History reflects that there have only been two visiting semi-final wins in the history of Guinness Pro14 rugby but that does not appear to be deflecting the confidence of Munster and Ulster as we head into the play-off weekend.
Munster travel to play Leinster at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Friday night in what is a repeat of their last two semi-finals, both of which they lost, while Edinburgh host Ulster in Edinburgh on Saturday looking to cap what for them has been an outstanding season by making the PRO14 final for the first time.
The teams for the Murrayfield game will only be announced on Friday, but the class and quality of the competition is underlined by the number of international players who will appear in the Dublin game. With Jonny Sexton returning to captain the side, Leinster will go in with 11 internationals, including three British and Irish Lions.
Munster outdo their number of international caps by one. They go in with 12 international players, and have four British and Irish Lions plus a Springbok World Cup winner in the form of centre Damian de Allende.
With that amount of international experience in the team, it is unsurprising that Munster assistant coach Graham Rowntree is laughing off any suggestion that his team are rank outsiders based on the facts of a long period of coming second against their arch rivals as well as the shorter turn-around time from their last game. Leinster had a six-day turn-around, Munster just five going into Friday night’s clash.
“It’s irrelevant, it’s irrelevant to me, and that’s certainly that’s my message into the group, it’s irrelevant what’s happened before,” said the former England prop.
“The short turn-around is (also) irrelevant now because we are match hardened. We’ve planned for two good games (after the PROI14 return) and now we are ready for another one.”
Munster have lost some important players to injury since the restart, most significantly the two South African born locks RG Snyman and Jean Kleyn, as well as prop David Kilcoyne, but Rowntree isn’t too concerned. He pointed to the good performance against Connacht last week as evidence that his team could play good rugby without those players.
“We’re in great condition. There are no further injury problems. The players are in good nick, we put in a bank of training over the summer, mindful of the programme we were coming back to. The lads have recovered well. From what I have seen, and the data backs it up, the lads are in great shape.
“We’re playing, we’re attacking, we’re challenging tams. We’re sticking to the plan of how we want to play. We were helped by the two red cards against Connacht, but there were still plenty of positives. We haven’t spoken about the turn-around, we are just ready for another game.”
When Friday night’s protagonists clashed in the comeback from lockdown game nearly two weeks ago Leinster won by just two points (27-25) and although it was a defeat for Munster, Rowntree saw enough for his men to derive some confidence.
“That was a proper game. That was our first hit out since we played the Scarlets, we had no warm-up game, so there were plenty of positives,” said Rowntree.
“We could have won that game and we were gutted that we lost it. But it’s given us momentum.”
Leinster, although it has been eons since they last lost a game and haven’t been beaten in any competition game this season, won’t disagree with Rowntree’s view that what has happened before is irrelevant. They’ve been hurt before when going into a semi-final while riding the crest of a wave.
“I remember the 2016/2017 season we played some great rugby across the board, scored 90 odd tries across the season, but we lost against Scarlets in the PRO14 and that defeat sticks in our throats until this day,” recalls assistant coach Stuart Lancaster.
“It’s irrelevant about what happens previously (when you get to a semi-final). It’s about flicking that switch and understanding what knock-out rugby really means. There is enough experience in the team to know that, but it’s not a bad thing to remind them once or twice.”
Edinburgh don’t have the same level of finals winning experience as the other conference winners, but their coach Richard Cockerill would have noted the words of Ulster’s Dan McFarland this week. Ulster did make the semi-final round last year, when Edinburgh didn’t, and they took their big defeat to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun as a learning experience that the team from Belfast are confident will work for them at Murrayfield.
The teams for Saturday’s semi-final will be named on Friday.