Leinster find their swagger to set up dream final

With question marks hanging over both provinces heading into their respective Champions Cup semi-finals, the likelihood of an all-Irish European final appeared distinctly unlikely in advance of the weekend’s action.

With 12 Heineken/Champions Cup’s and 17 decider appearances between them, the four semi-finalists represented European rugby royalty.

For Munster, however, reaching the last four — as has been the case seven times since their last success — represents the height of their capabilities. Given how hard it is to win a Champions Cup, there’s no shame in that.

If Toulouse, by their own admission, overachieved by reaching this stage, then Leinster, with a superb all-round performance, looked destined to win their semi-final from the outset.

With Johnny Sexton back in the groove and playing with authority in Leinster colours for the first time in 2019, the two best teams in the tournament all season have made it all the way to the decider.

The winners of the last three Champions Cups now go head to head in Newcastle in what promises to be a mouthwatering decider.

Leinster have stuttered over the last few months for a variety of reasons but, with all their big guns back in harness, looked in total control from the start in the Aviva Stadium yesterday. As I alluded to in advance of this game, getting the tight selection calls right would make all the difference. Leinster did that while Toulouse may choose to start with a different configuration across their back line if they had their time again.

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster were rewarded for having the confidence to start Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, and Devin Toner, despite limited game time heading into this contest. Toner brings such assurance and solidity to the lineout that it enabled his side gain a foothold. Off that platform up front, Sexton was back to his influential best and pulled all the right strings.

In contrast, the decision of the Toulouse management to start only one of the back line in the same position they occupied when overcoming Racing 92 in the quarter-final backfired badly. Antoine Dupont is an outstanding scrum-half whose pace ties in the opposition back row and buys precious seconds for his out-half. But by selecting him at No.10, they lost so much elsewhere.

That said, Leinster’s pack performed with such cohesiveness and authority, with the likes of Toner, James Ryan, Scott Fardy, and Jack Conan outstanding, Toulouse would have struggled to make any sustained impression on the game.

They are reputed to be the fittest team in the Top 14. If that’s the case it doesn’t say a lot about the rest in the competition. For a side that regularly performs in the heat in the south of France, the visitors looked listless and off the pace from the outset.

By way of contrast, Leinster played with the swagger of champions, something we hadn’t seen since the opening round of the Champions Cup last October when they put 52 points on Wasps at the RDS.

Having packed their forward unit with bulk and power, the fact Leinster kept smashing the visitors’ big ball-carriers in the tackle and limited their entry into the Leinster 22 left them chasing points.

On the other side of the ball, a calamitous series of mistakes from Toulouse full-back Thomas Ramos offered Leinster the openings they needed. Sexton looked razor sharp and seized every opportunity that came his way. The opening score from James Lowe — he surely has to start in the final as one of the two non-Europeans — was vintage Leinster.

The interaction between backs and forwards, the ability to play the ball out of the tackle, with Cian Healy making one vital offload, set up an opening try from Lowe that left Toulouse questioning themselves after only 14 minutes.

When Richie Gray was yellow-carded for stupidly playing the ball on the ground, Sexton wasted no time in going to the corner from the subsequent penalty in the knowledge that, down a 19-stone forward, Toulouse were vulnerable to the Leinster maul.

Fardy justified that decision with a second try and Leinster were on their way.

It was only when Toulouse introduced Romain Ntamack at No.10 and restored Dupont to his more familiar slot that they made any inroads.

Even then it was insufficient to trouble a superbly well-organised Leinster defence that kept the visitors’ famed offloading game at bay.

Leinster will only get better on the back of this performance but they will have to given the quality Saracens, their opponents in the final on May 11 final opponents, Saracens, displayed in Coventry on Saturday.

After six defeats at the penultimate stage over the last decade, the pressure on Munster going into that game, to not only perform but to deliver an overdue win and reach their first final since 2008, was stifling, even more so in the 22C heat that engulfed the Ricoh Arena.

The statistic that resonated most with me in the buildup to this contest surrounded the team’s respective top try-scorers in Europe this season. Saracens’ British and Irish Lion Sean Maitland had four while Joey Carbery and Keith Earls had claimed three apiece for Munster.

Without that brilliant duo, apart from the traditional sources up front, where were Munster’s tries going to come from? To beat Saracens, you have to be able to score tries, given that the English giants are the tournament’s top try-scorers this season, averaging over four per game.

The comfort blanket Munster carried into the game was their superb defensive record in the tournament this season, conceding just nine tries and 72 points in their seven games en route to this clash. With Saracens scoring seven tries against Glasgow Warriors in their quarter-final alone, that aspect of Munster’s armoury was always going to be tested.

To their credit, their defensive effort over the course of the opening half was monumental given the dominance which Saracens enjoyed. Giving up 58% possession and 62% territory in that period, Munster were treading water but, miraculously, were able to plug every hole Saracens managed to create.

To achieve that, Munster needed to make 82 tackles in humid conditions that they hadn’t experienced for some time. That was energy sapping. As a result, despite a score of 12-9 in Saracens’ favour at the break, I wasn’t looking forward to the second half with any degree of optimism from a Munster perspective.

Recollections of the 2017 semi-final at the Aviva Stadium kept flashing before me. On that occasion, Saracens also carried a three-point advantage into the dressing room having sized Munster up for most of the first half. On the restart they then pressed the pedal to the floor and ran out comfortable winners.

Despite the heroic manner with which Munster were defending once again in Coventry, it was inevitable the dam was going to burst. Denied possession and territory, Munster are not the type of team that survives off scraps. When you are losing the aerial battle on top of that, as Munster did from the outset when Mike Haley, under enormous pressure from David Strettle, failed to deal with Ben Spencer’s first three box kicks, Munster were on the back foot from the outset.

The try, from outstanding back rower Michael Rhodes three minutes into the second half, just added to the sense of inevitability about the outcome. It didn’t help that Saracens’ ability to retain possession for long periods — there was a 20-phase build up to that Rhodes’ try — forced Munster into conceding too many penalties.

Saracens just thrive on that and Owen Farrell was at his punishing best, contributing 22 points from the boot, 18 of which were as a direct consequence of those breakdown infringements. While Munster did well to only concede 10 penalties in total, it was the ones within range of the posts that allowed Farrell to build a score.

When you consider that Saracens only outscored Munster by two tries to one, those penalty concessions proved crucial. Having to defend against monstrous men, like Munster were forced to do for long periods, sucks the life out of a side.

The sight of Springbok tight head prop Vincent Koch and the beastly Wallaby second row Will Skelton being sprung from the bench, at a time when several of Munster’s forward’s were gasping for air, only served to highlight the magnitude of the task.

Even Munster’s try had a degree of fortune attached to it with Jack O Donoghue’s boot dislodging the ball at the base of a rock-solid Saracens defensive scrum, right under the nose of referee Jerome Garces.

In the end, it made no difference as the back-to-back European champions from 2016 and 2017 gave notice that it will take a mighty performance to beat them in this season’s decider in Newcastle.

For Munster it means more disappointment with yet another semi-final defeat, the fifth for many of this current squad. Yet again, they showed enough to justify their rating as a top-four European side. In achieving that, for the third year in a row, they continue to maximise the sum of their parts. What Saturday’s performance highlighted, once again, is that Munster still have a distance to travel to reclaim their place at the summit of European rugby.

For Leinster the chance to become the first side to win five European Cups will drive them even further over the next three weeks. They will need to as Saracens served notice against Munster that they too want their title back after the historic wins in 2016 and 2017. Once again, tournament organisers EPCR have landed the dream final.

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