Next Sunday promises to deliver the game of the Northern Hemisphere season as Munster and Leinster lock horns at Lansdowne Road with an Heineken Cup final place at stake.

Both sides looked long shots for European glory after the first round of the pool stages. Sale, later to be crushed at Thomond Park in a game that gave Munster the pool and Perpignan at home, rather than Biarritz away, beat the European veterans with plenty to spare but this tournament is a slog as well as a sprint and Munster wore them into the ground with such a vibrant display in round six that suddenly anything seemed possible. Their eighth semi-final in a decade is testimony to this great rugby region. Cardiff will be as red as ever it is for a home international should Munster beat their rivals in Dublin.
 
If they do, it will probably be on the back of the forwards with Paul O’Connell and company to the fore. Leinster started in similar fashion to Munster, even worse, losing at home to an English rival, Bath but like Munster have hit back in style.
 
If we thought their win at Bath to book a back-door quarter final berth was something, what occurred in Toulouse in the quarter final was almost otherworldly. In a season dominated by grind and attrition, Leinster let rip with ambition and accuracy behind the scrum. Felipe Contepomi’s mental courage and the sheer bravura of Brian O’Driscoll stunned the European champions.
 
At full time, however, the home crowd rose to acclaim a performance of sheer brilliance and dare I say it, something above and beyond anything even Munster has so far produced in Europe. Six thousand travelling fans showed how Europe is gripping parts other than Munster too.
 
Sunday will be a magnificent occasion. On paper you would think Mal O’Kelly and the Leinster pack are good enough to provide sufficient ball for their attacking game to prevail but this is a test match occasion and these games can be won in the heart and mind as well as hands and feet and who would write off the courage and capacity of Munster to rise to the challenge?
 
The winner should face Biarritz. The French champions are far superior to Bath on paper and form. Bath are nearer the bottom than top in England while Biarritz are reigning champions and pace setters in France with a phenomenal home record. But, but, but the French team can be unduly cautious. Twice their caution has been their undoing, especially last season against a Stade Francais team they dominated throughout but lacked the drive to finish off.
 
Never beyond the semi-final, they are at the nervous stage whilst Bath have been beyond before, beating a French team (Brive) against the odds in France eight years ago. The club has the culture to give this a brave shot. It also has a magnificent away record – as good as any in Europe.

If they reproduce the first 40 minutes of last Saturday’s performance against Bristol it could be a thrilling game with a massive shock. Personally, I think Bath has a decent chance. They are underdogs and will struggle to beat the best of Biarritz but the tentative nature of the home team and Brian Ashton’s positive approach makes me think they have a serious chance of meeting their pool rivals, Leinster in the final.


But that game is a 50/50 call, despite the class of Leinster in their last two games. Any way you look at it, this year’s Heineken final is going to be a belter.
 
On a sadder note, Leeds were relegated after five Premiership seasons. Reprieved once by a late and ludicrous ruling that cancelled relegation, the great escapologists failed to get out of the trunk this time. One hopes they have as much commitment as Harlequins did to making an immediate return to the top flight. However, the impact upon attendances is a serious worry for a team that was by some distance the lowest attended Premiership team in England. The Quins were bound to bounce back, whether Leeds do so will be interesting viewing next season.
 
That is for next year, right now it is all systems go for Europe (not forgetting the all English Challenge Cup semi-finals). San Sebastian promises much, Dublin promises the rugby world. Enjoy the weekend. To the questions…


STOOP TO CONQUER
Hi Stuart, Can Quins survive in the Premiership next year, or will it be straight back into a dog fight relegation? Can Dean Richards bring something new to the perennial under-achievers? Has Andrew Mehrtens passed his sell-by date or can he still make an impression? Will Abbott prove a wise buy? Quins have done everything that was expected of them this season and many players stayed put. What does the future hold for the Quins? I have my worries. Regards, Mark Harvey, Harold Wood, Essex.
 
STUART SAYS: Harold, I think that Harlequins are the best positioned of all promoted teams to survive with something to spare in their return to the Premiership. In Dean Richards, they have one of the shrewdest managers in the game and will not make the on field errors made by Mark Evans when the team were relegated. We know that Mehrtens is past his best – otherwise he would be in New Zealand as back up to Dan Carter but that is not to say he cannot be a force. Until the challenge of the big time, we simply do not know the answer but young Jarvis looks very good to my eyes. Stuart Abbott is an excellent buy and combined with the consistency of personnel, I see the Quins having a very decent time this time around around.


