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.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Six

The Match: Ireland 30 France 21, 7 February 2009

What it Defined: Ireland’s Grand Slam and unbeaten calendar year in 2009

The State of Play

At the end of 2008, Irish rugby is doing everything it can to move on from their disastrous World Cup.  Eddie O’Sullivan resigns in the aftermath of the following Six Nations, and is replaced by another Corkman, Declan Kidney.  That’s about all they have in common, though.  Where O’Sullivan is technical, dictatorial and a control freak, Kidney is a man manager, an enabler and a delegator.  At some expense, he is backed by a world class coaching team: Alan Gaffney, Les Kiss and Gert Smal.

After a summer tour led by interim coach Michael Bradley, on which Ireland play reasonably well, the full scale of Kidney’s task is laid bare in the autumn internationals.  Ireland beat Canada in Thomond Park before the main course: New Zealand and Argentina in Croke Park.  The atmosphere before the New Zealand game is white-hot, and there’s a feeling that Ireland can do something.  After all, both Leinster and Munster are in good form in the Heineken Cup and it’s a good time to face New Zealand.  But they never fire a bolt, and New Zealand barely need to get out of third gear to win 22-3.  Ireland’s feeble performance is shown up by Munster’s reserves, who bring a second string New Zealand team to the brink in thrilling style the following Wednesday. Ronan O’Gara, watching in the stands, comments that Ireland ‘need to buy into the jersey a bit more’.

The Argentina match is an aberration.  It happens to be Ms Ovale’s first time going to an Irish international, and so awful is the game, it is a wonder she has made it back for another since.  Argentina lose Hernandez in the warm up, and appear to lose interest in the scoreboard, and choose instead to turn the game into a brawl.  The match is played almost entirely between the two 10-metre lines, virtually every ruck is punctuated by fisticuffs, but Ireland grind out a 17-3 victory, eventually conjuring up a decent attack as Tommy Bowe gathers a cross-field kick to score a try.  The victory is significant in one sense: Ireland have maintained their second-seeding for the World Cup draw, but other than that there is little to take from the series.

Kidney and his team are taken aback at the lack of confidence in the Irish players, and at the poor atmosphere within the group.  Some weeks later, players and management convene at Carton House to try to resolve some issues before the Six Nations.  Here, Rob Kearney makes his now famous, possibly overstated, but probably very significant ‘Munster look more united than Ireland’ comments.  While it’s hard to gauge just how big a deal it was, the team do appear fractious and cranky with one another on the pitch, and it’s not hard to imagine that factions along a provincial line may have developed within the squad.  With Kearney’s comments, it appears the elephant is finally removed from the room and the team can move forward.

A new tactical approach is also devised.  By now, many of the Munster forwards (who make up most of the pack) are frustrated with Eddie’s wide-wide gameplan, and would prefer a more attritional approach.  Deccie hands the forwards a licence to take on the opposition pack, and resolves to play a more territorial game.  He wants the players to play it as they see it, but to try and ensure each phase is played further up the field than the last one.  It’s essentially the formula with which he had so much success with Munster.  The players leave camp with a sense of a lot of baggage having been removed, and a greater clarity around the gameplan.

The good news is that the Six Nations is in its ‘odd year’, where Ireland face France and England at home.  And the schedulers have pitted Ireland against France in the first round.

The Game

While some are convinced that the new broom needs to sweep out the vast majority of Eddie’s Untouchables, Kidney decides to persevere, recognising that these great players have something left in the tank – he tinkers with some of the lineup, but it’s largely the same faces.  Flannery starts at hooker, and in the back row, Ferris, having impressed in the autumn is given the No.6 jumper.  Paddy Wallace is a surprise pick at 12, albeit as a favourite of Deccie’s from the underage days, and Gordon D’arcy, recently back from a long spell out with a broken arm that wouldn’t reset properly, is able to take a place on the bench.  For France, the selection is typically Lievremont.  He picks an exceptionally athletic backrow of Ouedraogo, Dusatoir and Harinordoquy, but puts Chabal in the second row and plays Sebastian Tillous-Borde at scrum half, while Parra kicks his heels on the bench.

