In the build-up to Munster’s Champions Cup semi-final with Racing 92 in Bordeaux last month, Johann van Graan stated that Munster’s pool games with the French side this season would have no bearing on their meeting in the knockout stages. It’s a sentiment that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with, because any time that two teams square off, it gives you a fair idea as to how well they measure up to each other in a number of areas: attacking and defensive structure, set-piece strength (or weakness) and individual performances, to name a few.
It doesn’t mean that you can predict exactly what is going to happen the next time they play one another; form and personnel can change very quickly depending on results and injuries in the interim, but it does provide you with a reference point. It’s easy to read too much into previous fixtures between teams, but considering that tomorrow’s finalists went toe to toe in a knockout game no more a month ago, it’s worth remembering how they both fared, and what has happened in the meantime.
Getting Back Up Off The Canvass
A loss as bad as the one that the Scarlets suffered at the hands of Leinster in the semi-finals of Europe could easily have destroyed their confidence and derailed their season. Instead, Wayne Pivac’s team admirably dusted themselves off and resumed normal service by thumping the Dragons in the Principality Stadium a week later. That was followed up with a demolition job on the Cheetahs in the Pro14 quarter-finals that left little doubt over their potency.
Without rehashing old posts on their style of attack, the Scarlets are one of the most lethal sides in the competition with ball in hand, and they reminded everyone why with some scintillating tries against Glasgow last week:
It was a stark contrast to their fruitless wide movements in their last clash with Leinster, where they shovelled the ball out wide repeatedly to no avail:
Munster created space in the five-metre channel against Leinster in the RDS at the weekend, but couldn’t take advantage of it because their handling failed them on the day. The Scarlets won’t make those mistakes against Leinster, so any opportunities they are afforded will be taken gleefully, going by how clinical they were last Friday.
What is of greater significance than the Scarlet’s invention and skill in the tramlines, though, is the way they flexed their muscles in that resounding win over Glasgow. They displayed a hard-nosed physicality in the tight phases that was missing when Leinster trounced them in the Aviva, and Dave Rennie’s forwards had no answer for the sheer brutality of their opponents:
Running On Fumes
The improvement in forward grunt from the Scarlets forwards doesn’t bode well for Leinster because they didn’t stop the Munster ball carriers at source properly last weekend. CJ Stander has had a quiet season by his own high standards, but he looked close to the force of nature that Munster and Ireland supporters have grown accustomed to against Leinster:
As dynamic as Stander is, the tackling efforts from Jack Conan and Devin Toner in the above example could have been better; the line speed is decent, and although Conan hits low, the Munster number eight fights through the tackle of Toner. He doesn’t make many yards after contact, but he still wins the collision and knocks the Leinster players backwards.
The manner in which the Leinster forwards fatigued incrementally against Munster is a cause for concern. Below, we see James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong struggling to get back into the defensive line in the lead-up to Keith Earls’ try:
Munster didn’t chose to target the gap that was left because of Ryan and Furlong being slow to realign, but if they had, Leinster would have been under pressure to close it.
Ryan didn’t really cement his place in the Leinster or Ireland starting XV’s until after Christmas, but he has played in plenty of high-intensity matches in a short period, and when you add to that the games he started against Montpellier and Argentina, it’s a good deal of top-flight rugby to get used to in his first season as a professional. Furlong has the look of a player who is starting to feel the effects of starting all three Lions Tests last year, and he’s not having the impact around the park that sets him apart from other front rowers.
Both players are remarkably athletic for the positions that they play, so to see them lagging like this is unusual. On the basis of these clear signs of fatigue, it’s difficult to imagine the Leinster forwards having a stranglehold over the Scarlets pack again. Despite the absence of John Barclay, the Welsh side will be competitive in the tackle and on the ground, and every metre that Leinster make will come at full-price.
The expression ‘give them an inch and they’ll take a mile’ has never been more applicable to a team than it is to the current Scarlets squad, and if Leinster take the foot off the pedal at all tomorrow, it will be a long evening. Playing rope-a-dope won’t do because of how the Scarlets operate, and while the mind may be willing, it comes down to whether or not the body is able. If the gamble that the Leinster management are taking by selecting Johhny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Dan Leavy doesn’t pay off, the Aviva Stadium could end up resembling a hospital ward by the final whistle.
Going To The Well
Leinster’s last encounter with the Scarlets was a one-sided affair, and while you could argue that they should have gained confidence from winning the Champions Cup, they have also had to push themselves to the limit of their powers to edge dogfights with Racing 92 and Munster. Their squad depth is certainly the best in Europe, but their first-choice players have a lot of miles on the clock and at some point, they have to be found wanting.
To win tomorrow, Leinster are going to have to dig deep. A couple of their players have been involved in attempts at doing the double before, and they know it takes something quite special to achieve it. Strategy and decision-making only bring you so far in games like this; to get over the line, Leinster are going to have to show an amount of resolve that many teams in the world aren’t capable of producing. It doesn’t help that the Scarlets will be out for revenge for their European humiliation, but any kind of a win at all will secure Leinster’s place in the history books.