Imperious Munster set to rule Europe again
April 28, 2009
Can anyone stop Munster clinching back-to-back Heineken Cup triumphs? © Getty Images
Felipe Contepomi Rocky Elsom Will Greenwood Gethin Jenkins Aaron Mauger Paul O'Connell Brian O'Driscoll Jamie Roberts Tom Shanklin
Former England international Will Greenwood has backed Munster and Cardiff Blues to emerge victorious from this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-finals.
Speaking ahead of the eagerly-awaited all-Irish clash between defending champions Munster and Leinster in Dublin and the showdown between the Blues and Leicester Tigers in Cardiff, the TV pundit and tournament ambassador has promised two keenly-contested semi-finals - but he believes one team in particular stands out in the final four.
"You would have to find some exceptional circumstances in a Heineken Cup knock-out game to say a team will beat Munster," said the former Leicester and Harlequins star.
"No one likes to be boring in their selections but I backed against Munster a few years ago and since then have watched their imperious march in Europe. Until someone manages to eye-ball them and say 'you know what, we're not going to get beaten today' then that momentum and that belief that they've nurtured by winning together, home and away, will always put them in the box seat."
A capacity 82,300 crowd is guaranteed for the clash at Croke Park - the first Heineken Cup match staged at the arena - and fans can expect a very special atmosphere as Leinster look to avenge their 30-6 defeat at the same stage three years ago.
"Whatever people say about it being in Dublin, it is a completely neutral venue because so many of those players have played there for Ireland," said Greenwood. "It will be an incredible atmosphere, but you feel the team ethos and team ethic that Munster have and their track record in the tournament has to make them favourites. But the flip side is that the [Rocky] Elsoms, [Felipe] Contepomis and [Brian] O'Driscolls of this world are genuine world class players with the ability to change a game on their own."
Munster also have two Magners League victories over their fierce rivals this season but Greenwood believes that will count for little on Saturday. "I think Leinster have every opportunity of taking this game to the wire, there's no doubt about that - irrespective of the previous results between the two in the Magners League this is totally different. There is so much confidence and self-belief in Irish rugby at the moment - what a semi-final they have in store for any of those lucky enough to get tickets.
"The gambling men decide prices on form and fitness and previous records in this tournament and no-one has a better record than Munster."
The line-up for this season's Final will be decided at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday where Greenwood believes another fascinating clash awaits with the Blues favourites to oust the Tigers who claimed the crown in 2001 and 2002.
"Cardiff have the momentum and the belief on the back of the demolition of Gloucester [in the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final] and they will view this as a home game. However, the Tigers have won their before, they've won the Heineken Cup there and they're an obstinate bunch who will enjoy going into it as underdogs."
As with the game in Dublin, a host of British & Irish Lions will be on-show with one in particular singled out for praise by Greenwood who himself emerged onto the international stage in the famous red jersey during their last visit to South Africa in 1997.
"Gethin Jenkins is almost more certain of his position than [Lions captain] Paul O'Connell," insists Greenwood. "He's played that well that there isn't a man in the northern hemisphere who wouldn't have him at loose-head."
But it is the New Zealand-flavour to the game that could prove to be the key according to Greenwood. "The Lions on the field will be backed up by some incredible Kiwis," he said. "On the Cardiff side there is [Xavier] Rush, [Paul] Tito and [Ben Blair] Blair and Leicester have potentially their own depending on selection and injury in the form of [Aaron] Mauger, [Scott] Hamilton and [Craig] Newby."
Greenwood sees Mauger in particular as key to the Tigers' aspirations. "Big game experience, ability to play under pressure with both width and with directness - that is what his experience gives you. The ability to take the blinkers off.
"So often in big games you think you've got to smash it up but the best thing to do is go around them if the opportunity is there but you don't go wide just for the sake of going wide. But that big game temperament that allows you to see things just a fraction of a second earlier thank those guys who haven't been there before makes Mauger's inclusion key."
But when pressed it is the Blues who Greenwood believes will be heading the Murrayfield for the season finale on May 23. "I think Xavier Rush's impact from the base of the scrum combined with [Tom] Shanklin and [Jamie] Roberts in the midfield and Nicky Robinson gives Cardiff the edge. Leicester will of course take huge support down there but the Blues will be getting out there beds in Cardiff and going 300 yards up the road. That home advantage will have a huge impact on the game."
Stay tuned to Scrum.com for full coverage of this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-finals
Will Greenwood is a Heineken ambassador. Heineken, the premium continental bier, have been proud sponsors of the Heineken Cup since its inception in 1995. Tickets are still available for the Cardiff Blues v Leicester game via ticketmaster.com.
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup
The reopening of the openside debate, a dominant wolf-pack and a sublime performance in defeat - Monday Maul looks at the weekend's talking points
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Rugby Championship alongside the best photographs from around the domestic game