By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
SO THE Magners League Grand Final is decided; it will be an all-Ireland affair between Munster and Leinster, the top two in the end-of-season table going head-to-head at Thomond Park on Saturday 28 May.
Leinster sealed their place with an 18-3 win over Ulster on Friday night. It was a comfortable win for the Dubliners as they managed to cut open Ulster’s defence with relative ease. What was not so comfortable for Leinster fans was the steady succession of players leaving the field injured, Brian O’Driscoll, Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss the three of most concern, especially with the Heineken Cup final less than a week away.
Ulster made life difficult for themselves with poor execution, too many spilled balls and turnovers giving a Leinster team the opportunity to counter-attack.
As for Munster, they should have beaten the Ospreys by far more than 18-11. They dominated possession and territory to such an extent that the only time the Ospreys got into the Munster 22 was when they scored a late try through Richard Fussell. In fact, the Ospreys didn’t show the attacking intent that brought them more tries than any other team in the regular league season until the final ten minutes. By then the game was already lost.
The Ospreys commitment in defence must be applauded and to limit Munster to just 18 points in such a one-sided game was quite an achievement, but big questions need to be addressed about their game plan when they had the ball. Why continually kick to a back three containing Doug Howlett, Keith Earls and Felix Jones? They are all players who welcome the chance to run it back – and they run it back well more to the point.
Munster dominated the set-piece, too, getting the rub of the green at scrum time and disrupting the Ospreys lineout, particularly in the first half, so that the Welsh side couldn’t get decent first-phase ball.
Danny Barnes scored both Munster’s tries but as Paul O’Connell said they “left a few tries out there” and they will need to raise their game to get past Leinster in two weeks, especially with the men in blue likely to have the edge over a Munster pack that is something of a fading unit.
Tony McGahan did a great job of painting Munster as underdogs, the tag that they’re most comfortable with, when saying: “We’ll probably be facing the Heineken Cup champions in two weeks’ time. It’ll be a different situation for us to be underdogs at home in a final.”
Munster will want a return to the typical fiery atmosphere at Thomond Park, something that was missing on Saturday night with both end terraces and plenty of seats empty. Selling these semi-finals to fans is something the Magners League needs to look at in coming seasons.
Simple geography makes it difficult and a week is extremely short notice to book flights and accommodation, and tends to make it more expensive. The Ospreys sold only 14 tickets to the game! Perhaps the clubs could step in to offer chartered flights or subsidised hotel rooms – it’s clear no one benefits from subdued atmospheres like the one at Thomond Park. They need to make the play-offs a big occasion, as the Aviva Premiership has managed to do, even if that means naming a final venue at the start of the season and trying to draw fans from all 12 competing teams.
That’s for the future, though. At least with an all-Ireland final this time the Grand Final should get the packed stadium it deserves.