Ri­valry un­der­pins golden age

Ad­vent of pro­fes­sion­al­ism has raised the tra­di­tional Mun­ster-Le­in­ster ri­valry to a whole new level

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent

Ir­ish rugby is blessed when you come to think of it, not least in hav­ing the four proud prov­inces. Put sim­ply, no mat­ter where an Ir­ish rugby sup­porter is from, since the birth of pro­fes­sion­al­ism, ev­ery­one can claim al­le­giance to at least one of the four pro­fes­sional teams that un­der­pin the na­tional team and com­pete in the Guin­ness Pro14 and Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tions.

Ire­land is the only Euro­pean coun­try in which this ap­plies. Even the Welsh re­gions, although de­signed to en­sure the widest rep­re­sen­ta­tion as pos­si­ble, are a tad more con­trived and don’t carry the same his­tor­i­cal al­le­giance as is the case for the Ir­ish prov­inces.

Nor can Ed­in­burgh and Glas­gow do this, or more ob­vi­ously Tre­viso-cum-Ze­bre in Italy, or in­deed the Top 14 or Gal­laghers Premier­ship. The lat­ter have a fair spread of 14 and 12 clubs, but they can only rep­re­sent so many sup­port­ers.

The old in­ter­pros were never played in front of any­thing like the at­ten­dances which show up nowa­days but at a stroke they pro­vided a com­plete geo­graph­i­cal spread to cover the en­tire is­land of Ire­land.

Right now, the good times never seemed so good and no ri­valry un­der­pins this golden age in Ir­ish rugby more than the one be­tween Le­in­ster and Mun­ster. It dates back to 1879, when the prov­inces’ rugby teams were first founded, and in the pro­fes­sional era has even be­come the best-at­tended fix­ture in the global game below Test level.

Not that its po­ten­tial was fully ap­pre­ci­ated, de­spite clear warn­ing signs. With the ad­vent of the Celtic League and, ef­fec­tively, the end of the In­ter­provin­cial Cham­pi­onship as we know it, Le­in­ster and Mun­ster were drawn apart in two pools of eight and seven teams. (The Welsh Rugby Union would sub­se­quently merge their nine clubs into five re­gions, which be­came four, thus high­light­ing the orig­i­nal point).

As it hap­pened, Le­in­ster and Mun­ster topped their re­spec­tive pools and each won quar­ter-fi­nals and semi-fi­nals to con­test the fi­nal at the old Lans­downe Road on Satur­day, De­cem­ber 15th, 2001.

An es­ti­mated crowd of circa 30,000 turned up to see a high-qual­ity game which Le­in­ster won 24-20 de­spite the send­ing off of Eric Miller.

Yet de­spite that, they were again drawn sep­a­rately in the two pools in 2002-03, when Le­in­ster fin­ished fifth in their pool and failed to progress. Con­nacht edged them out thanks in the main to a 26-23 win at the old Don­ny­brook, and so, for the first and only time since the sec­ond World War, the two prov­inces didn’t meet at all that sea­son.

Some­one sure missed a trick there!

Sta­plediet

With the Welsh trim­ming their sails into five re­gional teams, the Celtic League re­verted to, well, just that, with a home-and-away for­mat from the 2003-04 sea­son on­wards. This en­sured that Le­in­ster and Mun­ster have met at least twice ev­ery sea­son since then.

Even so, for the next three years, Mun­ster hosted Le­in­ster in Mus­grave Park at vary­ing points in the sea­son, al­beit ca­pac­ity crowds wit­nessed the fix­ture on new year’s day and early Oc­to­ber in 2004-05 and ’05-06, while Le­in­ster won a new year’s eve thriller at the RDS in 2005-06 in front of a 14,000-plus at­ten­dance.

Fi­nally they met for the first time in the com­pe­ti­tion at Thomond Park in the 2006-07 sea­son and, in a fore­taste on what has now be­come as much a sta­ple diet of the fes­tive pe­riod as tur­key and ham, on De­cem­ber 27th.

