For a couple of seasons now, the Leinster v Munster games have been losing their edge, but given what is at stake, tomorrow might be a departure from the sanitised rugby that we have seen in these clashes of late. The off-the-ball melees and unbridled passion that used to be mainstays of the contests between these teams have been less and less apparent every time they play one another, but with a place in the final to play for, there should be plenty of competitive spirit from both sides tomorrow
Leinster are coming into this match off the back of a brutally physical encounter with Racing 92, and their exertions in that game will likely impact their performance levels tomorrow. CJ Stander, Jean Kleyn, Jack O’Donoghue and John Ryan will be salivating at the prospect of carrying into battered Leinster bodies, and Leo Cullen’s side can only have so much in the tank after going hammer and tong with the Racing pack:
Munster were highly physical both sides of the ball in their last game, and while the scoreline was close in the end, they left their mark on the Edinburgh forwards with some bone-shuddering tackles and carries:
Leinster have made a few badly-needed changes to their starting pack in an attempt to freshen things up; Jack Conan will add to their carrying options, and Rhys Ruddock’s work rate and granite-like physicality in defence will be useful against a Munster back row that is packed with abrasive carriers.
Tear In The Fabric
Last Saturday, the Leinster wingers struggled to make the bursts down the touch line that we have come to take for granted from them as a result of the intensity and speed of reorganisation of Racing’s defence. However, there were moments where they cut through, and most of them occurred at roughly the same place in the defensive line:
Leinster can take encouragement from these glimpses of incisiveness because they could find space in Munster’s defence right outside the 13 channel. Sam Arnold is an aggressive defender, and Munster’s general defensive philosophy is to blitz constantly, both of which are good in one sense, because it pressurises the ball carrier’s skill set and decision-making, but if the tackle is missed by rushing up, it can leave a gap on the outside that is easily exploited:
The flat, cut-out pass from 10 to 13 is sure to be used again by Leinster, despite the absence of Johnny Sexton. What makes it so effective when it comes off is that it lures the opposition midfield towards the wrong player with the possibility of an intercept or man-and-ball tackle, but by the time they realise who the recipient actually is, it’s already too late. Rob Kearney made decent yards whenever he was brought into the line against Racing, so we can expect that tactic to be rolled out again, especially with a distributor like Joey Carbery at 15. JP Ferreira will have done his video analysis on these moves, so Leinster will need to utilise misdirection, as well as variation on plays that they have already used this year.
To make line breaks, though, Leinster need to keep a hold off the ball first. They had difficulties on their own throw against Racing because of the intelligent reading and athletic ability of Leone Nakarawa, and with defensive lineout jumpers like Billy Holland and Jean Kleyn in Munster’s starting pack, securing the ball out of touch will be challenging enough on its own. Solidity in the set-piece is an important part of Leinster’s multi-phase attacks, and if their scrum or lineout don’t go according to plan, the machine could grind to a halt.
Even though Leinster won the Champions Cup, they are potentially vulnerable. Munster know them inside-out and they also know that winning a final can be a draining experience, physically and mentally. Leinster came out on top in the last two meetings between these sides, but the build-up to this game is completely different. It’s hard to imagine them being fully recovered by tomorrow afternoon, and with a reputation to uphold and the match being played in their home ground, the pressure is all on them.
Leinster’s starting XV have proven that they are the best team in Europe, but their second-string players have failed to impress recently when they have been handed chances to stake their claim by management. The loss to Benetton at home could have been written off as an anomaly, but when the same group of players were trounced by Connacht in the Sportsground two weeks later, it highlighted the gulf in experience and leadership between Leinster’s starters and reserves.
There have been a number of games this season where, as individuals, the likes of Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery have stepped into the first team without negatively affecting the overall squad performance, but the injuries to Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw may tip the balance in Munster’s favour. Johann van Graan’s side are probably still seething at the nature of their exit from the Champions Cup, and there would be no better way to reassert themselves than knocking over the club who have just been crowned champions of Europe.