With anticipation already running high ahead of the game at Croke Park on Saturday, 2 May, this latest clash in an intriguing series between the two dominant provinces ensures the presence of one Irish team in the final.
Their respective passages to the last four couldn’t have been forged in more contrasting ways. Munster were brilliant and ruthless at the same time as they crushed the Ospreys at Thomond Park, while Leinster had to rely on some tremendous last-ditch defense to edge out Harlequins.
On the last occasion that the two met at the same stage of the same competition in 2006, Munster ground Leinster into the Lansdowne Road dust by 30-6 en route to their first European title. And this season in the Celtic League, Leinster have been humbled both in Dublin and Limerick.
If Munster won’t be entertaining any talk of their supposed superiority over the next couple of weeks, they appear to be getting better and better as the pressure intensifies. Admittedly, the Ospreys had been hit by injuries, but they still had 13 international players in their ranks, and they couldn’t live with the home team.
In control up front where Alan Quinlan was outstanding, Munster ripped the heart out of the Welsh defense with some electric running from Lifeimi Mafi, Keith Earls and Paul Warwick. Earls helped himself to two tries, Warwick added another and landed two drop goals, while Paul O’Connell also rumbled over for a try. Ronan O’Gara was on target with three penalties and four conversions in what was a complete team performance.
“The emotion and the satisfaction we got after the Grand Slam with Ireland was huge, and we’ve come back to Munster with a new hunger and a new ambition,” said O’Gara. “We’ve hit the ground running and essentially, April and May are championship months. There’s probably have a dozen players who have three more years max, and we want to try and collect medals and move on.”
As for coach, Tony McGahan, he could only smile when asked about his players’ ruthlessness. “I’m lucky to see them every day in training. They have a competitive streak, a drive, an ambition to be as successful as they can. It’s unmatched. With the experience and the age profile of the players, they realise they need to make the most of every opportunity and they’re certainly doing that at the moment.”
If Leinster won ugly in London, it was by far their most important result of the season so far. Written off in many quarters as a team with no backbone, they toughed it out as Harlequins dominated possession. Felipe Contepomi landed two first half penalties, but a Mike Brown try with 15 minutes remaining meant there would be a nerve-wracking finale.
With Rocky Elsom and Brian O’Driscoll positively heroic in defense, Leinster held out. “It wasn’t just the physical pressure, but the mental pressure trying to defend that lead and being pinned down in your own territory for so long. The players showed a lot of character,” said coach, Michael Cheika.
Asked about the prospect of facing Munster in the semi-final, Cheika was under no illusions. “We need to build it up again. It’ll be a hell of a challenge against the best team in Europe.” The winners will face either Cardiff or Leicester in the decider.
Meanwhile, Connacht made their exit from the European Challenge Cup when they were beaten 42-13 at the quarter-final stage by Northampton.