Leinster, Munster to vie for Magners final berth

By Kieran Rooney

LEINSTER and Munster will meet for a third time this season following a dramatic weekend in the Magners League.

Although the competition does not have quite the same standing of the Heineken Cup, their semi-final meeting at the RDS next Saturday night will be eagerly anticipated. It will be their third meeting this season, with Leinster winning the first two.

On the basis of those two previous Magners League meetings, Leinster will start favorites. They won 30-0 at the RDS and 16-15 at Thomond Park.

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What's more, they will have home advantage. Maybe though, their supporters would do well to remember that Munster went into last season's Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster with two Magners League victories over their great rivals to their credit, and lost.

So, anything is possible, just as most things were possible when Leinster and Munster played their final league outings on Sunday. Leinster, at home to Edinburgh at the RDS, needed a victory to assure themselves of a home semi-final.

Munster, lying in fourth spot, were in danger of losing out on a top four spot altogeher, should they go down in their away fixture to Cardiff Blues. Either Cardiff or Edinburgh could overtake them.

In the event, Munster did lose 13-12 in Cardiff through a massive penalty from inside his own half four minutes into injury time by Welsh wing Leigh Halfpenny. At that moment, Munster must have thought they had missed out on the semi-finals.

Cardiff weren't the problem. They had needed to win with a bonus point in order to move ahead of Munster. The real worry was at the RDS where Edinburgh were leading Leinster 28-23 going into the closing stages having already secured a bonus point with four tries.

For once, Munster needed a favor from Leinster. They got it four minutes from time, substitute flanker Stephen Keogh crashing over for a try, which Isa Nacewa converted. For good measure, Rob Kearney added a further try in injury time, again converted by Nacewa, to give Leinster a 37-28 success.

The irony of all this is that Keogh, the scorer of Leinster's crucial third, is, in fact, from Munster. It's doubtful if he has ever been so popular with his former province.

No one in the Leinster camp will, I suspect, be reading too much into the fact that Munster lost in Cardiff. They were, after all, without most of their first choice team, and, in those circumstances, did reasonably well to lead until injury time through four penalties from Ronan O'Gara.

Effectively, it was their losing bonus point that got them through. While most of their top line players will hopefully return for the Leinster semi-final, Paul O'Connell and Keith Earls remain serious doubts.

Coach Tony McGahan is, nonetheless, looking forward to the meeting with Leinster. He said: "It comes down to one-off matches from here on in and both Leinster and ourselves will went to make the final.

"Leinster have been to most consistent side in the Magners League this season, finishing top, but it's normally a tight match between us. Okay, the Heineken Cup was the top priority for both teams but this is also very important."

Unfortunately for Leinster, they also have some injury problems. Skipper Leo Cullen is their main concern with a damaged shoulder, while Gordon D'Arcy took a knock on the head.

One thing Leinster coach Michael Cheika will definitely not want next Saturday is for his team to start as they did against Edinburgh. They were 14-0 down within half an hour, having conceded two tries.

Eventually, Leinster took a 20-14 lead with Shane Horgan and Cian Healy crossing for tries, only to see Edinburgh hit back in the second half to establish their 28-20 advantage. It was then that Keogh did his bit to rescue the match for Leinster and make sure it was Munster they will meet in the semi-finals.

After what was for a long time a frustrating day, Cheika was pretty pleased with the way his team finished. Perhaps, even more so, he was pleased with the way they scrummaging after the difficulties they experienced when losing to Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final the previous weekend.

Cian Healy was particularly impressive, causing Edinburgh major problems in the scrum and also scoring a try. Cheika commented: "The front five looked to take charge out there and that's what you want in the finals. We need the same approach against Munster."

Despite rumours to the contrary, there was, seemingly, never any question of the semi-final being moved to Croke Park. So, there will be a capacity of 18,500 in what is sure to be a hugely atmospheric RDS.

The other semi-final between the Osprey and Glasgow Warriors will be played at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea on Friday night.

Elsewhere, the Irish rugby season moved to a close with Cork Constitution beating St Mary's College 17-10 after extra time at Dubarry Park to win the AIB All Ireland League title. In doing so they were completing the league and cup double.

In a tremendous advertisement for the club game, St Mary's had scored a try in injury time through their out-half Shaun McCarthy to bring the match into extra time. But it was the extra bit of quality of Cork Con which then told with their experienced wing Cronan Healy securing a superbly taken match winning score.

Cooney warns about fans' pitch invasions

PITCH invasions during the All-Ireland are a thing of the past. At least, that's the way it will be, if an increasingly determined GAA is to have its way.

They plan to enforce a ban on pitch invasions across all championship games during the summer. This follows new policy agreed at last month's congress being adopted with immediate effect.

GAA President Christy Cooney didn't mince his words, stating: "What we are saying is that pitch invasions will not be tolerated in any situation. The policy got such a ringing endorsement at congress that I think everyone realizes what we are trying to achieve.

"We want to educate the fans. They need to respect this because they are endangering their lives, and particularly young people's lives. They need to respect the players too, winners and losers on the day."

So far, educating the fans has not been easy as supporters have stuck to their traditional practice of running on to the field following a big victory. What's clearly needed is a change of mind set.

Consequently, the practice of pitch invasions will now not be allowed after any game at provincial championship level. Once the supporters become used to it, the hope is that that they will realise that it is simply not on, even on All-Ireland final day.

New York minors prove no match for Galway

On a very quiet weekend on the playing front, New York proved no match for Galway in the Connacht Minor Football Championship, losing 5-18 to 1-3 at Pearse Stadium on Sunday evening.

To be fair, the New York youngsters weren't helped by the sending off of their star player Shane Hanley in the first half. In truth, they were never in with a chance or repeating the fine performance of their senior side against Galway the previous week.

New York, making their first appearance at Pearse Stadium since 1982, found themselves under pressure from an early stage. The home side scored four goals in a one-sided opening half, New York's only consolation being a remarkable goal by Niall Croke from a '45.

At half-time, New York trailed by 4-9 to 1-1. To add to their problems, Hanley was shown a straight red card following a scuffle.

To their credit, New York fought hard in the second perior, restricting Galway to a further 1-9.

Irish unlucky vs. England

THE Irish cricket team had every reason to feel bitterly disappointed following the abandonment of their final Group D World 20 finals clash with England last week.

Having restricted England to the modest total of 120, a huge upset was on the cards at the Providence Stadium in Guyana. But rain meant that the match had to be abandoned after Ireland had scored 14 for one after 3.3 overs in reply.

So, both sides gained a point which meant that England got through to the Super Eights finals. If they were much relieved, they had every reason to be so.

Besides thanking the rain, England could feel grateful to former Irish star Eoin Morgan who was easily their top scorer.

Niland wins in Israel

CONOR NILAND'S tennis career has taken a major step forward with his victory in the Israel Open on Saturday.

The Limerick man defeated Brazilian No 4 seed Thiago Alves 5-7, 7-6 (7/3), 6-3 to capture the $100,000 event. It also brings him into the top 200 for the first time and sees him take over from Louk Sorensen as the Irish Number One.

His intention now is to try and qualify for the French Open. If he is to do so, he will need to win three matches to make the tournament proper, starting on May 23.

Roche may miss tour

NICHOLAS ROCHE'S participation in the Tour de France has been put in doubt by a hamstring injury. The Irish cyclist, whose father Stephen won the event in 1987, sustained the problem in the time trial stage of the Tour of Romandie. He will undergo a further scan in two weeks when he should have a better indication as to what his chances are.

Leinster's Stephen Keogh, in blue, scores a late try in the Magners League game against Edinburgh at the RDS.