IT'S put up or shut up time for Munster this Saturday evening at the RDS in Dublin, as they face arch-rivals Leinster in this year’s Pro14 Grand Final, as they go looking for their first major title in a decade.
Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Rory O'Loughlin, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (c); Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Ryan Baird, Jamison Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton, James Lowe.
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 (c), CJ Stander.
Kevin O'Byrne, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Jack O'Donoghue, Craig Casey, JJ Hanrahan, Rory Scannell.
It is now 10 whole years since Munster’s last piece of silverware, which was also the occasion of their last big victory over Leinster in a knock out game, when they beat their rivals 19-9 in the Magners League Final of 2011, as it was called then. Interestingly one Keith Earls scored one of Munster’s three tries that evening.
Since then Munster lost two Pro14 Finals to Glasgow and the Scarlets, but they have lost the last three semi-finals in this competition to Leinster, with all of those defeats occurring in Dublin.
And that’s not even counting the five Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals that they have lost since that title win in 2011. To say that Munster are not only long overdue silverware but overdue a win in a game of true significance is a complete understatement at this point.
The Irish contingent of Tadhg Beirne, Craig Casey, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander have all returned to the squad, and are all fit and available.
The one exception is loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne, who had to depart for a HIA in the first quarter of the win over England last weekend, and never returned, so the assumption is that he’ll have to sit this one out.
Beirne, Earls and Stander played every game of the Six Nations Championship, but Murray, O’Mahony, Farrell and Casey did not see as much game time for Ireland as they would have wished, so they are all fresh for Saturday’s final.
Leinster had more players on Ireland duty, so naturally their preparations for Saturday will have been more effected as a result.
Another factor worth considering is that Leinster will have only a six day turnaround between the final and their last 16 Heineken Champions Cup tie against Toulon next Friday, whereas Munster will have another 24 hours to prepare for the visit of Toulouse. It might not sound like much, but it could well influence Leinster’s player management that bit more.
The final two rounds of the Six Nations, the Pro14 Grand Final, and then potentially last 16 and quarter final ties in Europe, mean that some of the top players on both sides could be playing for five weekends running, and with Leinster players doing more of the lifting at international level at present this could turn into an opportunity for Munster should Leo Cullen decide to manage the minutes of some of his stars, with Europe being their priority.
Leinster have won six league titles since Munster last lifted one. That stats alone shows how one sided the ‘rivalry’ has gotten in the past decade. Quite simply, Munster must start hurting Leinster in games like this if we are to call this a true rivalry. Munster may have been threatening to scalp Leinster in the last few seasons, but ultimately when the gun has been put to the head it has been Leinster who have come up with the answers.
A key feature of Leinster’s wins over Munster in big games in the past decade has been the manner in which their scores have come more easily. Munster’s brand of one-out rugby has come up short against Leinster’s high tempo game. One of the main reasons for this is that Leinster have matched Leinster in the physicality stakes. In the past ten years Munster have found that when they have rolled up against a side with a pack as big as they have, such as Leinster, Saracens or Racing, that they have been found wanting.
One of the main reasons for this is that Munster have lacked that little bit of world class quality that their opponents have possessed at outhalf. Munster are always going to have a decent playmaker, but not since Ronan O’Gara’s retirement have they had someone to match up to the likes of Jonathan Sexton, Owen Farrell and Finn Russell. He may be only back a few weeks, and completed just one 80 minute game since his return, but Munster will be hoping that Joey Carbery gives a demonstration to everyone as to just how good an outhalf he can be.
These are the kind of games that Munster signed Carbery for. This, and next week’s crucial game against Toulouse. If he can show some of the class he displayed against the Scarlets a few weeks ago then Munster should go close, as pound for pound Munster look a match for Leinster everywhere else.
In a press conference early this week, in the build-up to this final, Munster head coach Johann van Graan stated: “We’ll be looking to execute our basics exceptionally well and then adapt on the day.” The problem is that the basics alone will not be good enough to beat Leinster. Munster need big performances from their big players.
Van Graan knows all this though. Hence the statement: “We’re under no illusions we’ll have to be at our best to beat them.”