Rac­ing aces can gate­crash Ir­ish party

The Rugby Paper - - Analysis -

CAN any­body stop Le­in­ster? In­deed, can any­body stop the Ir­ish? Le­in­ster have been the form side through­out this year’s Cham­pi­ons Cup while Mun­ster have ap­peared one of the few teams ca­pa­ble of se­ri­ously chal­leng­ing them. Are the semi-fi­nals next week a for­mal­ity or can Scar­lets and Rac­ing 92 pre­vent the all-Ir­ish fi­nal many are pre­dict­ing?

Le­in­ster are the tour­na­ment favourites but will be wary of a Scar­lets side who can match their fire­power be­hind the scrum and en­joy play­ing at a high tempo and, with that in mind, I fancy Le­in­ster will try and play it very tight up front ini­tially. They will spend a fair time try­ing to bat­ter Scar­lets into sub­mis­sion be­fore they go in for the kill… and they have the pack to do it.

This is a Le­in­ster side who im­posed a stran­gle­hold on the for­mi­da­ble Sara­cens pack in the quar­ter-fi­nals and out­mus­cled Mont­pel­lier and even Ex­eter in the pool stages where they con­trolled pos­ses­sion and ter­ri­tory. They might ap­pear a glam­orous side but they don’t lack for grunt ei­ther.

They pos­sess a Test qual­ity pack. Cian Healy, Tadgh Fur­long, James Ryan and Dan Leavy – all four would make your Tour­na­ment XV – and Le­in­ster will be look­ing to them to im­pose a stran­gle­hold on the game. This might not be the free flow­ing try-fest that many are ex­pect­ing.

Given Le­in­ster’s power in the front five Scar­lets will have to rely more than ever on the scav­eng­ing qual­i­ties of their back row, es­pe­cially the abil­ity of James Davies and John Bar­clay to pro­duce their nor­mal ra­tion of turnovers in the tackle area. Tadgh Bierne also comes up with more steals than is de­cent for a sec­ond row and it is that pos­ses­sion that Scar­lets work off best.

As ever the reff­ing will be cru­cial in this area. This sea­son we have, for ex­am­ple, seen how Scot­land pros­pered at the break­down when Nigel Owens of­fered a lot of lee­way in the match against Eng­land but con­versely how they suf­fered badly a cou­ple of weeks later against Ire­land at the Aviva when Wayne Barnes utilised a much stricter in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the laws. Bar­clay had free rein at Mur­ray­field but found him­self thwarted in Dublin.

Adapt­ing to the ref­eree on the day will be cru­cial for Scar­lets. Ide­ally, they will want a free for all but if the laws are be­ing rigidly im­posed they must adapt im­me­di­ately or cough up a stream of penal­ties. Ro­maine Poite has been ap­pointed and al­though the French­man is a stick­ler for the laws at scrum­time he can be a lit­tle bit more le­nient at the tackle area. Scar­lets might get their wish.

What the Welsh team must also do is ig­nore their sup­port­ers moan­ing about the clear ad­van­tage the so called neu­tral semi-fi­nal venue ap­pears to of­fer Le­in­ster.

Yes, Dublin is their manor and the Aviva of­ten feels like Le­in­ster’s home

from home but Scar­lets need to flip this around and ac­cen­tu­ate the pos­i­tive be­cause they have an im­pres­sive record on the road. The or­gan­is­ers might ac­tu­ally have done them a favour.

Last year in the space of a cou­ple of weeks in the PRO12 play-offs they de­feated Le­in­ster 27-15 at the Royal Dublin Show­ground and then, in mag­nif­i­cent style, they si­lenced a ca­pac­ity crowd at the Aviva by thump­ing Mun­ster 46-22 in the fi­nal. That six-try bl­itzkrieg re­ally alerted the wider.

“Dan Carter is on the come­back trail for Rac­ing and is an in­cred­i­ble card to play af­ter the break’

rugby world to the very good things hap­pen­ing at the Scar­lets.

