The Match: Leinster 25 Munster 6, 2 May 2009
What it Defined: the handing over of the baton from Munster to Leinster and the rise of inter-provincial bickering
The State of Play
The Heineken Cup has thrown up a reprise of 2006’s all-Irish semi-final. That game has since gone down as ‘Black Sunday’ among Leinster fans, where their team was thrashed on the pitch and humiliated off it, as Munster fans swamped Dublin 4 and Lansdowne Road. A repeat of 2006 is widely expected, on the field of play at least. While both teams have made it this far, their paths have been wildly different.
Munster are playing like a well-oiled machine. They’re champions, and they’ve navigated a difficult group, albeit not without a few scares. In the opening game, they almost lose to Montauban’s second string, and they are decidedly fortunate to beat 14-man Clermont Auvergne at home. But since a bad loss at home to Ulster (11-37) they have found a new gear, thrashing Sale at home with David Wallace in imperious form, and charging through the Magners League program, picking up eight successive league wins. They are league champions by the time the Heineken Cup semi-final looms into view.
A far cry from the old boot-and-bollock Munster, they are scoring tries for fun. Paul Warwick has brought a creative dimension to their back play and young centre Keith Earls is to the manor born. They beat Leinster 22-5 in Thomond Park, and in the HEC quarter-final they hammer a talented Ospreys team 43-9. As Warwick bangs over a drop goal from close to the halfway line, the camera picks up Paul O’Connell’s reaction: a shake of the head in disbelief. A week later, eight of their number are selected in the Lions touring party. The usual suspects are joined by two players who didn’t even feature in Ireland’s Grand Slam the previous month: Alan Quinlan and Keith Earls.
The oft-used phrase (usually by Gerry) of the “Munster zeitgeist” is truly relevant – Geech and Gatty plan to tap into the famous Munster spirit to beat the world champion Springboks. Munster are mainstream. It’s a time when Setanta can screen hour-long documentaries posing the question “Are Munster the epitome of sporting Irishness?”. It’s mildly cringeworthy to look back on, but Munster were generally seen as something special and superhuman.
By contrast, Leinster’s season has been bizarre to the point of freakish. They bag 10 tries and 10 points from their first two games, dismantling Wasps 41-11 in the RDS, but proceed to go into freefall. They lose to Castres, in a dismal performance and face the consequences when Neil Francis writes a barbed review in the Sindo. They then lose to Wasps but scrape past Edinburgh 12-3, qualifying only by dint of Wasps’ failure to win their final pool game in Castres. Frankly, they are lucky to qualify, having made a mess of a perfect start.
The quarter final pits them against Harlequins in the Stoop. In a crazy, unforgettable match, Leinster tackle themselves to a standstill, somehow holding out for a 6-5 win. The game is notable for the infamous bloodgate scandal, with Quins engineering a fake-blood substitution to get a stricken Nick Evans back on the pitch for a late drop goal attempt. In the end, his kick barely gets airborne and Leinster find themselves in an unlikely semi-final against their biggest rivals.
The build-up to the game is in contrast to 2006. Then it was a case of city slickers vs. country bumpkins. Now, it is impossible to find a pundit who will give Leinster a chance. Leinster’s car-crash form and lack of bottle is held up against Munster’s seeming invincibility and air of champions elect. In a piece by Reggie Corrigan, the turncoat ‘Lunster’ fan reaches a mainstream audience, and the Lunsters take to the airwaves to defend their position. On the morning of the game, the Irish Times publishes a self-satisfied, nasty-spirited piece by Niall Kiely, declaring the game already won, lamenting only that Munster could do with a tougher game in order to be more battle-hardened for the final.
The game goes contrary to expectations in every way as Munster run into a Leinster team that simply had not read the script. Leinster’s performance is feral: tackle counts are through the roof (Jennings tops out with 22)and they pulverise Munster at the breakdown. Felipe Contepomi sets the tone, smashing through O’Gara in the opening minutes. Rocky Elsom, becoming an increasingly influential figure, is on the rampage. Cian Healy is sinbinned, but Leinster dominate the ensuing 10 minute period. Contepomi drops a goal. He’s got his game face on this time, and he’s in control – but gets injured. His replacement is Johnny Sexton, Leinster’s vaunted fly-half, but one who has endured a difficult season. His first task is to take a penalty from the left of the posts. He takes an age over the ball, but his kick is straight through the middle.
It is a watershed moment in his and Leinster’s history. Suddenly Leinster are on the front foot all over the pitch. Isa Nacewa breaks the line, floats a sublime pass out to D’arcy who breaks Keith Earls’ poor tackle to score. A backlash from Munster is expected in the second half, but instead it’s Leinster who strike next, with Fitzgerald stepping Paul Warwick to score. Cameras pick up ashen-faced Munster fans who cannot believe what is unfolding in front of their eyes. When Brian O’Driscoll intercepts a telegraphed long pass from O’Gara to score under the posts, the game is up. Leinster have done the unthinkable – beaten Munster when it mattered most.
The win is a huge triumph for Leinster’s under-fire coach. His preparation of the team for the game is masterful, keeping the group at a simmer, and only bringing them to boil in the 24 hours before kick-off. He uses the media to his advantage, building a siege mentaility within the camp, an everyone-hates-us-we-don’t care-attitude. It is also a vindication for his methods, which are not to everyone’s liking, and reward for three years of rebuilding work. After Black Sunday in 2006, Leinster Rugby and Cheika had reacted by changing much about the club. He recognised that days out like the quarter-final in Toulouse would be rare unless Leinster had a group of forwards that could go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight European packs.
