After a small break away from posting, we are back in business at the business end of the premier club competition in world rugby. The European Champions cup rolls into the semi-finals and we have 1 French side, 1 Welsh and 2 Irish vying for the title.
Leinster welcomes the team tipping at their toes in the league, the Scarlets. The team that has had the number of the Irish clubs in the last couple of years. They play a sexy brand of rugby and have a lot of stars, but no massive superstars. Meaning that whenever the national side is picked, they can continue to play at the top table. This was visible when they played Leinster in Wales on the 10th March which was a 10-10 draw. That was following on from a 20-13 Leinster win in the home fixture. The fantastic (but possibly silly)reasoning for putting the top 2 teams on during the 6 nations was to show that even with the national players out of the team, both sides still play a fantastic style of rugby and the gap between the first and second string is minimal.
And so we get to the semi-finals. Scarlets arrive in Dublin to take on the form team and that is the scalp that they target. Any team in the semi-finals can win it.
Leinster welcomes Scarlets knowing that if they play at 85% they have a massive chance of winning by 2 scores. But they also know that if they play at 84%, then the visitors have a huge opportunity to topple a giant. Last year Leinster where hot and cold, this year they have been consistent and improving. The strangulation rugby they play means that Scarlets have to be 3 tries clear before they can contemplate winning. That is huge for anyone playing Leinster. They are never beaten, it is not magic (a la Conway against Toulon) that keeps Leinster in the game, and it is the fact that they are the rugby equivalent of a python. Once you are caught you are in trouble.
The game is massively close. Nearly too close to call, and that is with my blue jersey and blue tinted glasses on. Both teams look to be fairly clean injury wise, meaning that there aren’t any brand new injuries. O’Brien will be out again but Henshaw is in the running for a start which puts himself and Ringrose back in a midfield that had captain Nacewa rolling back the years in recent weeks. The coaching staff has that problem that all coaching staffs want, who to play where and who to leave out.
But let’s look at the head to head:
Leinster has won the last 4 games in Europe against the visitors but are coming in off a loss to an improving Treviso last week at home. A game that featured many new players but the 2 point loss will be a thorn in the paw of the entire squad. That is important. Scarlets come in with 2 losses and a draw in the last 5, losing to Leinster and Munster recently so they will be out for revenge after resting players last week against Edinburgh. A heavy defeat to the scots will also ranker the side. So they both will be coming in ready for a scrap.
No one has the edge here.
In terms of selection, Scarlets will stick as close to their main team as they can. The depth just isn’t there as of yet. It is improving. The back row of Beirne, MacLeod and Boyd have their work cut out for them and I think this is where they will attempt to get to the Leinster 9. They are aggressive and dangerous everywhere and with Gibson-Park coming in for an injured McGrath (as of 19/04) they will be chomping at the bit to put their hands on him early.
Leinster on the other hand may be welcoming back Robbie Henshaw, ahead of schedule. Massively ahead of schedule. The thought of the midfield partnership with ringrose being back together is enough to make every member of the blue army (and most neutrals) salivate. They will be head and shoulders ahead of the opposing midfield. Assuming fitness of course.
At the end of the day, it is the same old question when it comes to big games. If you could choose from both squads for a starting team, how many red players would be in the match day 15? How many would be in tracksuits? How many would be in Louis Copelands while abusing the free bar?
For me, the only players with a sniff of a game day birth in that situation is the Scarlets back row. For me, if (and it is always if) Leinster can control the early fight they will get the two score win. If the visitors are within a sniff with 15 minutes to go, then we have a game on our hands. Pressure will mount on the favourites!
More when the teams are selected.