Scrum holds key for Cheika's men
Leinster have been the form team throughout this season's Magners League. And just like Toulouse -- as the form team in the Heineken Cup -- had to face their biggest challenge in the semi-final stages, Leinster will be in the same position tomorrow against their arch-rivals, Munster.
Munster haven't been at their best this season but they were only a strong scrum away from making the Heineken Cup final and would love nothing more than to take revenge on Leinster for last year's Heineken defeat. They also have one of the strongest squads in Europe.
Then, it was Leinster's time to be the underdogs and challenge the more fancied Munster. But the roles now seem reversed and this in one factor that would always work in Munster's favour. It is always easier going into a big match with the external expectation of losing and the underdog tag is something Munster will happily wear. Highlighting Leinster's success this season and last has a way of ensuring the pressure is heaped on the Dublin side.
However, Munster still hold the trophy and will be salivating at this opportunity, especially with question marks over Jonny Sexton and the withdrawal of Leo Cullen hampering the side.
One area they will need to get right is the scrum. No one can say the Leinster scrum fared well against Toulouse but Munster did worse and I'd say they'll be looking to test out Hayes and co very early. Stan Wright, CJ van der Linde and Cian Healy -- who seems to be back in form after a strong effort last time around -- look to be the better scrummagers, but whether that translates in real value for Leinster will come down to their ability to really turn the screws on the Munster scrum.
With a recent history of underperforming in that area there is a strong likelihood of Leinster pressure leading to penalties and that could cripple Munster.
The battle of the backrows looks to be a real deal breaker for both sides. As Jamie Heaslip has been in outstanding form he will be targeted and Munster will look to unsettle the Lion's eighth man. Shane Jennings should expect the same treatment. His influence on big matches like this is well known.
Munster aren't exactly light in numbers at 6, 7 and 8 but they aren't having the impact of Heaslip and Jennings, and as always in big matches control of the breakdown is of paramount importance. From Leinster's point of view, consistently getting fast ball will lead to tries and, in a match where three will probably be enough for either team, this is a leg up Munster cannot afford to give away.
Much of Munster's success has come on the back of constant pressure, through field position, at the lineout and at the breakdown. Their effectiveness in the latter has been below their best this year and, while changes in refereeing probably haven't helped, they seem to be less and less effective in those areas. It may be an ageing roster, but they weren't exactly spring chickens last year and things were going swimmingly. It could be time for Munster to change the way they compete because I feel it's their approach and not their talent that's become out-dated.
In what looks to be the end of an era for Leinster this year, with all-around good guys like Mal O'Kelly, Girvan Dempsey and Chris Whittaker leaving the club on top of the much publicised departure of Michael Cheika, among other key staff, this year's fight to regain the Magners League title could be an emotional one. It would be naive to think that things will coast on as they have been after the latest crew of departures. With the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Heaslip and Sexton still there, they will be successful, but it will be a different time for one of Europe's power clubs. This could be added motivation for Leinster, but they won't be short on that tomorrow.