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Leinster Rugby vs Munster Rugby
Heineken Cup Semi-Final
Croke Park, Dublin
Saturday, 2 May 2009, 17:30

Television: Live Sky Sports 1, Highlights R.T.E. 2 - 21.30

It's finally arrived! The chance that both Leinster players and supporters have been waiting three years for! The chance to make up for the nightmare that was "Black Sunday", the chance to beat Munster in the Heineken Cup!

That day, Leinster came into the semi-final as marginal favourites with the bookies on the back of their try-scoring exploits against Toulouse.  The difference couldn't be starker this time though as Munster are the hottest of favourites, practically unbackable in fact, and in fairness rightfully so!

They're in fantastic form, scoring tries for fun while Leinster have been grimly grinding out results.  Most Munster fans believe the result is a mere formality and have been booking their trips to Edinburgh for the final.  Since that fateful day three years ago, Leinster and Munster have met six times, with each team winning three of them.  However this season's games have both gone Munster's way, winning both games decisively with an aggregate score of 40-5. 

Leinster will of course revel in their underdog status, putting all the pressure back on Munster.  Leinster fans will hope that the complacency of the Munster fans will transmit to their team, that the famed "umbilical cord" between them works both ways.  The "favourites" tag traditionally never sits well with Irish teams of any code, although it must be said, Munster wear it better than most. 

There's no doubt that they're playing at the top of their game and it's hard to think of a more complete performance in their Heineken Cup history that the one with which they took the Ospreys apart in the Quarter-final.  They played a great all-round game, the pack was imperious and relentless, the half-backs razor sharp and Keith Earls once again embellished his reputation as a potential super-star.  His performance probably tipped the scales to get him onto the Lions tour.

However, the two players who had perhaps the biggest influence on the day were Lifeimi Mafi and Paul Warwick, two players who will probably duke it out for the Munster "Player of the season" award.  It's interesting to see how they've both developed into such important players for Munster in that neither was greatly heralded on their arrival to Munster.  Warwick arrived after three up-and-down seasons in Connacht and Mafi was a relatively unknown reserve from the Wellington Hurricanes. 

However, Mafi has developed in one of Munster's key men going forward with his pace, power and deft handling skills, and he's arguably even more important in defence.  He's very much the defensive leader, and he sets the tone with his massive hits.  His discipline can let him down occasionally, he's earned four yellow cards this season, but when he keeps his cool his defence can suffocate the life out of teams.

Warwick was always a talented back-up at ten, but he's been a revelation since Tony McGahan decided to try him at full-back for the Sale match back in October.  His kicking game has taken the pressure off O'Gara and his intelligent running gives Munster an extra dimension.  The only possible concern about him is that he's never really had to deal with a proper aerial bombardment.  Leinster tried this early in the game in Thomond Park, but Munster protected him well with some cleverly positioned "blockers".  If Leinster want to try this tactic again, they will need to improve the quality of the kicking and chasing and any blockers need to be unceremoniously smashed out of the way.  

There will probably be only one change to the Munster team that started against the Ospreys.  This is of course the return of Peter Stringer for the unfortunate Tomas O'Leary, who was desperately unlucky to break his ankle against Llanelli only three days after being picked for the Lions.  Having a player of the experience of Stringer to come in softens the blow for Munster, but O'Leary still represents a major loss.  His pace and power around the breakdown has been massively important to Munster in both attack and defence this season.

Leinster will also have to do without a Lion as a bad case of the mumps has laid full-back Rob Kearney low.  Once again though there is a quality experienced replacement in Girvan Dempsey.  Other than that, Michael Cheika will more than likely go with the expected side, Dempsey being the only change from the team that started the Harlequins Quarter-final. 

So, to the Million Dollar question: Can Leinster win?

Well......yes, but it's going to take one hell of a performance.  Everything's going to have to go their way and they'll need to put Munster under enough pressure to knock them off their stride. 

Munster have really evolved into a great all round team this season.  It was always a myth that Munster never played good rugby (remember O'Gara's try against Toulouse in 2000) but it was fair to say that the bigger the game got, the more they focused on keeping it tight and winning through the pack.  Under McGahan they've expanded their style and are now willing to trust their backs no matter what the occasion, while still having the pack to fall back on. 

