Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Seven

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

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 Aftermath

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.

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22 Comments

  1. My youngest son was just over a week old that day so I couldn’t go. Let’s just say he did not get much sleep while this was on. I agree that the L/M rivalry can be taken too far, but it’s like alcohol – once handled responsibly it can be enjoyable for everyone.

  2. Ultra Sur

     /  August 7, 2012

    I would argue that the real animosity between the fans developed after the ’06 encounter. It was at that point that Leinster really took off. There were 26k in Lansdowne in the following league encounter later that year and it was dominated by a vociferous and partisan Leinster crowd.

    The year after that saw Leinster become the best supported team in the league, coinciding with the move to the RDS. A league win followed and the rest, as they say, is history.

    But to my mind, it was the ’06 game and the humiliation of the loss (not helped by the tension and stereotyping of both sides stoked by the media beforehand) that greatly influenced the hardening of attitudes in both the organisation, as you alluded to, but also in the Leinster support base, which in turn led to a marked increase in attendances. When Leinster finally won the HEC, no-one could accuse them of not having suitably high average attendances and those average attendances were, in my opinion, directly attributable to the loss in ’06.

    I would argue that the ’06 loss made Leinster and was therefore more important than ’09, which was a product of it.

    • Ultra Sur

       /  August 7, 2012

      And just in case the point wasn’t clear, it was the build up and result of ’06 match that divided the fans in a near-irreconcilable way. The result in ’09 just facilitated the release of tension

  3. contraflow

     /  August 7, 2012

    I would say the QF victory over Toulouse was a major factor in the Leinster support base expanding also. It was the first time I saw a significant Leinster support at an away match in France, I think 5K Blue fans travelled. The manner of the victory, the standing of the opposition and the noise and colour of both sets of fans made it the most memorable occasion in Leinster’s H_CUP adventure to date. Those of us who watched on TV and heard from attendees were in no doubt that we had missed out on a great wknd.
    This was carried into Black Sunday where we met a seasoned veteran of the European Experience and our naive new wave of optimism was crushed both on and off the field. A hard lesson for the team and fans, but well learned, as Ultra Sur says above it took us to a new level.

  4. Degsy

     /  August 7, 2012

    Niall Kiely? Who was Niall Kiely?

  5. Degsy

     /  August 7, 2012

    The game that I thought was the one where Leinster “turned a corner” was their away draw to Bourgoin. I think it was 29-29 final score. It was the first time Leinster really threw down the gauntlet and refused to collapse away from home in the HC. I recall particularly how a fierce Contepmomi literally dragged his team by the scruff of the neck though that match. I felt that day was very significant – it was the firstajor display of cojones away from home in the Cheika era.

    The 09 match discussed above was awful for a Munster fan. I recall thinking to myself this was not to be our day when Elsom tackled Dowling 5 yards offside to stop an almost certain try. Then it went downhill big time. But in fairness when I met my Leinster mates that evening in town they were great and generous, their celebrations almost muted because of the unexpected nature of the victory mixed with an almost benign sympathy for the total desolation of us Munster fans.

  6. mccartrd@tcd.ie

     /  August 7, 2012

    Alan Quinlan in a recent enough media appearance, maybe Sky Sports or in an Irish Times article made the most relevant point about Munster since that May Day. Munster never got over the hammering they took that day. And while sport is cylical and they will get over it soon, they expended so much energy mulling, thinking and debriefing from it. They should have picked themselves back up and got on with it.
    A period of soul-searching has followed and has meandered and strayed from questions like ‘is it the structures such as our Academy and schools game?’ or ‘is it they way we play, are we being left behind due to abandoning our natural style of play?’ or ‘do Leinster simply have better players, that we can never have’. In my humble opinion I think it is a mix of all the questions but Munster wasted so long thinking about that game. Only now are they turing around, but it is going to be 4 to 5 long torturous seasons before they fully obtain revenge for this and replace this current Leinster.