Helped by the ri­valry tak­ing on a new di­men­sion in the 2005-06 Heineken Cup semi-fi­nal at Lans­downe Road, a then ca­pac­ity crowd of 13,200 saw Mun­ster win 25-11. This was also the pe­riod of in­creas­ingly bit­ter re­la­tions be­tween some of the ri­val play­ers and some of the ri­val fans.

The fix­ture briefly re­turned to Cork while Thomond Park un­der­went full-scale re­de­vel­op­ment in 2008, Le­in­ster win­ning 10-3 en route to a league dou­ble and the ti­tle, while Mun­ster went on to con­quer Europe for a sec­ond time.

For the last 11 years, Mun­ster–Le­in­ster has been played at Thomond Park, and in­vari­ably to close on, or com­plete, full houses, although for five years from 2008-09 to 2012-13, it had a post-Six Na­tions slot de­signed to ready ei­ther or both teams for the knock-out stages in Europe.

In 2013-14, the two fix­tures were flipped, so that Mun­ster hosted Le­in­ster in early Oc­to­ber (a fix­ture de­signed to fast-track their readi­ness for the open­ing pool salvos in Europe) and Le­in­ster were at home for the end of March meet­ing in front of a ca­pac­ity Aviva Sta­dium.

Only in the last four years has the Thomond Park meet­ing be­come a St Stephen’s Day fix­ture (three sea­sons ago it was on the 27th). This fa­cil­i­tated an op­por­tu­nity for ex-pats fly­ing home for Christ­mas to at­tend. But even al­low­ing for sup­posed fes­tive cabin fever and all that, there seemed some­thing slightly un­seemly about the game com­ing so soon af­ter Christ­mas day. As if the at­ten­dees at ex­tended fam­ily get-to­geth­ers couldn’t stom­ach each other for a day.

Huge im­po­si­tion

It must also have been a huge im­po­si­tion on all those in­volved in the fix­ture, es­pe­cially for the Le­in­ster squad given they had to travel. For those hav­ing Christ­mas Day at home, such as Tadhg Fur­long in Wex­ford, Sean O’Brien in Tul­low and oth­ers, it usu­ally meant hav­ing to re­turn to Dublin on the night of Christ­mas Day for a morn­ing coach jour­ney to Lim­er­ick.

Not­ing the big crowds set to at­tend other der­bies in the RDS, the Sports­ground and the Kingspan Sta­dium over this pe­riod, Leo Cullen re­cently said with a dry smile: “Thomond is sold out as well on the 29th which is great. Hope­fully, they won’t play us on the 26th any more.”

Af­ter last Satur­day’s dra­matic come­back win over Con­nacht, the Le­in­ster head coach main­tained: “The 29th is a much more suit­able date in my cal­en­dar any­way. I’m not sure about ev­ery­body else.”

In any event, for all the play­ers and coaches in­volved, an im­pend­ing Mun­ster-Le­in­ster game the next day must have hung over the tra­di­tional tur­key and ham with fam­ily.

For ex­am­ple, in­juries have re­stricted Rhys Rud­dock to ap­pear­ing in just one of the last four Christ­mas clashes in Lim­er­ick be­tween the two prov­inces, when Le­in­ster lost 29-17 two sea­sons ago.

But he is as­suredly speak­ing for all the play­ers when he says: “As amaz­ing and spe­cial as the games are on St Stephen’s Day, I al­ways like to have a big feed on Christ­mas day and I can’t help my­self. Just to have those ex­tra few days is nice and I think the at­mos­phere will be just as spe­cial down there so it’s a win-win for us.”

The fes­tive rounds of in­ter­provin­cial der­bies have tended to high­light the is­sue of se­lec­tions, with coaches un­der­stand­ably tend­ing to pri­ori­tise home games in front of packed sta­di­ums. In this, it is akin to the Top 14 in mi­cro­cosm.

Mind you, this tends to af­fect Le­in­ster less than other sides, given their un­ri­valled strength in depth, wit­ness a record of five wins in those last ten vis­its to Thomond Park, which prob­a­bly makes them the most pro­fi­cient vis­i­tors to Mun­ster’s citadel around.

The way the fix­ture has fallen on a Satur­day, four days af­ter Christ­mas Day, has seem­ingly al­lowed Cullen more scope to ar­rive there with what is more no­tion­ally a first-choice team.