HALF-BAKED AT HALF BACK
Dear Stuart, I was hoping to gain your opinion on the England scrum-half situation. Many claim it to be one of England’s weakest positions (in terms of depth at least) which granted I feel is true. I am however surprised at the lack of support Harry Ellis has received from both the press and the public. In my eyes he has to be one of the most exciting talents in the game (proven by performances like last season’s Tigers-Wasps games) yet whenever he has an off game everyone wants to get stuck into him. I thought he played a blinder against Wales in the 6 nations matching Dwayne Peel (the best SH in world rugby, apparently) all the way. Is it that people feel he lacks the international pedigree or is it that we are just looking to point fingers at individuals in a stuttering England team? In terms of back up however I find it incredible Robinson had it in his mind that Dawson would make next year’s World Cup, or is it that he now feels his job is on such a thin thread he has little space to experiment? Other than Shaun Perry at Bristol is there anyone else coming through that really can stake a claim to the number 9 jersey (Peter Richards, Paul Hodgson) or is all the pressure on the highly over-criticised Ellis? I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Many Thanks, Sam Shelley.
 


STUART SAYS: Sam, Harry Ellis takes the stick because he has been chosen as England’s first choice scrum half. In the spotlight comes the criticism as well as the glory as more people analyse his performances more deeply. This season he has failed to build on his youthful promise. I do not agree that he was going eye-to-eye with the outstanding Peel when England played Wales. His pass is too erratic (hence Leicester dropping him for the Northampton game) and his control of his forwards has not been as dominant as you would like, hence allowing his club and country captain, Martin Corry to spend an eternity in Rome attacking the one real strength of Italy, their pack, when he should have been servicing the back line. He does have outstanding assets – pace, tackling and a fabulous competitive attitude – but the latter is a problem. He needs to be a little more detached. Matt Dawson’s selection was a short-sighted, short-term one and Shaun Perry will now be tested by an Australia eager for revenge. If it goes wrong he has little time to resurrect a fledgling international career before the World Cup. I would like to see Paul Hodgson tour as well. Technically and mentally the London Irish scrum half is excellent and an interesting bench contrast to Perry.
CENTRE POINTS
Dear Stuart, As an accomplished playmaker yourself, I was hoping that you could tell me a hooker what you feel it is that makes a great centre combination and more importantly, what would make a great centre combination for England. The World cup duo of Tindall and Greenwood offered a line breaker in Greenwood, a man who could distribute to an extent and in Tindall a man to make holes through running hard and straight. Granted not the most inspiring combo but it seemed to work and going on the 10-man rugby label England appeared to get stuck with, it didn’t seem to matter. Looking around the rugby world New Zealand have a second five-eight in Mauger or McAllister, guys who can kick and distribute as a 10 but are also expected to break the line. At outside Umaga, who can do the former, but also a go to man in terms of actually finding and going through opposition back lines. Going back to the World Cup, Australia had Giteau and Mortlock, a similar combination, Giteau the distributor, Mortlock more in the Tindall than the Umaga mould but still the same principle. Both of these combinations appear to have the same two different types of players in the 12 and 13 spots (unlike Noon and Tindall). Having seen this I came to the conclusion maybe this is the answer for England, but if this is the road we should be going down who do you feel are the personnel to fill these roles? I personally see Olly Barkley as the Giteau/Mauger 12. But I see the 13 dilemma as a different story. I am hugely excited by the idea of throwing in Sinbad at 13, not fitting the Umaga/Mortlock style but exciting none the less. Ireland, on the other hand, go against this rule book throwing two extremely exciting creative players into the midfield with O’Driscoll and D’Arcy. Granted O’Driscoll is a freak in that his attack is matched by his defence, but does the success of this not stake a claim for maybe not trying the Barkley-Sinbad combination or maybe Smith-Sinbad. I’d be intrigued to hear your views on the situation. Many Thanks, George, York


STUART SAYS: George, You must have been on Mars this season if you have yet to hear or read my views on the England non combination in the centre. Of course you need a balance of creativity and power, hence the examples you give us from the far South. I think you underestimate the creative skills of Will Greenwood and an England team that were only 10-man when it suited them up to the World Cup. Tindall fitted into the pattern and played well within it. However, his form has dropped and the pattern is non existent, especially with him playing inside centre to leave the entire creativity burden on the shoulders of the 10. England went for the muscular soft option because of obsessive defensive prioritisation. There has been nothing more damning for the England management than the muddle headedness of this combination. Tindall did not deserve selection on form this year and Jamie Noon was not the right player to combine. Noon has improved but the likes of Simpson-Daniel, Abbott and Barkley offer more variety. I would try Barkley (a second receiver at 12) and Simpson Daniel in the first test against Australia with Abbott, Noon and Smith all considerations for the second test – win, lose or draw. England must find more than a winning team and rhythm now, they need a strong squad and the only way they will discover it after three years wasting time is by mixing and matching on tours like Australia. It is no easy balance to achieve but England’s management has brought the problem upon itself.


Stuart Barnes