    • Actually, I thought Munster’s biggest issue was not addressing it at all – it was like there were no lessons to be learned as it was a complete fluke. They went down the road they were travelling for another 2 seasons and were thoroughly spent by the time they took their defeat on board.

      Perhaps you are getting at the same thing, but there is no doubt there was kind of a collective post-traumatic stress experience in Munster for a long time afterward.

  7. Elsmido

     /  August 7, 2012

    The crowds, rivalry and passion that has developed in Irish domestic rugby is a bit of a phenomenon. Other countries and sports must look upon it with envy. Where did this all spring from? The truth is, it has always been there but remained untapped until professionalism came along. Before that, Ulster were the pre-eminant force in Irish rugby. Word on the street was that they treated the interpros as quasi-internationals. Another factor in Munster’s rise was GAA players being given a few quid to turn out on Saturdays for the local club.

    In Leinster’s case, weight of numbers plays a part, both in terms of player base and attendances. With respect to the Leinster management, the raw materials were always there, it was just a case of bringing the respective elements together, which they have done with aplomb. They, along with Munster have built reputations that enable them to bolster their squads with top class (usually SH) talent. Which is as it should be in club rugby.

    Ulster seem to be trying to combine the experiences of both of their rivals which seems to be paying dividends. The domestic future looks promising.

    Unfortunately, until the same sort of success is replicated at international level, it will leave a bitter taste in the mouth……. for this rugby nut anyway.

    • That’s a good point about Ulster – in the 1980s they were more or less unbeatable in the interpros – I’m not sure their attitude was one as confrontational as “internationals” implies, but there was most definitely a differentiation. Jimmy Davidson placed a huge emphasis on preparation, gathering his players in advance for the interpros and putting sport science (as it was then) preparation into effect. The Club Ulster ethos was strong in the late 1980s, and Ravenhill was already making efforts to expand out of its core constituency – I can recall Ulster players being sent to my (Catholic) primary school to teach kids who would never normally have interacted with rugby.

      He tried to replicate the approach with Ireland, but it was considered too “shamateur” for the old farts and he gave up in frustration. Its ironic that the RWC was brought in to postpone the move to professionalism, yet had Ireland gone pro with Davidson at the helm, they would have had a clear head start on any other NH country.

  8. Ah yes, good old Niall Kiely! As one Leinster fan quipped on that faithful day: “Our fan chose to write about Leinster, and so did theirs!” I will never ever forget the colour, brashness of the opposition, and the pride in my team I felt that day, my favourite ever as a Leinster fan.

  9. Louis

     /  August 8, 2012

    I went for an utterly memorable weekend to Toulouse in 2006 and then took my then 9 year old so to Lansdowne a couple of weeks later for the worst 100 minutes I have ever spend in a sports stadium.. What a contrast!
    I think both of these games together contributed hugely to create the Leinster we ‘all’ love now.
    Here’s hoping that the national team can use the last test lost to NZ in the same way

  10. Dave

     /  August 8, 2012

    Tough reading for a Munster fan lads! I remember watching from the hill, jaw firmly on the step below me, it was a complete mirror image of the ’06 game. For me ’09 was probably a defining moment for Munster more than Leinster. Munster have never reached the same level of consistency as they did that season. I think part of the reason as the lads said was that they never really addressed the problem, and to a degree who could blame them. As mentioned they had just delivered one of the most consistent seasons in recent memory, won the league and got to a semi of the HCup. Sure they must have been doing something right, right?
    Leinster’s defining moment in my mind, was probably the ’06 match, allied to the league win. Cheika got rid of Jowitt and co. and replaced them with Leo, Jennings, and some Elsom lad. He realised and has acknowledged that he tried to simulate the Munster model in a way. If you look at the province’s two maiden wins they are remarkably similar, in the knockout stages anyway. Tough ground out wins in the 1/4’s, huge upsets in the semis and a big battle if not a classic in the final.
    As far as rivalry is concerned, as a Munster fan, and I can only speak for myself, the league game where Hayes was sent off for stamping on Healy was the tipping point. Up to that stage there was reciprocal banter but since then (and both sides are guilty) it just hasn’t been the same. After the ’06 and ’09 games I met up with my Dublin mates and had good craic and a bit of ribbing but that was it. It’s a pity that it has been taken too far.

