Ex-Munster player previews Irish sides' semi finals and reviews pros and cons of Gatland's Lions squad picks
It's been a big week on all fronts for rugby in the Northern Hemisphere. The Lions squad being announced and the build up to two titanic battles for a place in the Champions Cup final.
The Lions has thrown up some surprises but not as many as the "leaked" squads anticipated. There are some very unlucky players not to be involved and there are also selections made purely based on Warren Gatland’s style of play.
For me, the most unlucky out of them all is Joe Launchbury. Two Man of the Match awards at the Six Nations and nominated for Player of the Tournament. His breakthrough international performance was against the All Blacks. The decision to leave him out is one I am finding hard to understand.
There are a few unlucky fit Irish men: Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Garry Ringrose. A few have also been hampered by injury and this is the bracket Jamie Heaslip falls under. If fit and playing I’m sure he would have been very close to selection. His understanding and experience of a Lions tour would have been invaluable in New Zealand.
The others are more of a style decision rather than a form one for me, Earls and Ringrose being prime examples. Their speed and electric feet in close quarters is surplus to the "Warren Ball" style of play that this squad, on selection looks set to deliver. Zebo’s exclusion means there is a serious lack of left footed kicking options across the backline. I always feel having one within the squad can only be a good thing and think this is an over sight by all the coaching staff.
I think the core of the squad is extremely strong and one that will push the All Blacks a long way in the series.
The English guys have learned so much since the World Cup and the fact that Ireland beat them only a few months ago means this group will be full of confidence and capable of getting a series win down there.
Now on to more important things - well, at least for this weekend anyway! First off it’s Munster versus Saracens at the Aviva. This is going to be a cracker. There is recent history between these two. The last time the sides met, it was a convincing win for Sarries in Allianz Park. I was still in Munster then and it was a performance that we were ashamed of at the time. Munster are now in a completely different space to where we were back then.
There is one similarity from that game to this one and that is the lack of an out-and-out scrum half on the bench. Duncan Williams silenced the keyboard warriors with his performance against Toulouse. His class and form will shine through again tomorrow, let's just pray that he stays fit throughout the game to marshal everyone around the pitch, like he did so well against Toulouse.
Saracens are a very good side and are in even better form. At times cruising through games in the pool stages to secure a home quarter. Their performance against Glasgow was top drawer quality.
My heart says Munster, my head wants to say Munster but Saracens just seem to be at a different level to others currently in these one-off games. Emotion plays a huge part in games like this. Munster are going to go to the well tomorrow and hopefully just shade it by the narrowest of margins.
Leinster head to France this Sunday and take on the gigantic Clermont in Lyons. These teams go back a long way in this competition. Clermont, like Munster, are a different side to the one that Leinster have beaten in the knock out stages of this competition on a few occasions but so are Leinster this year under the guidance of senior coach Stuart Lancaster.
Sean O’Brien and Heaslip are a serious loss, for experience alone. I don’t think any team but Leinster could handle this and still have someone of the quality of Dominic Ryan not even in the squad. Their strength and depth in the back row is second to none. Leinster have generals that have been there and done this before. Clermont for me are still liable to "bottle it" and if Leinster can plant that seed of doubt early and silence the crowd, Leinster should be in for a good day. For me, it will be Leinster by more than the four point handicap they are being given.
All Irish rugby fans are hoping for that dream final, let's hope it comes true!