Raising the bar
Stuart Barnes expects the Heineken Cup semi finals to set new standards in thrilling rugby.
Last Updated: 27/04/09 12:53pm
You can leave the Lions for another day. This weekend has a heft all of its own as two of Europe's finest sport stadiums will be packed for the Heineken Cup semi finals. With Toulouse squeezed out at the quarter final stage the sheer British and Irish intensity more than makes up for that certain je ne sais quoi that Toulouse - in particular - always bring with them.
Three years ago Munster and Leinster went at it in a Lansdowne Road semi final with the Dubliners fancied to win after sublime wins on the road at Bath and then Toulouse in the quarter final. Munster tore the script up, tore into Felipe Contepomi and marched onwards to Cardiff and their first Heineken Cup triumph.
How times have changed. The Munster team are two matches from equalling the Toulouse record of three trophies - but achieved in the space of just four years after all those narrow failures. They had eight men selected for the Lions before the desperate blow to Tomas O' Leary, they are walking away with the Magners League and heading towards the title of the greatest team of the professional era, or certainly challenging the Leicester of the Dean Richards era for that title (their sheer Heineken consistency takes them past Wasps in my opinion).
Stopping the Red army
Leinster have watched this unfold as their game has toughened up but lost much of the creative spark. The match reports always tell a tale of the game being much closer than the final score suggests when they play but the final score is becoming pretty one sided, pretty regularly.
It is an Irish derby and the fact that 82,500 will attend the game in Croke Park adds some degree of unpredictability but the truth is a win for Leinster would be a major shock. The Capital City side will lift their game but surely not high enough?
If they are going to stun the Red Army here are a few positional confrontations that have to go the way of the underdogs. Brian O' Driscoll has to remind Keith Earls who is the master and who the apprentice in terms of Irish midfield play. Symbolically O' Driscoll needs a massive game as a source of inspiration for his team mates and the vociferous Dublin supporters.
Leo Cullen has to cut into the Munster line out as he did the Harlequins in the quarter final. Munster has to beaten at source and by shading Donncha O' Callaghan and cutting the supply line to the middle and tail of the line out they can give themselves a foothold.
Perhaps most important of all, the old/new Lion Alan Quinlan will have to be dismantled by Rocky Elsom. Quinlan epitomises the brain and brawn of Munster at the breakdown where they are King but if any individual has it in him to turn the red tide at the contact it is the Australian whose play borders on the colossal.
If all these personal duels go the way of Leinster and O' Gara has an off day matched by a Contepomi on day, if D'Arcy subdues the best inside centre in the competition in Mafi, if Heaslip is more influential than David Wallace and Paul O' Connell's mind is on South 0Africa the who knows....by the way there is absolutely no way the Lions captain will think about anything but next Saturday, to these men the red of Munster comes first; that as much as all the talent and intelligence of the team, is why they are so bloody hard to beat.
Tigers always burning bright
Eleven Lions take the field in Dublin; in comparison the total of seven looks measly in comparison in Cardiff but this could be the better game for all the heft of the affair in Dublin. The second semi final appears a closer contest (cue a Leinster win!) although people who watched the EDF demolition of Gloucester might argue with that assertion. But Leicester is not Gloucester, the club never folds, refuses to capitulate and is on a winning run that sends them to Cardiff in buoyant mood. The venue is against them and probably helps install the Blues as favourites but this club loves being underdog.
The Blues seem fairly comfortable with the mantle of favourites. They are playing some of the best rugby seen from any Welsh team in the professional era. Yes, Gloucester were pathetic at Twickenham but what teams would have stopped the first Leigh Halfpenny try; it was a thing of utter beauty, the Try of the season. How the Tigers would love to have Tuilagi storming at and into the smaller man but even if the appeal succeeds it is hard to see his ban reduced to less than a fortnight (I think he is paying the price for officials realising that the obsession with the spear tackle over all else needs readdressing. Fine, ban him for a month but what about Chris Hala'ufia, Butch James et al?)
