Munster v Leinster, Heineken Cup Semi-Final, May 2
Stage set for all-Irish battle
May 1, 2009
Munster's Red Army celebrate a try for their side against Leinster during their 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final clash © Getty Images
Leinster and Munster will go head-to-head at Croke Park on Saturday in an all-Irish Heineken Cup semi-final with a place in this season's Murrayfield finale up for grabs.
Defending champions Munster enter the clash as strong favourites to end their Irish rivals' hopes, as they did at the same stage in 2006 with a comprehensive 30-6 victory at Lansdowne Road. Victory in this re-match would see them progress to their third final in four years and extend their recent dominance of Europe's premier club competition.
The newly-anointed Magners League champions were a class apart when ruthlessly crushing Ospreys 43-9 in the last eight and a domestic league double over Leinster this season -Munster won September's match in Dublin 18-0 and eased to a 22-5 home victory last month - cements their claims.
Leinster produced a superb defensive display to see off a spirited Harlequins side in their quarter-final clash and a similar effort, and more, will be required in Dublin if they are to de-rail Munster's march to yet more success.
Amongst the wealth of talent on show will be ten of Ireland's Lions-bound stars including Munster lock and captain Paul O'Connell, who will lead the elite tourists to South Africa this summer, and Leinster centre and Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll.
Munster's class and pedigree is not in doubt and was rewarded in the 37-man Lions squad that also saw call-ups for hooker Jerry Flannery, lock Donncha O'Callaghan, flankers Alan Quinlan and David Wallace, centre Keith Earls and fly-half Ronan O'Gara. But it is another name that stole the show against Ospreys and all eyes will be on live-wire fullback Paul Warwick to see if he can conjure another virtuoso display.
But they are unlikely to get everything their own way as they did at Thomond Park last month. The Leinster line-up is also brimming with class and world-class players able to turn a game on their own. Aside from O'Driscoll's game-breaking abilities they have Pumas fly-half Felipe Contepomi, flanker Rocky Elsom and Lions-in-waiting Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip ready to roll.
Both sides have lost key personnel in the build-up to the eagerly anticipated clash with Munster scrum-half Tomas O'Leary being ruled out of the game, and this summer's Lions tour, with a broken ankle while another Lions star, Leinster fullback Rob Kearney has been sidelined with the mumps.
The equally able Peter Stringer comes in for O'Leary in the only change to the side that dismantled Ospreys but while Isa Nacewa switches to fullback for Leinster while Shane Horgan starts on the right wing.
Despite the glut of game-breaking talent on both sides the game is set to be decided up front with the backrow battle particularly fascinating. The ever-impressive Wallace has been in some of the best form of his life for Munster and Ireland this year and in surprise Lions pick Quinlan and Denis Leamy he has two willing co-horts. But Wallabies flanker Elsom has also raised the bar in Leinster colours this year and Six Nations stand-out Heaslip will also relish the occasion and the challenge that could well decide the destiny of the tie.
The match is a home tie of sorts for Leinster but the ground will hold no fear for many of Munster's players who have graced the impressive arena for Ireland. And the famous red army of supporters are sure to do their best to make the men from the midwest feel at home.
But it is Munster's familiarity with this stage of the competition and the pressures that come with it that may prove to be the most telling factor. This is the eighth time to two-time winners have made it to the last four while Leinster's three previous semi-final appearances have all ended in defeat (1996, 2003 and 2006).
"There is tremendous experience throughout our squad and many of us have had a lot of big games with Munster and Ireland so the build up has not been as difficult as when we were younger," warned O'Connell on the eve of the clash.
"Croke Park is a fabulous place to play and we have had some great games here with Ireland so it is superb that we are now having a game of such importance at the ground. The atmosphere is going to be incredible. In 2006, in the semi-final and final, and the 2008 final it was sensational and I think this match will be right up there again tomorrow."
His opposite number Leo Cullen is also aware of the enormity of the occasion and that the current generation of Leinster stars are running out of time to make their mark on Europe's biggest stage.
"We are not getting any younger so we probably have only got a few more years of opportunities and we have to maximise massive occasions like this when we get in these positions. A win is all you want at this stage and it is all about knockout rugby on the day."
Munster's self-belief and refusal to bow is legendary, most famously getting up to beat Gloucester in 2003, and it is that character trait along with their undoubted class that is set to see them write the latest chapter in their Heineken Cup success story.
Munster: Paul Warwick, Doug Howlett, Keith Earls, Lifeimi Mafi, Ian Dowling, Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell (captain), Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.
Replacements: Denis Fogarty, Tony Buckley, Mick O'Driscoll, Niall Ronan, Mike Prendergast, Barry Murphy, Darragh Hurley
Leinster: Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, Felipe Contepomi, Chris Whitaker, Cian Healy, Bernard Jackman, Stan Wright, Leo Cullen (captain), Malcolm O'Kelly, Rocky Elsom, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip
Replacements: John Fogarty, Ronan McCormack, Devin Toner, Sean O'Brien, Simon Keogh, Jonathan Sexton, Girvan Dempsey
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Whitehouse (WRU), Hugh Watkins (WRU)