This sea­son they should prob­a­bly have won at Toulon and then pro­duced the per­for­mance of the pool stages with their mes­meris­ing win at Bath. This is a team very com­fort­able fac­ing big chal­lenges in hos­tile en­vi­ron­ments. It slightly eases the pres­sure of ex­pec­ta­tion and frees them up to do what they do best.

So the out­come? I’m stick­ing with Le­in­ster who I tipped to take the tro­phy af­ter the pool stages. I’m not so con­fi­dent how­ever that I would back my hunch with any fold­ing money.

Mean­while, Mun­ster visit Bordeaux for the first time since their break­through semi-fi­nal win over Toulouse in 2000, the fa­mous ‘duel in the sun’ – a game played out in scorch­ing con­di­tions – which more than any es­tab­lished their rep­u­ta­tion in Europe.

“That was the day it all kicked off, that match in Bordeaux is right up there with any in Mun­ster’s rugby his­tory,” re­calls their cap­tain that day Mick Gal­wey. “It was the day we an­nounced our­selves as se­ri­ous Euro­pean Cup con­tenders and it was the day Mun­ster rugby fully em­braced pro­fes­sion­al­ism. Once we made that leap men­tally, then all things were pos­si­ble. We set a bench­mark against Toulouse that day in terms of com­mit­ment, stamina and qual­ity of rugby.

“I re­mem­ber no­body re­ally wanted Toulouse away in the semi-fi­nals but we had picked up our first win in France dur­ing the pools, at Colomiers, so there was no panic. A good num­ber of the squad were part of the Ire­land team that beat France 27-25 at the Stade de France a few weeks ear­lier and sud­denly French rugby held no fears. The Toulouse team was full of play­ers who lost with France that day. The two front rows for starters were ex­actly the same. We were still the un­der­dogs but men­tally Mun­ster were in a good place, we qui­etly fan­cied our chances even if no­body else did.

“We weren’t in­tim­i­dated but we knew ex­actly how good Toulouse could be if you let them. Three of us – my­self, An­thony Fo­ley and Do­minic Crotty – still wore the scars from that 60-19 maul­ing a few years ear­lier and mem­o­ries like that cer­tainly sharpen you up in train­ing.

“Come the day we played like a dream. It was scorch­ing – 30C of­fi­cially but it felt even hot­ter down on the pitch – and al­though those con­di­tions should have suited Toulouse we played to­tal rugby for 80 min­utes and they had no an­swer.” So happy mem­o­ries, but can Mun­ster pull of a Bordeaux dou­ble? They know Rac­ing well hav­ing done the dou­ble over the French side last sea­son and go­ing head to head again this sea­son with the hon­ours even at one win apiece.

Again the ref­eree is an im­por­tant player in this sce­nario. JP Doyle was born and bred in Ire­land but has been an RFU ref­eree for a decade or more and is per­ceived as an English ref­eree. Fur­ther­more, flu­ent in French, he does the cour­tesy of talk­ing to French teams in their na­tive lan­guage when talk­ing to them in big matches and has earned their grat­i­tude for that.

Rac­ing are in the mood for this and will have no­ticed how Toulon rocked Mun­ster at Thomond by tak­ing the game to them early on. Toulon didn’t get their full re­ward and Mun­ster, ev­er­re­source­ful, found a way of com­ing back into the game and, of course, An­drew Con­way pro­duced a mem­o­rable win­ner – but I make Rac­ing slight favourites for this.

Dan Carter may not yet be fit enough to start but he’s on the come­back trail and is an in­cred­i­ble card to play af­ter the break. And in Leone Nakarawa and Maxime Machenaud they have two proven match win­ners.

So for me it’s a nar­row Rac­ing win set­ting up a fi­nal against Le­in­ster in Bilbao. There might be bet­ter ways of spend­ing a week­end in May but off hand I can’t think of many.

Pack power: James Lowe scores from a pushover against Sara­cens

Happy mem­o­ries: Mick Ga­ley

Im­pact man: Dan Carter

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