Real Rugby – Munster and Leinster in the Scotsman

Iain Morrison: Reversal of fortunes for bitter rivals

Published Date: 22 May 2011 By Iain Morrison

Just like historians, journalists like to keep things neat and tidy, marking the end of an era or the beginning of another one with dates. So 2 May, 2009 is a good one to start with. It probably doesn’t leap off the page at you but, with the benefit of hindsight, it proved to be a pivotal moment in the long-running saga of an ancient rugby rivalry.

Two years back, the Heineken Cup semi-final was being contested by Leinster a

nd Munster, the venue was Dublin’s Croke Park and the drama was played out in front of a crowd numbering a jaw-dropping 82,208, a record for a club match then and now. Leinster ran out comfortable 25-6 victors on the day. After living in Munster’s shadow for so long they had finally wrested the crown from their rivals.

The shift of power came almost exactly three years after the Limerick club had bushwhacked their main rivals 30-6 at the same stage of the same competition and in the same city. Leinster were restricted to two penalties that day, which is exactly what Munster managed three years on. The boot was finally on the other foot and, while few realised at the time, it was there to stay.

The Dublin side has continued to grow in strength while Munster’s slide out of Europe’s elite has continued, albeit at a snail’s pace. For the first time in 13 years the club failed to make the Heineken Cup knockout stage, going out with a whimper rather than a bang against Toulon in the south of France, and worse was to follow. Munster were bested by Harlequins in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup in front of their own fans at Thomond Park, a fort breached just once before in European rugby.

It only underlined how far the mighty had fallen. The worm had turned, the axis of power had shifted from south to north, the “ladyboys” of Dublin were in the ascendant and whichever Munster wit coined that phrase was hoping like hell that no one recalled it now. Munster have won just one of their last six matches against their old rivals and, throughout those 480 minutes of rugby, the men in red have failed to breach Leinster’s try line once.

It is only fitting that these two teams meet in Saturday’s Magners League final because they are the best two sides in the competition by an embarrassing margin, head, shoulders and torso above the rest. The Ospreys have the money but want for organisation, mental fortitude and a winning culture. The Blues fall short at the highest level and Ulster are still working their way back to the top. The rest are also-rans, bit-part players, scenery shifters rather than main characters.

The first and most obvious reason why Leinster have stolen a march on Munster is Michael Cheika.

Their former coach is struggling to make much of an impact in Paris but the grizzled Aussie dragged Dublin’s underachievers out of their comfort zone and, by the time he departed last summer, he had deposited them at the top of the European pile.

His replacement, Kiwi Joe Schmidt, has carried on the good work, a culture of excellence already imprinted on this squad of players.

There are accusations thrown at Munster that they did not repair the roof when the sun was shining, that years of glory blinded them to faults in the club’s superstructure that only came to light when age took its toll on stars who can no longer summon up quite the same reserves of self-belief, never mind energy and oxygen. The likes of Alan Quinlan and Ian Dowling, recently retired due to age and injury respectively, are not easily replaced and the fact that the club’s second string were held for 40 minutes by Melrose in the British & Irish Cup suggests that the next crop of Munster players lacks the ruthlessness of previous generations.

With almost a million people in the greater Dublin area, sheer weight of numbers also favours the capital side, while Cork and Limerick boast perhaps a fifth of that total between them.

More importantly, Leinster’s long tentacles envelope every club and school in the area. No young talent slips through the net. The Leinster academy churns out top-class players with clockwork efficiency but, according to coach Tony McGahan, Munster’s equivalent is at least two years behind (others put it two decades adrift). The Munster coach is also fighting fires closer to home. It was only under intense pressure that McGahan ushered forwards coach Lawrie Fisher to the exit door, which was why the Australian threw his hat in the ring for the Edinburgh job. The Munster boss appointed Fisher and his departure, to be replaced by club legend Anthony Foley, can only undermine McGahan’s waning authority.

Whether Foley can inject the current crop of Munstermen with the same dogged determination that saw him triumph in so many tight matches has yet to be seen He has an unenviable task. Such is the shortage of props that Munster have signed Ulster’s BJ Botha in an effort to shore up the scrum. If the South African is required for World Cup duty then John Hayes will presumably be called upon to oil up his creaking joints at the age of 37.

To top it all is Munster’s infamous indiscipline. That sound of flapping is karma coming home to roost. As a club they raised cheating to an art form, synchronised their appeals and pushed opposition players after the whistle in a blatant attempt to milk a reaction. Referees finally wised up to this creative cynicism and now act accordingly. In losing that game in Toulon, Munster got two yellow cards and, if Ronan O’Gara was a shade unfortunate, Donnacha O’Callaghan’s block of winger Rudi Wulf right under the referee’s nose was as dafy as it was ineffective.

They can’t even cheat cleverly any more.

O’Gara’s card was the club’s 11th in nine matches and it came after a scrap with Toulon scrum-half Pierre Mignoni that only illustrated how difficult it is to escape this rivalry. As O’Gara was wrestling on the ground, former Leinster fly-half Felipe Contepomi, now at Toulon, ran 40 metres to grab him around the neck and drag him off. Although no one claimed that the stand-off nearly died of asphyxiation (© E O’Sullivan), sheer frustration might just have done for him.

In an era where hype comes as standard you can almost taste the antagonism between these two teams – and don’t even get started on the supporters.

Discipline off the field is also an issue. Doug Howlett’s arrest after the club’s Christmas party last year was not that unusual in this day and age. He was, you could argue, just another overpaid sportsman with a sense of entitlement and a belly full of beer but this is Munster and they are supposed to be cut from a different cloth, above these sorts of shenanigans.

In truth Saturday’s Celtic finale could go either way.

Leinster’s triumphant comeback in Cardiff yesterday may lead to them subconsciously relaxing, reasoning that a Heineken Cup is a decent return on the season. And Leinster endured a bruising encounter yesterday while Munster rested, knowing a win next weekend will salvage their season.

Whatever the result, it won’t alter the fact that the balance of power in Ireland has shifted north and it’s going to take a monumental effort from Munster to heave the pendulum back their way again.