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Magners League Semi-final
Leinster Rugby vs Munster Rugby
RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday, 15th May 2010, 20:00

Television: Live Setanta Ireland

Here we go again and it's a serious case of deja vu!

Like last season...Leinster play Munster for a third time.

Like last season...they meet in a semi-final.

Like last season...one team will go in as underdogs having lost the first two games.

The bizarre thing is that the roles have been completely reversed from last season.

Just over a year ago Munster went into the Heineken Cup semi-final as such raging hot favourites that most pundits assumed they'd only have to turn up to win. It would have taken a brave man to predict a Leinster win, but it would have needed a psychic to predict that they'd win the next three matches with Munster not even scoring a try. This all goes to show just how quickly things can turn around (for any Leinster fans who are feeling cocky after the three straight wins).

Of course this time, it's a Magners League semi-final instead of a Heineken cup tie as both team's European hopes were extinguished in France a fortnight ago. Irish rugby has become a little spoiled lately with all the success, but for both teams a Magners League championship, coupled with making the last four in the Heineken Cup, would represent a very respectable season. What's more, both sides would hate to have their season ended by their biggest rivals so there will be no shortage of motivation.

Munster will be desperate to salvage something from a season in which frankly, they've struggled a lot of the time. In the Magners League, they lost half their matches, including two at home, but just did enough to get into the top four with a bonus point defeat away to Cardiff last weekend. They had some fine days in their Heineken Cup campaign, in particular their performance away to Perpignan and their quarter-final defeat of Northampton. But it will have been marred by their manner of their exit to Biarritz in the semi-final.

Munster went into that match quite rightly as favourites and had a decent start with an excellent try. However after that their performance deteriorated to quite a bewildering level and the second half was as poor as anything Munster have produced in ten years of European knock-out rugby. Much was made of their problems in the scrum, but Munster have been winning off struggling scrums for years because they've always compensated in other areas, such as the maul and the lineout. This time however their pack could not create any sort of foundation for the team to play off and a spirited but very ordinary Biarritz team ultimately squeezed the life out of them.

As Leinster will tell you, it's no disgrace to lose in France, but by their own high standards Munster will be bitterly disappointed to have lost that match. In the fallout since then, there has been a lot of criticism of coach Tony McGahan and his coaching team, some of it unwarranted. However, there's no getting away from the fact that in two successive Heineken Cup semi-finals where they've been big favourites, his team simply didn't turn up with their normal passion and intensity. That stubborn, bitter edge, which Munster have used as their bedrock in a decade of European rugby, just wasn't there. McGahan has undoubtedly made Munster a technically better team, certainly in attack, but it remains to be seen if he can motivate them the way Declan Kidney could.

For all that, if Munster can win the league, it would put a much more positive spin on the season and keep the wolves from McGahan's door. Like Leinster they've been hit badly with injuries and their captain Paul O'Connell's troublesome groin injury seems to have ended his season. The injuries have eased somewhat though and they're able to welcome Doug Howlett, Mick O'Driscoll and Keith Earls back to the starting team for tomorrow.

Jerry Flannery has also recovered enough to make the bench, which means that Damien Varley, one of the discoveries of their season, continues as starting hooker. John Hayes returns to the front row after being rested last week and in the back row, David Wallace is replaced at number eight by Nick Williams. The backline is virtually at full-strength with Earls and Howlett back, while Liefeimi Mafi edges out Denis Hurley for the spot on the left wing. Paul Warwick reclaims his place at full-back and overall it's a very strong Munster side that deserves respect.

For Leinster the 'end of an era' feel continues, as it's 'another week, another retirement'. Joining Girvan Dempsey in hanging up the boots is another Leinster stalwart of the professional era Malcolm O'Kelly. "Big Mal" was one of the finest second rows of his generation, earning 92 Ireland caps and playing over 180 Leinster matches. This season, he has been used more sparingly, but the quality of his performances has remained high. Well-renowned as an easy-going character, some may have mistaken that for passivity but he was always a serious competitor on the pitch. A phenomenal athlete, he was compared to a baby giraffe when he first played for Leinster but he bulked up gradually over his career and was an integral part of the Heineken Cup winning side last season. In an era of the prototype professional player, Mal was a unique character and he'll be missed.

He's not finished yet though and because of Leo Cullen's shoulder injury he's been brought in to start tomorrow's match in the second row alongside Nathan Hines. The only other change in the pack is the return of Shane Jennings for Dominic Ryan to captain the team in Cullen's absence.

In the backs Jonny Sexton returns from five weeks out with injury to take his place at out-half. Isa Nacewa, who filled in so well there against Edinburgh, moves back to the left wing. Gordon D'Arcy has recovered from the knock he received last Sunday to continue his partnership with Brian O'Driscoll. Shane Horgan's try last week was his 60th for Leinster, which sees him overtake Denis Hickie as Leinster's all-time leading try-scorer.

The scrum hit back from their disappointment against Toulouse with a devastating destruction of the Edinburgh pack last weekend. It emphasised the importance of scrummaging as an eight and they'll be looking for a repeat performance tomorrow. Cian Healy supplemented his work in the scrum with a superb performance in the loose, making countless carries at great pace. It was a great show of character after he was subbed early against Toulouse.

Munster will be a huge challenge as they always are, but one horrific thought should keep the Leinster team focused. That's the thought of Girve and Mal, as well as Michael Cheika, Alan Gaffney, Kurt McQuilkin and Chris Whitaker saying goodbye to the RDS crowd after all their fine years of service...while Munster players and fans are celebrating their win!

It's an image that's enough to make any true Leinster person break out in a cold sweat and it simply cannot be allowed to come to pass.

For their season, for their pride, for the sake of everyone who's departing, Leinster simply HAVE to win on Saturday!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Munster Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Paul Warwick
Shane Horgan
14 Doug Howlett
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Keith Earls
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Jean de Villiers
Isa Nacewa 11 Liefeimi Mafi
Jonathan Sexton
10 Ronan O'Gara (C)
Eoin Reddan
9 Tomas O'Leary

Cian Healy
1 Marcus Horan
John Fogarty
2 Damian Varley
Stan Wright 3 John Hayes
Nathan Hines
4 Donncha O'Callaghan
Malcolm O'Kelly 5 Mick O'Driscoll
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Alan Quinlan
Shane Jennings (C)
7 Niall Ronan
Jamie Heaslip
8 Nick Williams

Replacements Seven From:
Richardt Strauss
Mike Ross
CJ van der Linde
Trevor Hogan
Rhys Ruddock
Stephen Keogh
Paul O'Donohoe
Shaun Berne
Fergus McFadden
Girvan Dempsey
16 Jerry Flannery
17 Dave Ryan
18 James Coughlan
19 David Wallace
20 Peter Stringer
21 Denis Hurley
22 Scott Deasy

Not Considered
due to Injury
Luke Fitzgerald
Ian McKinley
Dave Kearney
Devin Toner
Paul Ryan
Leo Cullen
Bernard Jackman
Sean O'Brien

Paul O'Connell
Denis Leamy
Felix Jones
Ian Dowling
Darragh Hurley
Barry Murphy
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistant Referees: James Jones (WRU), Nigel Whitehouse (WRU)
4th Official: John Carvill (ARLB)
5th Official: Alan Rogan (ARLB)
TMO: Hugh Watkins (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-05-14