THE dream Munster v Leinster final is a live possibility after Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals, but only just, as in truth, both provinces probably should have been eliminated.
Jacob Stockdale will have nightmares, for quite some time, over the try he butchered in the second half of Ulster’s three-point defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.
We will never know how the game would have transpired had he not acted like a schoolboy in his botched attempt to place the ball on the turf for a simple five-pointer in the second half, but at the time it felt like it might cost Ulster victory — and ultimately it did. Ulster will regret this one for some time, as they left champions Leinster off the hook.
Munster, on the other hand, will feel very fortunate to have emerged from their semi-final against Edinburgh at Murrayfield, as the hosts were the better side throughout.
Ultimately Munster won due to a combination of their incredible defence, Edinburgh’s inability to take their chances, one brilliant moment of magical opportunism by Keith Earls for the first try, and a piece of cunning gamesmanship from Munster lock Tadhg Beirne late in the game, which ultimately led to Earls’ second, and match-winning, try.
That Beirne moment was just sheer game intelligence, as he capitalised on a moment of stupidity by Edinburgh’s South African prop Pierre Schoeman to fall to the turf in the full knowledge that the TMO would more than likely grant him a crucial penalty.
As luck would have it, Munster ran their one good backline move off the back of this penalty, making it arguably the game’s biggest talking point. Munster needed all of their street-smarts to clinch this one.
You could well argue that Munster deserved any bit of luck they got on the day, considering their injury woes.
Full back Mike Haley was lost prior to kick-off due to illness, while both Jack O’Donoghue and Joey Carbery went off in the frantic first half when both looked to be going well.
Carbery’s injury is going to get a lot of air time in the next three weeks. Clearly, his hamstring was not right for this encounter, and the odds are that three weeks will not be sufficient time to recover to face Saracens.
Luckily for Munster, Tyler Bleyendaal seems to have truly got his mojo back in recent times. He looks to be back to the player that sparked Munster’s 2017 campaign. He will be a vitally important player for the rest of Munster’s season, no matter what state Carbery’s hamstring is in.
It also must be said that, not for the first time this season, Andrew Conway showed that he is clearly the best full-back in Ireland at present. Why van Graan or, indeed Joe Schmidt, cannot see this is a mystery.
Amazingly this will be Munster’s 14th semi-final in this competition in their history — an incredible accomplishment in one sense, but it is also a shocking statistic when you consider that Munster have been in only four finals, with the last of those being all of 11 years ago. Munster have actually lost their last six semi-finals in this competition, which is an abysmal record when you think about it.
They have lost at the semi-final stage for the past two years, so there is a lot of pain knocking about this squad. Hopefully, that pain can be harnessed over the next three weeks, as a huge improvement in performance levels are required if Munster are to overcome English juggernauts Saracens in the semi-final in Coventry.
Of course, Munster lost to Saracens at this stage of the competition two years ago by 26-10 at the Aviva Stadium, when they proved to be well short of the required level on the day.
However, Saracens appear to be a little bit short of what they were then, as they went on to retain their European title. Munster, on the other hand, would hope that they are much further on in terms of their development, with the likes of Chris Farrell, Joey Carbery, Beirne, and Jean Kleyn being added to the squad since then, while Conor Murray was actually marked absent that day, with Duncan Williams filling in.
Which brings us to Murray, and his continuing lack of form, which has been a worry for quite some time now.
Ultimately Munster won the game, so all Johann van Graan’s decisions can be deemed to have been justified — but had Munster lost, then serious questions would have been asked as to why Murray was left on the Murrayfield pitch for the entire 80 minutes.
Devil’s advocate, or logic itself, would argue that Munster had already lost Joey Carbery at 10, and so van Graan would have wanted to retain a modicum of continuity by having a player of Murray’s experience and leadership out there at half-back — but if it had not been for Schoeman’s moment of madness, then this move would have more than likely been the incorrect one.
Sure, Murray improved a bit in the second half, but his first-half performance was way below what we know he is capable of, thereby continuing his poor showing in the Six Nations for Ireland. Therefore, to not utilise an in-form former All Black Test-level scrum-half in Alby Matthewson is extremely questionable.
Munster got away with it this time — but to get further, the big calls cannot be shirked.
Losing a seventh successive Champions Cup semi-final would be too much to take for Munster fans, but perhaps they can take solace from the opponent and venue this time around, as the last team that Munster actually defeated in the semi-final of this competition was, in fact, Saracens in 2008.
And the venue?
The Ricoh Arena in Coventry.