For Leinster to have any hope of success, they will have to pressure Munster at the set-piece.  They did okay against them in the scrum in Thomond Park, but these days the line-out is far more important and Munster were the decisive winners that day.  Leo Cullen and Malcolm O'Kelly will need to take a leaf from their Harlequins performance and go after Jerry Flannery's throw aggressively.  Munster's lineout is excellent but it's not infallible under sustained pressure.  Equally Bernard Jackman will need to be on the money with his throwing, though in fairness Leinster's lineout only really fell apart that day when he left the field injured.

The breakdown, of course, is going to be crucial.  Again, Leinster did well in this regard a month ago, forcing nearly a dozen turnovers.  They will need to be even better this Saturday, especially in protecting their own ball and the likes of Quinlan, Leamy and O'Callaghan need to be dealt with ruthlessly if they're hanging around on the wrong side of rucks.  The packs main ball carriers will also need to be on top form to make dents in the Munster defence, and everyone needs to offer better support to the guys like Elsom and Heaslip when they do make a break.

The halfbacks will need to be a lot sharper and decisive and the out-side backs need to cut out the over-complicated moves that Munster defence lapped up the last day.  They'll need to run good hard lines to give the halves proper options.  The first twenty-five minutes will be crucial again.  In both the games this season Leinster started well but missed early chances to open the scoring.  It's absolutely vital that Leinster convert any early scoring chances to give the team something to defend.  We saw in London how brilliant the defence can be when they've got a lead to protect.  The defence will again need to be aggressive and brutally confrontational for eighty minutes.  Key ball-carriers like Mafi, Leamy, Wallace and O'Connell need to targeted for big hits. Munster need to be rattled!

A lot of pressure will again fall on the shoulders of Felipe Contepomi.  He's struggled against Munster this season, failing to convert a single kick at goal.  He's been described as a choker in some circles of the Irish media but this will be his last chance to shove those words down the critics throat.  To do this, he'll need to keep his cool and play an out-half's traditional game, he can't try to win the game on his own.  If he does the business and Leinster win, he'll have earned Munster's respect, no matter how galling it is for them to admit.

In fact, for these Leinster players this is really what they're playing for, Respect!  For a lot of the current squad this could well be the last chance to avenge the 2006 defeat.  That game has already gone down in folklore and this game will also be remembered in twenty or thirty years time.  When the Leinster team's playing careers are long since over, they'll still have people approaching them in pubs and clubs about these games. 

They'll take a ribbing from Munster fans over the defeat in 2006, but whether they'll have an answer back that they got their revenge in 2009 is entirely up to them.  This game is about much more than a place in the Heineken Cup final, it's about the pride the players have in the Leinster jersey and proving, once and for all, that they're not just Munster's straight men.

If they can beat this Munster team, quite probably the finest in their illustrious history, it will represent a massive achievement that no-one will ever be able to take away from them.

The prize is there lads, now go get it!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Munster Rugby
Teams Isa Nacewa 15 Paul Warwick
Shane Horgan 14 Doug Howlett
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Keith Earls
Gordon D'Arcy 12 Lifeimi Mafi
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Ian Dowling
Felipe Contepomi 10 Ronan O'Gara
Chris Whitaker 9 Peter Stringer

Cian Healy 1 Marcus Horan
Bernard Jackman 2 Jerry Flannery
Stan Wright 3 John Hayes
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Donncha O'Callaghan
Malcolm O'Kelly 5 Paul O'Connell (C)
Rockie Elsom
6 Alan Quinlan
Shane Jennings 7 David Wallace
Jamie Heaslip 8 Denis Leamy

Replacements John Fogarty 16 Tony Buckley
Ronnie McCormack 17 Denis Fogarty
Devin Toner 18 Mick O'Driscoll
Sean O'Brien 19 Niall Ronan
Simon Keogh 20 Mike Prendergast
Jonathan Sexton 21 Barry Murphy
Girvan Dempsey 22 Denis Hurley

by Jim O'Connor, © 2009-05-06

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