Pro14 - Predictions and Teams, Semifinals
SINK OR SWIM: The business end of the 2019/20 PRO14 season has arrived as four teams remain in contention to lift the title following the conclusion of a truncated regular campaign.
Defending champions Leinster appear to be the front runners after finishing the season unbeaten but interprovincial rivals Munster will be determined to spoil their parade at Aviva Stadium.
Meanwhile, Conference B winners Edinburgh face Ulster in the other Semi-Final contest as both sides eye a place in the PRO14 showpiece for a shot at the grand prize.
Leinster won the fixture a fortnight ago between the two clubs, taking the spoils narrowly 27-25 and are unbeaten this season, but Springbok Damian De Allende says under South African coach Johann van Graan he sees the type of ambition that brings trophies and that excites him.
“For me personally no matter where I play I always strive to win tournaments and championships. I signed for Munster because I feel they have the credentials, the coaching staff and the heart,” he said ahead of the semifinal.
“From what I’ve watched on television, and obviously I have only played two games here, but I feel they have that team environment that they actually want to achieve, where you could go to another squad and you will have all the names and stars but they aren’t working for that success.
“I feel just playing in these two games there is a real want and desire to win the semifinals and finals, and not just once or twice, but consistently. And not just in Pro14, but in the Champions Cup as well. Friday night is going to be a very tough encounter but hopefully we will pitch up.
“We know it is just a mental thing. We haven’t played a lot of rugby over the past six months, so there will be a few sore bodies. I think if we get the right mindset and we pitch up knowing we have one opportunity, and not worry about anything else, just stay in that moment for 80 minutes then hopefully we can walk off with big smiles on our faces on Friday,”
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Despite, Leinster starting as favourites, Munster will be hoping its third time lucky – the third time they will face their rivals in PRO14 playoff games in as many years. And De Allende is chomping at the bit to get out there.
His match-up against Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose – the incumbent Irish centres will be keenly watched, especially after the Leinster pair got the better of Munster in the last clash.
“They are both world-class centres, both have been very good at international level. Leinster was very good and they put in some good kicks behind us as well. We know that we can’t put too many at the breakdown, sometimes we are committing too many guys, especially on our defensive line.
“If we commit too many guys and we are short on defence, they will exploit us very easily. They did so in that first game. We need to be aware of that, they are also very physical and very fast and we will have to be switched on.”
De Allende believes while the first game took its toll physically after so long off, the team needed their win over Connacht last week to give them confidence for Friday.
“I would say pretty decent. Obviously that first game against Leinster was pretty tough on the body, I’d been out for long, and hadn’t played. And to come up against Leinster, a world-class team, the number one or two team in the world at the moment at club level is quite a challenge.
“It is a good test for us as a team going forward. We had quite a few new guys who came in as well and I think we held up well. Last week was a lot better in terms of the result, but it was also very good for the semifinals.
“Connacht was very physical. There was a lot of energy and it felt like we needed almost a tough game like that before a semifinal, leading up to Friday.”
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Meanwhile, in the other semifinal fixture, Ulster coach Dan McFarland is under no illusions that his team has a mountain to climb when they face Edinburgh – particularly as he is quite aware that the Scarlets are the only team in Pro14 history to have scored an away win in a semi-final.
“You could legitimately say that Edinburgh and Leinster have been the standout teams in the competition this year,” said McFarland. “Richard [Cockerill – Edinburgh coach] has built a squad based on quality international players. I think they have 20 in their squad. You only have to look at the league table as it stands. Leinster are the team to beat but Edinburgh aren’t far behind them.”
Edinburgh are inspired by several players with South African backgrounds, such as loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman, wing Duhan van der Merwe and the halfback duo of Nic Groom and Jaco van der Walt, and were excellent in beating the Warriors in the first Scottish derby nearly two weeks ago.
The most recent clash between the sides though went the way of Warriors, which means that Ulster could have something to cling to. One thing that Edinburgh won’t have that their fellow Scottish team had at Scotstoun last year is a passionate crowd egging them on. But McFarland plays down the potential role that a closed stadium could have on evening up the contest.
“What is it that a crowd gives a team? Maybe it gives the home team a little bit more juice,” says McFarland.
“But I think we also did a disservice last year to the players themselves and their desire to win matches. When it’s a semi-final you don’t really need extra motivation.”
For McFarland, the 2018/2019 semi-final was just one of those games which you’d prefer to forget.
“Last year was disappointing. We were knocked over by the first wave and then never got back on our feet. Well, not until it was too late,” he recalled.
“So there was a disappointment we didn’t play as well as we could have done and that really soured the experience for me. But I know there is a lot of hunger in the squad this year and we want to give it our best shot this weekend. The task in front of us is a difficult one. There’s only ever been two away semi-final wins in the history of the competition, both by Scarlets. I know the difficultly of the task but we want to give it a better shot than last year.”
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Friday, September 4
Leinster v Munster
(Aviva Stadium, Dublin – Kick-off: 19:35, 18.35 GMT)
With a perfect 100 percent winning record in the 2019/20 regular season, reigning champions Leinster have their tails up as they prepare to renew their rivalry with Munster.
Victory against Ulster last time out made it 23 games unbeaten in all competitions for Leo Cullen’s men, who are on the cusp of a hat-trick of titles after their 2018 and 2019 triumphs. The home side are bidding to reach their ninth PRO14 Final in the last 11 years but they will face their sternest test yet against a Munster team with revenge on their mind.
Conference B runners-up Munster have lost their last four semi-finals in all tournaments, including last season’s last four contest against Leinster in the PRO14. Yet having run the defending champions close in their first game after the restart, a 27-25 defeat in Round 14, Johann van Graan’s side are more than capable of ending their semi-final curse.
@rugby365com: Leinster by three points
Leinster: 15 Jordan Larmour, 14 Hugo Keenan, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (captain), 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan, 7 Will Connors, 6 Caelan Doris, 5 Scott Fardy, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rónan Kelleher, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Seán Cronin, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Rory O’Loughlin
Munster: 15 Shane Daly, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Keith Earls, 10 JJ Hanrahan, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Jack O’Donoghue, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Billy Holland, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Niall Scannell, 1 Jeremy Loughman
Replacements: 16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 James Cronin, 18 John Ryan, 19 Fineen Wycherley, 20 Chris Cloete, 21 Craig Casey, 22 Rory Scannell, 23 Mike Haley
Referee: Andrew Brace
Assistant referees: George Clancy, Sean Gallagher
TMO: Brian MacNeice
Saturday, September 5
Edinburgh v Ulster
(BT Murrayfield, Edinburgh – Kick-off: 19:35, 18.35 GMT)
Richard Cockerill’s men secured their place in the PRO14 Semi-Finals for the first time with victory over Glasgow Warriors in their opening game after rugby’s restart.
The Conference B winners also sealed the 1872 Cup in the process before their Scottish rivals edged a dead rubber between the two sides 15-3 last weekend at BT Murrayfield. Edinburgh can now turn their attention a blockbuster collision with Ulster, who come into the contest on the back of consecutive interprovincial defeats to Connacht and Leinster.
But while Ulster’s form since the restart has been less than convincing, Dan McFarland’s men will feel buoyed by their recent record against Edinburgh – winning their last three meetings.
Ulster are also much more accustomed to this stage of the competition as they prepare to contest their ninth Guinness PRO14 semi-final, although they have only won one previous match.
@rugby365com: Edinburgh by seven points
Referee: Frank Murphy
Assistant referees: Mike Adamson, Sam Grove-White
TMO: Neil Patterson