pressures, and, in the expectation that it comes down to another tight final quarter, while Munster’s bench is good, Leinster’s is exceptional. It’s fascinatingly set up.
Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Rory O’Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter; Devin Toner, Scott Fardy; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Ryan Baird, Jamison Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton, James Lowe.
Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Peter O’Mahony (capt), CJ Stander. Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Jack O’Donoghue, Craig Casey, JJ Hanrahan, Rory Scannell.
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU).