Racing aces can gatecrash Irish party
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