United Rugby Championship Semi-Finals preview…

The achievement of all four Irish provinces qualifying for next season’s European Cup and making the knock-out stages of the URC is not to be underestimated. That three should also make the Semi-finals of the URC is an extraordinary achievement. South Africa supply the sole interloper in the Champions Stormers, who take on Connacht in Cape town. Glasgow are in the Challenge Cup final but for every other club in the URC, the season is already over. It is an amazing privilege to be an Irish rugby supporter right now.

Leo Cullen has once again rolled the dice and selected a team to play Munster containing only two nailed on starters for the match against La Rochelle in the Champions Cup final the following week-end – Jack Conan and the fit again Robbie Henshaw, who probably needs the game time to improve his match fitness. Jimmy O’Brien, another possible starter next week is at full back, while Josh VD Flier is back from injury and on the bench as Penny is still following the HIA protocols. Porter, Sheehan, Furlong, Ryan, Molony, Doris, Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Ringrose, Larmour, and Keenan are rested altogether, with Lowe given another week to recover.

This does not imply any disrespect to Munster, who have their own injury woes, and are missing RG Snyman, Conor Murray, Malakai Fekitoa and Calvin Nash. It simply means Cullen wants fresh players who won’t necessarily have one eye on the match against La Rochelle. For Cullen it’s a huge risk but also a balancing act – if you want to retain such a talented squad, you have to trust them and give the game time in matches that matter. Leinster’s main weakness is in the front row, but are Munster strong enough there to capitalise on this?

Munster are for me still a “nearly” team: Much improved from earlier in the season and certainly good enough to be in with a shout of winning this match. That Carbery still can’t make the match day XXIII with Fekitoa and Nash injured is extraordinary, although it means a welcome return for Earls. Beirne gave an amazing 80 minute performance last week on his return from injury, and the battle of the back rows should be immense. I would still fancy Leinster to sneak it, however.

Connacht have picked an unchanged XXIII for their match against the Stormers and will be hoping to eradicate the many mistakes they made in their match against Ulster. I fancy them to be in with a shout provided their front row can deal with the all-Springbok Stormers front row, but that is a big if. They have been playing some excellent free flowing rugby in the latter half of the season but will need their Captain, Jack Carty to be on his game. His kicking can be a bit wayward at times. Andy Friend and co. seemed to have hit on their best XXII, however, and have almost a full deck to choose from, so this is a match that could see them scale new heights.

Andy Farrell is due to select his extended Irish training squad for the World Cup in the next week or so. There are a lot of players with a lot to play for, and what better way to show case your talent than a semi-final of a major competition? There is a lot of competition for nearly every position and a few places still up for grabs. What a great places to be in for Irish rugby!

LEINSTER: J O’Brien; T O’Brien, R Henshaw, C Ngatai, D Kearney; H Byrne, L McGrath (capt); M Milne, R Kelleher, M Ala’alatoa; R Baird, J Jenkins; M Deegan, W Connors, J Conan. Replacements: J McKee, C Healy, T Clarkson, J McCarthy, J van der Flier, N McCarthy, C Frawley, L Turner.

MUNSTER: – M Haley; K Earls, A Frisch, J Crowley, S Daly; B Healy, C Casey; J Loughman, D Barron, S Archer; J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony (capt), J Hodnett, G Coombes. Replacements: N Scannell, J Wycherley, R Salanoa, F Wycherley, J O’Donoghue, N Cronin, R Scannell, A Kendellen.

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; J Porch, T Farrell, B Aki, M Hansen; J Carty (capt), C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham, J Murphy, N Murray, S Hurley-Langton, C Oliver, C Prendergast. Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, J Duggan, J Aungier, O Dowling, J Butler, K Marmion, T Daly, B Ralston.

STORMERS: D Willemse; A Davids, R Nel, D du Plessis, L Zas; M Libbok, H Jantjies; S Kitshoff (capt), J Dweba, F Malherbe, B Dixon, R van Heerden, W Engelbrecht, H Dayimani, E Roos. Replacements: J Kotze, A Vermaak, N Fouche, C Evans, M Theunissen, P de Wet, J du Plessis, S Feinberg-Mngomezul

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