It’s European Rugby Champions Cup Semi Finals weekend and we couldn’t really have a much better two days to look forward to. With Leinster hosting the Scarlets in the Aviva on Saturday afternoon, followed by Munster travelling away to Bordeaux to face Racing 92, the stage is set for two epic tussles to settle who faces who in Bilbao on Saturday 12 May. Join PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy (@MurphyJohne) as he goes deep into the tactics, strategy and gameplans of all four teams to figure out who is most likely to make it to the Final in less than a month.
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Leinster Rugby v Scarlets, Aviva Stadium, kick off 3.30pm GMT, Saturday 21 April 2018, Live on Sky Sports Main Event from 3pm
First on the European Rugby Champions Cup menu this weekend is Leinster against Scarlets, arguably the two best attacking teams in Europe. Given that and following their respective wins over Saracens and La Rochelle in the Quarter Finals, this is a mouth watering tie!
First up, let’s look at the nuts and bolts of the match up. Simply put, both sides fundamentally love to play, have incredible transition games, relentless defence and back row units that can wreak havoc at ruck time. If both sides can bring their A games on what is forecasted to to be perfect day for open rugby, then this has all the ingredients to be one of the games of the season and maybe even one of the all time great semi finals of any competition in Europe, rivaling other great semi final games to have graced Lansdowne Road in Munster against Wasps in 2004 and Leinster versus Munster in 2006.
Needless to say, team selection has been the central topic of conversation all week. A lot rides on the fragile ankle of Luke McGrath because if he isn’t fit, then Jamie Gibson Park HAS to start, almost certainly ruling out the mercurial James Lowe. Scott Vardy is simply a must start so there is only one overseas spot left available. There is a solid case to have Gibson Park on the bench no matter what, given the incredible recovery of Robbie Henshaw, and this might be a decision that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster end up making. No matter who they go with, the backline quality is second to none and whilst the Scarlets might fancy a crack out wide at the older legs of Kearney, Nacewa and McFadden if selected, the experience, defensive strengths and recent form of these guys makes that a tactical gamble. Plus Leinster have in Johnny Sexton a world class playmaker and a man on a mission to win as much silverware as he can in what remains of a glittering career.
For me, this game will be won, and lost, in the trenches at the breakdown. It comes down to Leinster needing to and effectively stopping Tadgh Beirne and John Barclay from disrupting blue ball and getting turnovers. If any proof was needed, it was Beirne’s pivotal turnover that got Scarlets the draw the last time the two sides met in Top14 action. If Jack Conan doesn’t make the starting line up, as seems likely, then its over to Vardy, Leavy and Jordi Murphy to get the upper hand without either falling foul of referee Romain Poite or allowing Scarlets to unshackle their free flowing offloading game.
I have no doubt that whatever waiting it pans out in terms of selection or tactics, that it will be an incredible battle and I simply can’t wait for kick off. Putting my cards on the table, I think Leinster will win but it’ll be really close, with a few key plays swinging the balance. Scarlets are coming to Dublin with a point to prove as Top14 Champions, with last year’s final giving them silverware-winning credentials from playing in the ‘neutral’ venue of the Aviva! They have showed over the past 2 seasons, at both club and international level, that you underestimate them individually and collectively at your peril.
But when push comes to shove, Leinster have had too many barren years for the quality of the squad they have and they just can’t and won’t countenance another semi final heartbreak. Everyone will be on task and I think their squad of 23, regardless of whoever gets the starting nod, is just too deep for the Scarlets.
Johne’s Prediction – Leinster by 6 points
Racing 92 v Munster Rugby, Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux, kick off 3.15pm GMT, Sunday 22 April 2018, Live on BT Sport 3 from 2.30pm
“Stan’ up an’ fight until you hear de bell” starts the famous Munster-adopted ballad and these two sides have heard the bell plenty, having played each other 4 times in the last 2 seasons, most memorably and sadly after the death of head coach Anthony Foley. So they know each inside out and the fact that Munster have won 3 of those 4 clashes won’t be lost on either of them.
Having said that, this Racing 92 side is a different beast with one of Munster’s own trojan warriors in the pack in the shape of Donnacha Ryan. All you need to do is look back at his performances in rounds 5 and 6, ensuring the home win versus Munster in Paris and bringing the fight to Leicester Tigers in Welford Road, to see what the Tipp man brings to the Parisian outfit. The game away to the Premiership side in particular marked Racing as real contenders for this year’s competition. For a French side to travel away to England and win in that manner was a massive statement of intent in terms of where they want to get to this season.
But for me, this Munster vintage are a different side to the one that played and achieved so much last year through sheer, raw emotion. Gone is the simplistic and one dimensional game plan that Saracens comfortably dealt with at this stage in the competition 12 months ago. Under the direction of Johann Van Graan and his coaching lieutenants Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery, they added a very smart layered attack, developing the impact of their game breakers throughout the team, as Andrew Conway showed with that incredible individual match-winning try against RC Toulon in the Thomond Park Quarter Final. And yet with the changes, there is a reassuring sense of the old school Munster about them. Right back to that never-say-die attitude no matter who they face and in whatever venue. The last day in Thomond Park showed that in spades, with the apparent mismatch of Scannell and Arnold against Nonu, Basteraud and Fekitoa, being a prime example. The sum of their parts is always greater than the whole.
And the amazing resilience and collective spirit they have showed on and off the pitch over the last two years is really starting to pay off. Their leaders have been to France twice and lost at the Semi Final stage under Rob Penney. O’Mahony, Murray, Zebo, Keatley and the returning Earls all experienced the pain and now know what’s needed. The hard learned experiences from those Semi Finals plus the Saracens defeat under Rassie Erasmus in Dublin last year just gives them an the edge for me.
It will be incredibly tough though, with predicted 30 degree heat and an electric atmosphere in Bordeaux likely to massively test the conditioning and discipline of both sides. To that extent, the advantages of the Pro14 season versus the unmerciful grind of the Top14 could be critical, with Munster’s recent two week trip to the high veldt in South Africa offering an ideal opportunity to get away from the hype back home, get some critical altitude yards in with a moral-boosting comeback win versus the Cheetahs plus get some sun on the backs. Tactically, both sides will know that gaining the edge in possession and territory will be key in the conditions and Munster have their ace card in Conor Murray to rely on in terms of setting the tempo and testing all aspects of the Racing 92 organisational set up.
It will go down in the Munster folklore, along with all the mystical trips to the South of France in the early 2000’s, if they can do it but it is hard not to recognise and identify with a different feeling to this side, a belief but also a tactical awareness and plan now. Lets hope we see all this on Sunday.
Johne’s Prediction – Munster by 2!
Here’s to a fantastic weekend of top class rugby and hopefully an All Ireland Final in Bilbao in May.
Johne Murphy, Head Coach and Sales Manager, PSA Academies