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Leinster and Munster can make it an all-Irish final

 

By Tony Ward

Despite all the doom and gloom of recent seasons - reaching a nadir last season when no Irish side reached the Champions Cup quarter-finals - we are 160 minutes away from an all-Ireland final.

For Munster, today's clash with Saracens at the Aviva Stadium will be their 12th European Cup semi-final in the 22-season history of the competition, going back to that extraordinary occasion in 2000 when they beat Toulouse in Bordeaux.

The fallen French aristocrats of Toulouse come next in line with 10 semi-finals, while Leinster are in third place: tomorrow's showdown with Clermont Auvergne in Lyon will be their ninth.

I feel the world's greatest club competition suffered from the absence of an Irish side in the knockout stages last season: the provinces just bring an aura.

The bookies have Saracens as title favourites, followed by Clermont, with Leinster and Munster both generally 9/2 long shots. But I am certainly not writing off the Irish sides' prospects.

Lansdowne Road will be heaving, with an atmosphere akin to Munster against Wasps (2004) or against Leinster (2006), or the Croke Park 'derby' in front of 82,208 in 2009.

Lawrence Dallaglio contends that he hasn't experienced a more electrifying atmosphere than the one at that Heineken Cup semi-final in '04.

Leinster have a 100 per cent record against Clermont in the knockout stages. They beat Joe Schmidt's former club in an RDS quarter-final in 2010 and, more significantly, in a semi-final in Bordeaux in 2012.

That 19-15 win in the Stade Chaban-Delmas will have been revisited in the build-up to tomorrow's clash in Lyon, which is about 100 miles from Clermont- Ferrand.

However, the last time they met was in Pool 5 in 2012-13, with Clermont winning home and away. Beaten finalists in 2013 and 2015 (losing both to Toulon), the No 1 seeds are rightly favourites tomorrow.

For me, the key to success in the Champions Cup is a home quarter-final. A semi-final on the road is not ideal, but the big venues used for these games are nowhere near as intimidating as the smaller grounds in the last-eight.

Away wins in the quarter-finals are like hen's teeth, whereas there have been 14 away wins in the 42 semi-finals to date, including Munster's win at Lansdowne against Leinster in '06.

Leinster have also lost semi-finals to Cardiff and Perpignan at HQ; both Leinster and Munster have won last-four games in deepest France.

Playing away provides the opportunity to turn a supposed advantage against the home side by silencing the crowd and getting them to turn on their team. French fans can be particularly fickle in that regard.

Clermont are an immeasurably better footballing side than Toulon, semi-final victors over Munster in 2014 and Leinster in 2015 (after extra time).

But so too is this Leinster squad: they have the ability to play it any which way.

Stuart Lancaster is no magician but he has made such a difference to everyone at Leinster. His lack of ego has made it easy for management and players to embrace him into the fold.

Given the post-World Cup depression on both sides of the Irish Sea, Lancaster and Leinster has been a match made in heaven; irrespective of the result tomorrow, long may the Cumbrian stay at Belfield.

This is still very much an evolving Leinster side; it is nowhere near the level of the 2009-12 vintage. How could it be?

Yet there is a strength in depth that even at this stage suggests a return to great days past.

Cian Healy's suspension is unfortunate, to put it mildly, and he has no-one to blame but himself. His mid-match injection will be badly missed.

Leinster had five players named in the Lions party this week, with all guaranteed to be pushing for a Test place, plus Garry Ringrose knocking on the replacement door.

That recognition fully reflects where this fast-developing squad is now at.

Enough to win in Lyon? Why not?

On their day, Saracens and Clermont are the best two teams left standing, but the Aviva today will be different.

Sarries boss, Ulsterman Mark McCall, says he knows what's coming. I'm not sure he does. You've got to experience a Munster European day like this to really appreciate it.

If both teams play to their best then Saracens will win.

The challenge is in getting inside Sarries' heads because today the 16th man will count.

The beauty is in two semi-finals in which both Irish sides are the underdogs… and yet.

Don't write either off.

Belfast Telegraph

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