Munster couldn't beat a Leinster side that wanted to 'freshen up' in a semi 3 months ago

Munster couldn't beat a Leinster side that wanted to 'freshen up' in a semi

It's a PRO14 semi-final.

You've just lost to the best team in Europe after boasting a 10-0 lead in the first-half and you return home for a PRO14 semi-final against your fiercest rivals.

Roll the dice again? Take your chance to come out swinging?

For the most part, yes, but even with a semi-final on the horizon Leinster are comfortable rotating.

One of the big mantras of their double winning season last year was the fact that they used 55 players and it's a similar source of pride this term.

"We’ve used 55 players in the Pro14 and Europe this season and it’s a huge group and they’ve already got us to a Pro14 semi-final," Leinster head coach Leo Cullen said back in March.

"Our philosophy is everyone needs to be ready to step in. You hear so many coaches complaining about injuries unraveling their team and we don’t want to use that as an excuse ever. We’re trying to invest in our players all the time and it’s something that we’ll continue to do."

You expect investment against Ulster away, Benetton at home, Glasgow at home, games that fall either before or between Champions Cup semi-finals and finals, you don't expect it against Munster in a meaningful game in May.

And yet, Leo Cullen was perplexed at the weekend by media outlets leading with the fact that Johnny Sexton, Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney had all been excluded from the starting XV.

Maybe Cullen really does buy into load management, rest and rotation. Professional rugby is a brutal game and injuries can stack up quite quickly but whatever knot or bow that Cullen wants to place on his selections, the reality is that Leinster felt comfortable rotating their squad for a semi-final against Munster and still cleared Johann van Graan's side by 15 points.

World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton was replaced by Ross Byrne who scored 14 of Leinster's 24 points. Sean O'Brien was replaced by Josh van der Flier who won the man of the match award in his first game back since the Six Nations. Dave Kearney replaced his brother Rob and slotted right back into the back three. Rhys Ruddock came in for former Wallabies captain Scott Fardy and he made 19 tackles.

Leinster are a machine, and while they may be rotating, their selection and subsequent performance just further illustrates the widening gap between the two sides.

Think about this for a second. Before Saturday's semi-final, Peter Stringer and Bernard Jackman revisited the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Almost every player that played during that game has spoken about this match publicly, and if they haven't, they've missed out on an easy pay day.

But the general synopsis is this; Leinster had been bubbling under the surface for years and on that day they finally took down a Munster team at the end of their prime, conversely setting up their own run for Europe in the process.

But if the 2009 game at Croke Park represented a changing of the guard then the 2019 semi-final surely must represent the decay of a rivalry with Leinster now winning eight of their last 10 against Munster.

The gap between the two sides is notable given how comfortable Leinster are with 'freshening' things up for a semi-final but it's also further strengthened when you consider that Munster had just seven players in their starting XV that actually graduated from the club's academy, compared to Leinster who boasted 12 of 15.

Retrospectively, 2009 is viewed largely as the year were the curtain started to come down on a golden era of Munster players but where are they now in 2019?

For two consecutive seasons they've bowed out in both the PRO14 and Champions Cup semi-finals and for two consecutive seasons the same questions have been asked.

How do they bridge the gap? How do they go one step further? What can they change?

Realistically not a whole lot from the outside looking in. Van Grann can talk about patience, pressure and adaptation but really they're just words in a post-match press conference until they clear that penultimate hurdle.

You look at the age profile of Munster's core players - Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell - and they're all closer to 30 than they are to 20.

The one exception is Joey Carbery, the 23-year-old fly-half who was the top points scorer in the Champions Cup after the pool stages.

Carbery said earlier this year that he wants to win a World Cup and be the best player in the world one day. Judging by his performances this season and his age profile, maybe the latter is in play, after all, it took Johnny Sexton until the age of 33 before he was officially recognised as the world's best.

Munster will need Carbery to get closer to that mark considerably earlier if they wish to challenge at the final hurdle because short of convincing Simon Zebo to come back there's not much else they can do.

Two of their coaches have turned down new contracts. They're set to lose their commercial director in Doug Howlett. They still owe €6.9m on the Thomond Park development debt. Their only new signing at this stage is set to be reserve scrum-half Nick McCarthy, with van Graan confirming that they might make some short-term signings to cover for the World Cup. Not exactly the ideal rebuild.

They've recycled through players. They've recycled through coaches. They have reduced their debt. They made the big signings in Beirne and Carbery last summer and they're still no closer to the top than any other point they have been over the course of this decade.

Leinster and Saracens are by some distance the two best sides in Europe and maybe Munster are just one part of a large chasing pack.

Leinster can freshen up and win. Munster reload and lose. Maybe that's just how it is now.