Leinster Croke Park Bound

Leinster are in the Champions Cup semi-finals and will face Northampton Saints in Croke Park on Saturday May 4th. They reached the last 4 after dismantling La Rochelle in The Aviva Stadium. That result did the necessary to dispel any myths surrounding the current Leinster squad. They did that without Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, James Ryan and Charlie Ngatai all of whom missed out through injury.

That tells you that the squad is brimming with quality. They will now want to go one step further than the past few seasons and beat an in form Northampton Saints side who dispatched Munster and The Bulls in recent weeks. Leo Cullen and Jacques Nienaber have dovetailed wonderfully in recent months since the South African’s arrival after the RWC.

Leinster are in pole position to put a 5th star on the famed blue jersey even though Northampton, Harlequins and Toulouse will have plenty to say on that matter over the May bank holiday weekend. Leinster will travel to SA for a two week trip in the URC and will most likely mix and match the squad that will go on tour. In previous seasons they have used it as a breathing ground for the new generation who are in and around the squad on a yearly basis.

They lead the URC and have cushion going into the two games and as I mention there will be plenty of young talent given the chance to shine with a small number of senior guys who may require game time coming into the crunch period of this season.

15 years on from defeating Munster in Croke Park 25-6 in the last European semi-final to be played at the home of the GAA, Leinster won’t face Irish opposition this time round  instead they will play a Phil Dowson coached Northampton Saints side who are playing some quality rugby domestically and in Europe.

Croke Park is in use as the Aviva Stadium is now out of bounds until after the Europa League final which is being staged in Dublin. Leinster will have a few weeks to see can they sell Croker out like they did with the Aviva in recent years in European action.

It will be tricky to get a full house I feel as the opposition isn’t an Irish side although it is a European semi-final and plenty of casual rugby and sports fans may make the trip to see what Croke Park is like to host another sporting event. I was there in 2009 to see the previous semi-final and although Munster were beaten on the day it was still an occasion to be savoured and remembered.

Plenty has been spoken in the last couple of weeks regarding Croke Park as a venue for a rugby game give the pitch dimensions and how far back the crowd will find itself and that comes from an ex Leinster player who played that afternoon in 09, Luke Fitzgerald. Leinster were stuck really once the Aviva was ruled out of the equation and given that Croker will be free on that weekend it was a no brainer….

It will be another special occasion for all involved with Leinster Rugby, both playing staff and backroom staff. It is not that often that the gates at Jones Road are thrown open and Leinster will want to make sure that this trip to GAA HQ will be as memorable as it was in 2009.

European Round Up

Leinster, Connacht and Ulster all advanced this weekend in the last 16 of The Champions Cup and in the case of both Connacht and Ulster in the Challenge Cup.  Munster exited after a ten point loss 24-14 at the hands of Northampton Saints. For three of the Irish provinces they will prepare for last 8 ties in Europe, For Munster it is a case of injury and illness happening at the wrong time of yet another season.

That of course will form part of the conversation over the next 2 weeks for Munster who will now have extra time to prepare for two URC games in late April in South Africa. It is another last 16 exit for Munster since the round came into existence a few seasons ago. Graham Rowntree and his coaches have to now try and pick up a deflated squad for the last few weeks of the season.

 The futures of Antoine Frisch and Peter O Mahony will also need to be sorted and decisions communicated to the fans, add to that the talk surrounding both Mike Haley and Simon Zebo. Munster are in a state of flux like Ulster and will need to tie up certain questions and deals either way while trying to keep the URC campaign on an even keel.

A tough few weeks ahead for the men in red after another defeat in Europe. Only scrapping in back in January probably didn’t help the cause but like to lotto if you’re not in you can’t win !! A lack of experienced players and power killed Munster yesterday seeing Stephen Archer being asked to go the full 80 when Northampton were able to switch over to a fresh set of three new front row players certainly didn’t help the cause.

Munster have to be questioned why they let Keynan Knox take up another playing opportunity with Roman Salanoa on the long term injury list leaving Mark Donnelly and Ronan Fox who is in the academy to back up the two other senior tightheads in the squad currently.

At loosehead the same can be said with James Cronin being let go to play in France and now playing weekly with Leicester Tigers. Some of those decisions will need to be rightly questioned because Munster are again looking in from the outside in Europe.

Injuries to key men in the front row and second row saw RG Syman, Jean Kleyn, Edwin Edogbo ruled out and in the front row, injury and suspension saw Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan and Oli Jager ruled out.

No team can lose 6 players like that and not be affected, they will now need to focus fully on the final weeks of the URC to see can they defend the crown won in dramatic fashion last May.

For Leinster, Ulster and Connacht it is full steam ahead for games vs La Rochelle in Dublin for Leinster with La Rochelle is Cork for the next few days. Connacht will face Benetton in Italy and Ulster are on the road to face Clermont Auvergne.

I mentioned last week, I felt all 4 teams might sneak wins, my head said in all honesty that Leinster might be the only ones with a W in the bag by Sunday but both Ulster and Connacht can now look to European quarter finals admittedly on the road but with a bit of luck we might see more than one Irish team into the last 4 in Europe and who knows what might happen then…..

Last 16 Time

It’s Champions Cup last 16 weekend and that will see all four provinces out with Leinster and Munster playing in the Champions Cup with Ulster and Connacht in Challenge Cup action. Leinster entertain Leicester Tigers in Dublin and Munster face Northampton Saints again in this year’s Champions Cup.

Ulster will play Montpellier while Connacht will take on Pau in the Challenge Cup, All four sides will face tricky games with Leinster the mostly likely Irish side to take victory on current form. Munster will know they will need to dig very deep and now with John Ryan suspended after his sighting after foul play last weekend. They will find it tough with Darragh Mc Sweeney or Kieran Ryan to now back up Stephen Archer on the tight head side of the scrum.

Here’s hoping RG Synman will have recovered from the illness that kept him out of last weekend’s game against Cardiff. Munster will look to other experienced players now and will need to gain at least parity at scrum time to stand any hope of beating an in form Northampton. Top of the Premiership and scoring tries for fun, Northampton will fancy their chances of reaching another Champions Cup quarter final. It will take a lot of good fortune and more than “boot, bite and bollock” to see Munster through the next few weeks.

Munster have their backs to the wall and will come out swinging but have they the ability to produce the knockout blow, that’s the big question, only time will tell of course.

Leinster could be without a number of key players but the strength in depth of their squad will help alleviate those injury worries. Home advantage will help the Leinster cause even though Leinster went to La Rochelle in the group phase and found a win in a tight contest. They will have home comforts in the quarter finals if they navigate Leicester on Saturday evening. Time for Leinster to pull out a big European performance to help advance their title credentials.

Ulster dropped into the Challenge Cup and with Richie Murphy in interim charge until the end of the season and there short tour of South Africa in the League now over they can focus on trying to put into practice any lessons learned from 2 weeks in South Africa. Plenty of off field activity since January has Ulster in a state of flux on and off the field. No better time than this weekend in Montpellier to steady the ship and pull off an unexpected win in France.

For Connacht, the season is slowing grinding to a close but like Ulster they can use a trip to Pau in the Challenge Cup to breathe fire and life back into an ailing campaign. They will have Finlay Bealham and Bundee Aki back and have shown previously in this season they can play rugby and can pull off a result when all logical thinking suggests otherwise. Time then for another big performance and maybe just maybe they could do the business and nick a win on the road…

It’s the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup last 16 and while it seems likely on current form that only 1 Irish side will do the business, all 4 will be hell bent on doing what they can to cause more than one shock this weekend…