Anyway, I digress - back to the game and a few central characters. Let us stop talking Lions and start debating the merits of two players performing at the peak of their powers. Had the Lions taken a third fly half on form it should have been either Nicky Robinson or Sam Vesty. Both men are playing quite beautifully but will both men play?
Vesty only started ten against Bath because of a late injury to Toby Flood the England fly half. Will Richard Cockerill, secure in the post of Tigers Director of Rugby (and well earned) have the courage to leave out his old skipper, Martin Johnson's favoured option) for the new hero of Leicester and will Harry Ellis get the nod over Julian Dupuy. On form the Lion is lucky to part of the match day 22 because Ben Youngs is the best impact scrum half of the three. Whoever plays, the Tigers have to dominate at the base of the scrum and - most critically - the breakdown to cut the umbilical between the Blues galloping backs and those old heads like Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush and Paul Tito up front.
All this and the best player in the Five Nations - Gethin Jenkins - ready for action; if this weekend is as thrilling and atmospheric as I expect, the Lions series has something to live up to. Now to this week's mail.
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Earls of wisdom
Hi Stuart, Just thinking about what you have said on the Rugby Club the last few times about that the Lions will have to play smart rugby and the selection of Keith Earls to the Lions Squad in reference to that. First I am a Big Munster Fan so obviously I am a big fan of this kid Earls. My Question is with O'Gara and Jones at times dodgy in the Tackle would the coaching staff put some one like Earls at Out Half to see how he would get on. He is a natural game breaker like your Cipriani and has played at fullback, wing and centre for Munster would out half be that big a stretch for some one as gifted as this young man is I would be interested to hear your views.
STUART REPLIES: Chris,I like a gamble but Keith Earls at fly half is way too long a shot for me. I know Mon Mome was 100-1 for the National and Niche Market 33-1 for the Irish National but a young man without experience and a proven kicking game is a stretch well beyond my limited imagination. It will be fascinating enough to see Earls play (or maybe find) his best position on this tour.
Stuart, I have been supporting the Lions for over 25 years and for the first time I cannot help but think an element of favouritism has been exercised by McGeechan et al in selecting four (out of the eight England players) from London Wasps. It is not as if Wasps had a good season - so hardly a case of the form team or form players!
STUART REPLIES: Stan, If favouritism means picking your own men in a tight call over others then this tour party has a degree of favouritism in its selection but Ian McGeechan has done this before, noticeably in 1997 when - as the Saints boss - he picked players like Matt Dawson to the surprise of some and Nick Beale to the surprise of many. Dawson became a Lions in Cape Town and Nick Beale was superb throughout the tour for the midweek team. The bias is a natural one and nothing wrong with picking the blokes you trust - as long as they deliver - if they fail McGeechan will have to face a fair bit of flak.
Hi Stuart, I saw your report on Munster being the backbone of the Lions but without John 'Bull' Hayes then that backbone isn't as strong. Hayes can lift O'Connell on his own higher than others as he uses a different method. So with this the lineout which needs to be won will be weakened and catching the ball from restarts, both key areas that you pin-pointed. Hayes is also scrummaging very well at the moment - maybe not as good as Murray but Hayes should have gone ahead of Jones and Vickery. What are your opinions on this?
STUART REPLIES: Liam, I was watching the analysis of the Munster versus Scarlets game Friday night and Neil Francis was making the point. It made me think then and I am thinking again right now. What you say about Hayes in the restart and line out department of the game is true and with the Lions putting such value on team work, it might prove an error. Hayes did find the 2005 tour hard work (then again who did not), perhaps this weighed on the manager's mind. Perhaps the sheer volume of Irish and Munster selection counted against him. It is a very good question raised here.
Who replaces Tomas?
Morning Stuart, terrible news about O'Leary and he must be devastated. Do you think the Lions management will go for someone like Danny Care or Mike Blair or opt for another Munster man and pick Stringer?
STUART REPLIES: Awful for Tomas, the news can barely have sunk in before he was off the tour. I don't think Peter Stringer will be taken (I think there is a degree of politics and number counting involved, even if sub consciously). Mike Blair would be my choice but I suspect McGeechan has a preference for Care - or even Chris Cusiter, who he preferred to Blair four years ago.