What is rare is always wonderful. Look at the joy that surrounded Glasgow and Scarlets respectively winning the 2015 and 2017 PRO12 titles, uprisings that gave Scotland and Wales their next Test team head coaches and reminded everyone that the currently titled PRO14 isn’t just about the four Irish provinces.
The Irish have consistently monstered this tournament despite the tendency for Ireland Test level players to not feature very much in it due to central contracting. Look at Johnny Sexton – this Friday night, if the stats on his Leinster website profile are on point, will finally bring up his 100th PRO14 appearance nearly 15 years after his January 2006 league debut at Borders.
That’s an enormous length of time but the thing with Sexton, along with so many of his Test colleagues, is that he is rarely missed at PRO14 level, such is the richness of the resources coursing through the Irish development system which ensures it maintains its general dominance over the Scots, the Welsh and the others who make up the numbers in this 19-season-old tournament.
It has nearly been ever thus: 13 of the league’s 19 editions have been played with knockout stage finales and this weekend’s latest last-four line-up is the sixth occasion – the fourth in the past seven campaigns – in which Ireland’s teams have taken three of the four semi-final spots.
That’s rather greedy, and yet this dominance isn’t without its idiosyncrasies. Take this Friday’s scheduling. A five-day turnaround is usually frowned upon in Irish circles where player welfare is at the top of the central contracting agenda.
XVs are in for Friday night lights at the Aviva https://t.co/mgez1iQ6ST
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 3, 2020
Just remember how Leinster accused European officials of taking the pee some years ago when they had to follow an away pool assignment in France on a Sunday by backing up that effort in Dublin the following Friday. Munster’s travelling this week won’t be as excessive – just two round trips on the M7 from Limerick – but the fact they have to go all-out with a dozen of the same starting team that ran out versus Connacht last Sunday goes against the grain of the Irish ‘we look after our players so very well’ mantra.
What gives? With the Republic of Ireland soccer team booked in to play at the Aviva on Sunday, a Friday night slot was given to Leinster-Munster, an insult to Munster given the short turnaround it forced on them.
Add in how they seldom if ever win in Dublin these days – one win in 15 away to Leinster since ‘nilling’ them in September 2008 – and it’s safe to suggest the challenge confronting them is Everest-like for a club trying so very hard to replicate magical past glories.
Getting over the big-stage hump has long become an issue in a dreadful derby sequence that started with that seminal Heineken Cup semi-final loss at Croke Park in 2009 and in recent years has featured successive PRO14 semi-final defeats at the RDS.
What has continuously done for Munster is the near set-in-stone pattern whereby Leinster usually dictate early on the scoreboard, leaving the visitors to play catch-up. This was yet again the case last Saturday week when the hosts leapt 24-13 clear before the late drama that was JJ Hanrahan missing a conversion to tie the game at 27-all.
If there is a blueprint for getting the job done, it’s the 2014 Aviva plan that had the fingerprints of the late Anthony Foley all over it. Munster savaged Leinster in the opening half that day, leading 28-9 at the break before closing out a deserved 34-23 win.
Their pack was ravenous on that occasion and essentially the moral is that Munster must lead from the front on Friday night, be the aggressor and force Leinster from their comfort zone rather than having to fashion a futile late comeback after their initial strategy fails to work.
There is something to enthuse in the sense that wingers Andrew Conway and Keith Earls retain the potency to deliver tries, an ability to go wide that reflects positively on the first-term manipulations of assistant coach Stephen Larkham, an armoury now added to by the confrontational attributes of new midfield signing Damian de Allende.
But Munster badly need a victory to endorse the curious Johann van Graan reign. Onboard since November 2017 when Rassie Erasmus hurried back to South Africa to fashion their World Cup triumph, doubts exist that van Graan genuinely has the capabilities to end a trophy drought that stretches back to Munster’s 2011 Thomond Park league final win over Leinster, the foe who have since lifted seven trophies while Munster have been potless.
It was a fortunate European quarter-final win over Edinburgh in April 2019 that earned the South African his contract extension rather than the club waiting and factoring semi-finals losses to Saracens and Leinster into their thinking, and he has similarly been fortunate since then in that this year’s Covid stoppage helped people forget his team exited Europe at the pool stage last January – a rare occurrence for a club whose annual minimum is reaching the last-eight shake-up.
It’s why this latest PRO14 showdown with Leinster has the feel of something of a crossroads. Can van Grann finally deliver and allow Munster regain some high ground, or will they continue to remain eclipsed by the long shadow cast by the stronger Leinster squad that keeps pushing back the boundaries, their latest trick being the engineering of a record 21-game league and cup winning streak in 2019/20? We’ll know the answer about this fork in the road soon enough.
Quite a claim by the World Cup winner just 2?? games into his career in Irelandhttps://t.co/MwQ814HKYw
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 3, 2020
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