Leinster’s signature style of swashbuckling back play had to go on the back burner, as Cheika sought to construct a more forward-oriented team, built around tough nuggets Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings, Bernard Jackman, Jamie Heaslip and, of course, Rocky Elsom. Winning the Magners League in 2008 was a big, often undervalued step. But the new Leinster could be dull to watch, and there were large sections who bemoaned the pragmatic playing style – where was the champagne, the romance and the tries from 50m out? Cheika’s legacy hinged on this result, and the final which followed.
The game had a profound effect on every element of Irish rugby, from the fans, through to the provinces and up to the national team. For Leinster, it was their arrival, long overdue, on the European stage. Even more importantly, they had made people sit up and take notice of them – to look at them in a new way. The easy stereotype of the Munster Pride of Irish Warriors and the Cappuccino-Drinking Leinster Bottlers no longer held water. They had earned the rugby public’s respect the only way they could – by toppling the team against whose record theirs was always unfavourably compared.
First, of course, they had to go on and win the final, against Leicester in Murrayfield. Contepomi would not be able to take his place in the team, and would be replaced by his heir apparent, Johnny Sexton. The game was a tight affair, but an imperfectly struck penalty from Sexton with ten minutes to go was enough to secure a 19-16 win for Leinster. If Munster’s first Heineken Cup win was met with relief after many near misses, Leinster’s was greeted almost with a sense of ‘How did we get here?’ Only six months previously they were losing in Castres and taking the brickbats; now they were champions. Truth be told, they weren’t vintage champions, but such is the curious nature of the Heineken Cup. It was a triumph over self-inflicted adversity as much as anything else.
The rise of Leinster was great for Irish rugby in many senses – where Ireland previously had one province with genuine European pedigree, now they had two. Had Munster won it would have been perceived as just another nail in the Leinster coffin, but Leinster winning opened a whole new world to Irish rugby. As the capital city’s only professional team, they were well poised to capitalise on their success. The emerging Tullow flanker Sean O’Brien would also have a huge impact on how those from outside the traditional Leinster cache would view the team. And behind the scenes, Leinster had got its structures right, with its flourishing youth academy, in building ties with the schools game and creating a buzzy, family-friendly atmosphere at its new home in the RDS. It was a success story waiting to happen and the win against Munster lit the touchpaper.
But it wasn’t all great news. Perhaps the greatest knock-on effect was in the relationship between the fans of the two provinces. Up until this game, the two groups had co-existed happily: Munster held the bragging rights and Leinster fans reluctantly accepted their lot as second best, but banter between them was generally cheery. This had been the way of things for ten years, and nobody expected it to shift any time soon. Leinster being European champions levelled the playing field, and changed the dynamic utterly. Now Leinster fans could stand up and defend their team. It led to quite a bit of rancour, most of it, mercifully, confined to internet fora rather than at the games between the sides, where fans still mingled and drank together before, during and after the matches. For some Munster fans there was an element of not being able to take the ribbing now they were no longer top dog, and equally, for some Leinster fans there was a desire for revenge for years of having taken it.
[We are aware this is a delicate issue, and do not want our words taken as attributing blame to any particular side; in the comments section, please refrain from trying to start any flame wars on this subject. Any such comments will be moderated.]
Oddly, the most poisonous encounters were saved for games involving the national team, when everyone is supposedly supporting the same side. With Johnny Sexton’s emergence, Leinster fans wanted to see their man replace Ronan O’Gara in the national team. Neither player was especially popular among one-anothers fans, and their dual in the most visible of positions became emblematic of the new rivalry. The sniping could become quite barbed. It was not helped by both players showing some patchy form in green and Kidney’s constant chopping between the two, or by the headstrong, often cranky nature of both players. As Ireland’s results and performances dwindled, a blame-game culture emerged, with provincial leanings to the fore. It was BOD’s fault for knocking it on. No, it was ROG’s fault for throwing such a terrible pass. And so on.
The irony of it all, of course, is that historically the biggest rivalries in Irish rugby were Leinster-Ulster (where the game existed in similar social strata) and Munster-Ulster (where, to be blunt, they never particularly liked or respected each other). Perhaps the absence of a clearly defined Leinster-Munster rivalry allowed a new dynamic to develop quickly. It has now got to the point where it is completely overarching, dominating virtually every aspect of Irish rugby – the arrival of Ulster at the top table comes as a merciful relief for many fans, allowing alternative provincial dynamics to get oxygen. The Leinster-Ulster fixture scheduling in this years Pro12 is a welcome development.
The following season Leinster consolidated their position as one of Europe’s heavyweights, if not yet a great side. They squeezed past Clermont in the quarter-finals, on a memorable night in the RDS, but succumbed to Toulouse in the semi-final. In the league they struggled for tries for much of the season and lost the final to Ospreys, but in beating Munster three times, secured their position as the country’s foremost province. It was a spirited campaign, but the backline was labouring and in need of new ideas. Cheika stood down at the end of the season and his replacement, Clermont assistant coach Joe Schmidt, would be tasked with bringing some of the old dash back into what was now a tough, doughty outfit. The rest, as they say, is history.