    • Thanks for all the comments, folks. A lot of y’all citing the importance of Black Sunday as being hugely important from a Leinster perspective, which we agree with. That was certainly a watershed moment in how Cheika went about rebuilding the team, and also how the branch went about marketing the province.

      But we chose this game because we really felt it kicked the door down for Leinster. For all that they’d toughened up in the 18 months prior to the game, it didn’t necessarily feel like it at the time. And Leinster were still something of a laughing stock going into the game. We look back on the 07-08 Magners League win as being a big stepping stone, and it was, but they got little enough credit for it back then. In the same year Munster won the Heineken Cup, so nobody outside the province was particularly interested in Leinster’s league win. This was really the moment they earned the respect of the rugby public – and for that reason we think it was the defining match for them.

      @Dave – the atmosphere was white-hot that night. Thomond Park was spicy enough too later that season. Thornley had written his piece about the rivalry in the lead-up and, unfortunately, made a bit of a hash of a topic that was well worth discussing by appearing to lay the blame at Leinster’s fans door (for which he apologised the following week), which didn’t help. But, strange as it may sound, I think both teams going out of the H-Cup in the semi-finals that season took some of the sting out of it. When the teams met in the Palindrome neither were champions of anything, or in any great form and there was an air of humility about it all. Things have been on a more even keel since then, outside of internet fora anyway. The games themselves have been forgettable enough too, for the most part.

      • Dave

         /  August 9, 2012

        I actually just dug out that Thornley article and read it through my fingers. I have actually met Gerry at a few games and exchanges emails etc. He is a good bloke and is generally very even handed but this let him down a bit. I think as you said it was something that needed to be dealt with and probably still does. Fancy having a stab at it yerselves after ye are through with this series?

  11. Radge Fan

     /  August 8, 2012

    So to summarise – this match was bad for Irish rugby, because Ireland has been poor since then (Ireland won the GS before this match). When Ulster saw Leinster achieving, they too got provincially envious and shipped in all those top end of the market SAers/NZers to help them also get to the top table, and Munster doing similar recruitments to try and remain there.

    • Got it in one Radge Fan. Leinster winning three Heineken Cups and Ulster making the final was bad for Irish rugby, and it’s all their fault Ireland haven’t won another grand slam since. How haven’t we seen the light until now?

  12. Kenny

     /  August 8, 2012

    Hugh Farrelly saw it coming in all fairness..

    http://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/heineken-cup/hugh-farrelly-ulster-victory-would-be-bad-for-ireland-3072155.html

    The question is can Declan Kidney keep blaming these pesky successful provinces for the rubbish that the national team churns out each year.

  13. ABRO'G

     /  August 8, 2012

    ***Moderated by Whiff of Cordite***

  14. conorphilpott95

     /  August 9, 2012

    Munster’s reaction after this loss was poor. It was a case of well they did it once, won’t happen again and boy where they wrong and only know are we starting to show some form of recovery. Great piece lads.

    Good I hated that game as a Munster fan. Great as an Irish fan as Leinster had finally delivered on the promise they showed, but it hurt a lot.

    • Thanks Conor. I think that’s a fair analysis. McGahan’s chief failing was certainly a slowness to react to the ageing of his team. Bernard Jackman wrote in his book that even after the win they still didn’t feel the Munster team really respected them, and were aware of the importance of backing it up the following season.

      We wrote in another post in the series that as a fan there are defeats you never really get over, and I’m sure for Munster fans this is one.

  15. conorphilpott95

     /  August 9, 2012

    It hurt bad, I suppose Leinster fans probably felt similar after 06. Difference is they reacted. They are now repaing the rewards, we did not and out still in the rebuilding process, long road ahead.

    Was great for Ireland though and it announced the arrival of Leinster so there was some great moments in that match!

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