Pro14 play-offs: Can Munster stop Leinster?
SPOTLIGHT: Munster did what they needed to and then some but the two rounds of league play that constituted the restart of the Pro14 ended with the same question that dominated when it kicked off – who can stop Leinster?
Well, Munster might feel they have a chance after losing by just two points in their league derby in the first game of the restart and then thumping fellow Irish province, Connacht, on Sunday. For both Munster coach Johann van Graan and for the tournament organisers, that was the best possible result as it means Munster at least take some momentum into Friday’s semifinal.
The fact that the game will be played on Friday introduces some interesting questions, for it does mean that Munster have just a five-day turnaround.
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— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) August 30, 2020
But while that suggests a disadvantage and Van Graan has had something to say about it in the Irish media, Munster did score seven tries and showed such good attacking shape in what effectively became the final dress rehearsal.
There’s not much time for Munster to work on the tweaks that Van Graan might regard as necessary for the semifinal, but at least his team is carrying the momentum that was picked up in a somewhat bizarre final game of their league campaign.
Those who watched Sunday’s game, which was turned into a decider for a place in the play-offs by the Scarlets’ excellent bonus-point win over the Dragons the day before, will know there is a caveat. Munster were impressive, but Connacht played much of the game with 13 men after two players were sent off in the first half.
What needs to be pointed out though is that Munster were already ahead 14-0 when Abraham Papali’i was shown the red card for a head-high tackle. Eight minutes later Shane Delahunt followed him to the sidelines for contacting CJ Stander’s neck with his elbow, effectively ending any chance of the match being a contest.
Munster did their best to redress the balance between the teams before half-time, with two players shown yellow cards. When the sides went to the break it was like a rugby league fixture – 13 against 13. But Munster were already ahead 21-7 and once the two yellow carded players came back onto the field it was no race.
But back to Leinster, for with the record they boast the talk should really be all about them. Their comprehensive 28-10 win over Ulster ensured they ended the league phase of the Pro14 season unbeaten. Not only that, they won every game too, most of them by comprehensive margins, and have now extended their winning sequence in all competitions to 23.
An illustration of their superiority in the competition comes by way of the fact that they finished with 69 log points, with the next best teams across the two conferences, Edinburgh and Munster, both ending 18 points adrift on 51. Their pole position means that Leinster will host the 12 September Final should they win their semifinal.
It is likely to happen too, for with a record like that can we expect them to be beaten? Possibly not, for the last two games have shown that the hiatus brought on by the coronavirus hasn’t taken away that indefinable something that makes them a champion team. Perhaps clinical is the best word to describe it, although there are other ingredients, such as composure and confidence, but somehow Leinster just always seem to manage to get what they need in the big moments of a game.
That was what got them home against Munster nine days ago. Munster had enough ball to win that match, but the Leinster defence was brilliant until the final quarter, when Munster started to get some profit by quickening up the tempo.
Munster played with good tempo against Connacht, with former Southern Kings loose forward Chris Cloete playing well, so perhaps Van Graan and his assistants feel they have stumbled upon the needed ingredient.
Saturday’s semifinal in Edinburgh will require more guesswork in trying to figure out the likely winner than will be required in Dublin on Friday. For both home team Edinburgh and visitors Ulster go into the play-off game off disappointing performances and defeats.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) August 30, 2020
For Edinburgh, who had the previous week’s result against derby rivals Glasgow Warriors reversed on them, it might be less of a concern, as they were good in the game where they needed to be good, which was the previous week.
Ulster, by contrast, haven’t won since rugby’s return to play in the United Kingdom, Italy and Ireland, with the defeat to Leinster following on from the loss to Connacht the week before.
Although the second Scottish derby in the space of six days wasn’t up to the level of the first one, the second weekend since the return of Pro14 again produced some high-quality rugby. Leinster were highly efficient in their win the following, and Munster did what they had to do, but perhaps the performance of the weekend was delivered by Scarlets, who did what they needed to by winning with a bonus point against the Dragons.
They won’t be part of the play-offs but the start of the 2020/2021 Pro14 is near enough for Scarlets to feel that these games have been good confidence boosters for them.
Leinster v Munster
Date: Friday, September 4
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 19.35 (18.35 GMT)
Edinburgh v Ulster
Date: Saturday, September 5
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 19.35 (18.35 GMT)
Edinburgh 3-15 Glasgow Warriors
Ulster 10-28 Leinster
Dragons 20-41 Scarlets
Munster 49-12 Connacht
Cardiff Blues 29-20 Ospreys
Zebre 9-16 Benetton