So half of Ireland marched into the semi-finals of the premier club competition in world rugby. 1 team dominating all that has stood before them, the other always playing tough but usually depending on magic to get them over the line. Who would make it through to the final in Bilbao?
Speaking on Leinster first. They arrived into the home neutral venue of Aviva stadium to a sea of blue and a volume that was fantastic to hear. Scarlets have become the other old enemy especially after the number they did on Leinster last year with 14 men in the league semi-final. That game was upsetting to watch live, but there was only 1 team in it that day. Would a repeat be on?
Going in, both had decent league form and European form, but Leinster is the dynasty team. A team comfortable in knowing that. A team that the opposition know they have to score 3 tries before they are killed. Scarlets had that pressure going in. Knowing that you have to put a score on the opposition is always an added pressure that isn’t always enjoyable for a team. We have all been there at every level, knowing you have to put points on adds pressure to every play and every pass. Scarlets knew that to be in with a shot, Leinster had to be misfiring very slightly. I had said going in, if Leinster play at 85% then they will win by 2 scores, if they play at 84% then Scarlets have a chance. That is how close I saw it on Saturday morning.
The dogfight started early in front of a massive and loud crowd. As an aside, the Welsh support is always great craic whether it is club or country. Always welcome in any stadium in Ireland. Beirne won an early penalty which galvanised the red support, but it also put a bit of grease into Leinster. They suddenly went into shutting down Scarlets at source. The midfield and the back row where the points Leinster looked to dominate, and dominate they did.
Robbie Henshaw came back in half the recovery time to put the blue jersey on beside Garry Ringrose which is something that every Leinster and Ireland supporter salivates at. In green there is Aki to back up those 2 but for Leinster to have that midfield is truly a massive example of their management as a business. Henshaw looked stronger, quicker, braver and more dangerous than ever. Scarlets may have looked at him coming off an injury as a perceived weak link, but that plan was thrown out the window early doors. Massive boost for Leinster, massive dent for Scarlets. Henshaw had 15 tackles, Ringrose had 10. Out of that combined tackle count, only 1 was missed. Ringrose had 6 runs for 16 metres while Henshaw had 9 for 26. A massive shift by both.
Scarlets had to have a lot of things go right. They had to keep the penalty count down, they did this with a total penalty count of 6 to Leinsters 7, and they had to keep the ball. Which didn’t go to plan with 41% possession and very little of it in the red zone. They had only 34% territory. They were forced to work with a 93% tackle completion rate with 183 of 196 tackles made.
Scarlets didn’t play badly, but they were strangled. Leinster slowly throttled them like a python squeezing a mouse. There was a confidence bordering on arrogance from Leinster. A realisation of what they are, and that is the team to beat.
The bet going in was Leinster by 2 scores; we nearly got it right with a 38-16 score line to finish. A massive marker put down for the other semi-final, no team left in the competition would have been able to deal with that performance.
So we headed to France for Racing 92 v Munster. The other semi-final that held the key to an Irish takeover of Bilbao.
Munster came in after some magic from Conway beat Toulon and from a trip to Africa that was meant to keep the team away from the fishbowl of Munster, to bring them together as a team and to make them laser focused on Racing.
I thought that the long flights the playing at altitude and the massive heat on game day would sap Munster of energy. They looked nervous for the first 20 minutes and paid dearly with Racing piling on the points. 24-3 at half time. Only Munster could come back from that? This is the point where people spoke about the fighting spirit of old but you could see that very few believed it would happen, especially when Racing put 3 points up just after half time.
Looking at the stats, they are all read. Possession was 69% Munster; they ran nearly 100 more metres than Racing with 77% territory. If you look at that you expect a red win. Their set piece was good to, no scrums lost but 4 lineouts given away. 2 of which were in the red zone and when a lineout is stolen on your own line it gives you a lift while killing the lineout team and this is what happened. Munster would put themselves in position to do damage and then Racing would either steal or Munster would make a mistake. Every time that happened the heads dropped lower.
Racing appeared to tackle like a team who lost a contact lens on the ground; they keep so low it was like they were trying to find it in the grass. Every tackle was chop. Knowing Munster would struggle with offloading. The heat played a factor too and they just looked flat. Early doors I would call it pressure, but as the game went on they looked like they need a 4 shot cappuccino to get them going. The front row was mostly decimated save for a couple of scrum penalties, but if you compare the Munster front row to the Leinster front row for a second. Not getting into rivalries, but 1 team has a front row that can do anything, pass, tackle and offload. The other team won’t get magic from their front row. Something that might want to be looked at.
But Munster did come back as Racing wilted under the heat. That is something that Leinster can take on board. When the pressure was on, they wilted. The game was over by then but Munster and their beautiful stubbornness started a comeback. Try score was 3-3. But there was never really a point where we thought Munster could snatch victory. You could see it in their faces at half time, they gave everything but there was just a level they couldn’t reach. The Conway try at 81 minutes put gloss on a 27-22 score line, but with a team that has made more semi-finals in the top competition that nearly any other team, it looks like lessons aren’t being learnt as quickly as the players would like.
Leinster played like a team happy with being favourite, Munster where a team that needed a few things to go their way and some magic. That is the main difference as we march to Bilbao.