Le­in­ster have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand, es­pe­cially in Toulouse and Bath, that as dou­ble cham­pi­ons they more than any­body are the hunted ones this sea­son. And nowhere will this be truer than in Thomond Park. It’s partly why it’s been a sell-out for weeks.

But it is clearly a fix­ture Le­in­ster an­tic­i­pate ev­ery bit as much and one that they’ve had their eye on since the fix­tures were re­vealed.

“Ah it’s great yeah,” said Cullen, rel­ish­ing the prospect.

“It’s such a spe­cial oc­ca­sion. We talk about the Aviva game but yeah, the Thomond game as well is a huge game in the cal­en­dar. We’ve had some great tus­sles down there over the years, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ones. I’m sure ev­ery­one will be very very ex­cited to see what­ever teams do run out, be­cause what­ever 15 play­ers are rep­re­sent­ing each team, they will do so, I’m sure, with a great re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with rep­re­sent­ing their team. It’s a spe­cial fix­ture.”

The Mun­ster-Le­in­ster ri­valry dates back to 1879, when the prov­inces’ rugby teams were first founded, and in the pro­fes­sional era it has even be­come the best-at­tended fix­ture in the global game below Test level Le­in­ster have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced first-hand, es­pe­cially in Toulouse and Bath, that as dou­ble cham­pi­ons they more than any­body are the hunted ones this sea­son. And nowhere will this be truer than in Thomond Park

Re­spect the ba­sics

And be­ing the away side, there are some fun­da­men­tal re­quire­ments.

“You’ve got to re­spect the ba­sics of the game be­cause Mun­ster will ex­pose you,” said Cullen.

“They’ll al­ways put pres­sure on the con­tact area of the game so that’s what we’ll be ex­pect­ing and we just need to be a hell of a lot more ac­cu­rate on next Satur­day than we were tonight. It’s a great chal­lenge for us.”

The no­tion of sides be­ing full-strength in these days of squad depth and player man­age­ment is a moot point, and per­haps too much is made of se­lec­tion strate­gies.

Mun­ster may have lost last week, but they did emerge with a bonus point at the death and the game also served its value in help­ing to fine tune some play­ers on the road back from in­jury to full fit­ness.

“Jaco [Taute] got 80 min­utes, Jean [Kleyn] got 65 or 70. Dar­ren Sweet­nam got 80, Tommy O’Don­nell got 50. We want to take it step by step over the next few weeks. It’s the game of the sea­son next week, then Con­nacht are play­ing re­ally good rugby, we are away first. And then Glouces­ter and Ex­eter. It is bril­liant to be part of this and with a few guys back and there may be good news on Chris Farrell in the next week or so.”

And as Van Graan added in the wake of Mun­ster’s de­feat to Ul­ster: “Last year it didn’t mat­ter to them [Le­in­ster] and we were 27-5 be­hind at half-time. I’m not a guy who makes pre­dic­tions nor­mally but I be­lieve this will be Le­in­ster ver­sus Mun­ster at full strength. Both teams will be as close to fully-loaded as can be.

“Ob­vi­ously cer­tain guys will need a rest and some of our guys need a two-week break. But from our side we are so look­ing for­ward to play­ing them at home again.

“We re­spect them and if you are the PRO 14 and Euro­pean cham­pi­ons, they are the team we as­pire to be. I thought we played re­ally well against them in the Aviva, we con­ceded an early yel­low and 14 points. Then we got back to five but con­ceded a penalty from the kick-off.

“Now we’re at home and play­ing in front of a sell-out at Thomond which again, for a South African com­ing from out­side, is bril­liant for Ir­ish rugby. Two Mun­ster-Le­in­ster sell-outs is great for Ir­ish rugby.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: BILLY STICKLAND AND PATRICK BOL­GER/INPHO

Mun­ster’s Dar­ren Sweet­nam col­lects a high ball un­der pres­sure from Le­in­ster’s Fer­gus McFad­den and Sean O’Brien dur­ing the prov­inces’ meet­ing in Oc­to­ber while (below, in­set) the late An­thony Fo­ley tack­les Keith Glee­son in 2003.

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