Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Strength of Saracens set to destroy hopes of all-Irish final'
The dream final is not a universal concept; for some, the idea of Leinster meeting Munster in Newcastle for the title of European champions would be more akin to a nightmare. The stakes would be that little bit too high, the nervous tension too much to bear and the build-up could get a little unpleasant.
Yet there is something utterly compelling about the idea of the most successful Irish provinces meeting in the Champions Cup final, a match-up that has yet to occur despite the two teams’ regular presence at the business end of the season.
Between them, Leinster and Munster have been to eight of the 23 finals in the history of this competition and have claimed six titles between them.
Saturday’s meeting with Saracens in Coventry is the Reds’ 14th trip to the semi-finals, while Leinster will make their 11th appearance at the last-four stage against Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.
It will be the fifth time they’ve reached this side in the same season and been kept apart.
In 2006 Munster took Leinster on an unforgettable Lansdowne Road occasion en route to their first title and, three years later, the men in blue returned the favour in front of a packed Croke Park.
We have had an all-Irish final in 2012, but that day it was Ulster – having already overcome Munster – who provided the opposition for a rampant Leinster side.
Still, although Ulster did win the first Irish European title in 1999, it is Munster and Leinster who define the country’s relationship with this competition and who have flown the flag so consistently.
The Reds led the way in the 2000s and Leinster responded to become the standard bearers.
“When you look at the Irish teams, Ulster won in 1999, granted the English teams weren’t in it, then Munster won in 2006, they always got further than Leinster did,” Leo Cullen said of the Irish interest at the end of last season.
“Leinster always crashed out at the pool stage, lost a few quarter-finals, that semi-final against Perpignan in 2003 – that I wont’ forget ever.
“Munster were the standard setters in Europe, we’d have looked on in envy and admiration, whichever way you want to look at it.
“Because you knew the players, when they did it in 2006, it’s possible to do it – then the desire was there for the group, you get that sense of belief. Then it was a case of whether Leinster could deliver on the big days.
“That was the biggest step, trying to win some of those big days and kicking on. The desire is still there, the same as back then.”
That 2003 season remains perhaps the greatest lost opportunity and, as Cullen alluded to, still haunts those who were involved – particularly on the Leinster side of the equation.
Lansdowne Road was the final venue, but the host sides lost their semi-final, to an unfancied Perpignan while Munster came up just short away to Toulouse 24 hours before.
They both exited at the semi-final stage when the next opportunity presented itself in 2010, with Toulouse ending Leinster’s run and Biarritz beating Munster in San Sebastian.
Seven years later, it was Clermont who accounted for Leinster in Lyon and Saracens who proved too strong for Munster at the Aviva Stadium, and last season Leinster progressed past Scarlets as Munster came up short against Racing 92 in Bordeaux.
On the domestic front, they’ve managed a couple of finals but while the 2002 Leinster win and the 2011 Munster success were celebrated at the time, neither holds the kind of place that a European collision would.
So, we get to this weekend where the bookies are offering 7/2 on the prospect of a Leinster v Munster final.
According to the odds, it is far more likely we’ll see a meeting of the two teams who have won the last three tournaments – Saracens and Leinster – but Munster will hope to have something to say about that.
Last season, they came into the Bordeaux clash on the back of a tour of South Africa and were blown away by the French side.
A year before, they couldn’t get their game going against a rampant Saracens outfit.
This year, Johann van Graan sent the vast majority of his expected starters off for a break before they re-assembled this morning to focus on the daunting task at hand.
After failing to fire a shot in their last two semi-final outings, they’ll be determined to rattle Mark McCall’s side’s cage at the very least.
Leinster, meanwhile, welcome a Toulouse side they know well having met them in the pool stages.
Although they lost at the Stade Ernest Wallon in October, Leinster had the exciting French side’s measure on their return to Dublin and will be confident that if, they get their intensity levels right at the Aviva Stadium next Sunday, it will be too much for their fellow four-time champions to handle.
Still, Leinster don’t look as strong as the team that reclaimed the title last weekend and the sight of Tadhg Furlong limping off against Glasgow Warriors on Saturday won’t have helped ease fans’ nerves.
The Blues are strong favourites to make it to St James’ Park on May 11, but Munster will need to upset the odds to bring about an Irish takeover at the iconic home of Newcastle United.
Stranger things have happened, but somehow we’re still waiting for the ‘dream final’.
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