The 2008-09 season is blighted by the ELVs, but this is one of the few games which rises above the torpor.  In short, it’s a cracker.  Ireland lose a try early on as Chabal smashes aside the last line of defence, but they rally.  After great work by Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe up the left touchline, Paul O’Connell pops a pass into Jamie Heaslip.  The Leinster No.8 gallops into the space, before bamboozling Clement Poitrenaud with a sidestep to get over the line.  It’s a classic try from a player who is becoming central under the new coaching regime.  Ireland lead 13-10 at half time – the general feeling in the stands is that they’re playing their best in some time, but kicking too much to France’s livewire back three.

The second half performance is outstanding.  Off a set piece, Brian O’Driscoll breaks the line and wrong-foots Malzieu to get in under the posts.  Minutes later, Gordon D’arcy, off the bench for the bloodied Wallace, wriggles over the line from five metres out.  In an iconic image, he is mobbed by his team-mates, thrilled for him after such a long and difficult spell out.

The other memorable image, for WoC anyway, is that of Paul O’Connell hauling Jamie Heaslip – by now the man of the match – up from the ruck, slapping his back and grinning widely, after Jamie has won the match-winning penalty.  We are not writing with hindsight when we say that the sight of the Munster captain commending the Leinster tyro so vigorously really made us sit up and take notice.  Maybe there was a new hunger, a greater unity of purpose to this Irish team…

The Aftermath

The rest we know.  Ireland went on to win the Grand Slam, the nation’s first for 60 years.  There’s little need to go back over the details of Bowe’s try, ROG’s drop goal, Paddy Wallace’s hands in the ruck, Stephen Jones’ mercifully just-short penalty again – and we’ll skip the bit where Palla got so nervous before the game that he would let out a little yelp every time the camera cut to the empty Millenium stadium, couldn’t watch England v Scotland and instead had to go and play tennis for an hour to try and take his mind off the match.  It’s worth recalling a few details though.

For a start, Ireland never played as well, or as freely, again in the series as they did against France.  The stats showed that they passed less and kicked more than any other team.  Rob Kearney had looked electric counter-attacking in the previous summer tour, but with the game now dominated by defence and referees allowing the tackler huge leeway around the ruck, he was reduced to catching and kicking.  Tomas O’Leary’s game was tailor-made to the ELV-based gameplan.  With quick ruck-ball in such short supply it hardly mattered how quickly you passed to the fly-half, who was only going to kick it anyway, so his passing limitations were scarcely exposed, while his physicality around the ruck effectively gave Ireland an extra flanker.  After the France game it was a case of shutting up shop and trying to grind out wins.  Line breaks were in short supply, Fitzgerald barely touched the football and BOD’s ability from one metre out was Ireland’s best scoring threat.

Kidney’s management was astute from first to last.  While we’ve grown to be frustrated by his gnomic utterances over the last three years, when media expectation is building and all anyone wants to do is get the coach to talk up his grand slam hopes in front of a microphone, he’s the man to manage it.  One game at a time, not even thinking about it, sure isn’t this why we got into the game – he gave the media absolutely nothing.  When Warren Gatland cracked and said the Welsh disliked the Irish players more than any other nation’s, it appeared that Kidney had gained a slight advantage over his opposite number.

His greatest stroke was changing four players for the Scotland game.  Probably mindful that some players might be looking a week ahead to the Wales match, he shook up his team for the first time in the championship, dropping four players, some of whom were among his best.  Crucially though, he changed only where he knew he had quality reserves, so the team would be losing little.  Heaslip, O’Leary, Wallace and Flannery made way for Leamy, Stringer, D’arcy and Best.  Heaslip, in particular, was having an outstanding championship, and was not happy about it.  As it happened, Leamy got injured early on and Heaslip played most of the game, scoring the winning try, set up by a break from Stringer, who passed with metronomic accuracy.  Three of the four – all bar Wallace – were reinstated for the Wales game.  It was terrific, proactive management and had the desired effect.

It must also be said that Ireland were lucky.  They were lucky that France were having a season of experimentation.  Lucky that Danny Care lost his head and that by the time England got themselves to within a point it was too late in the game.  Lucky not to be further behind at half time against Scotland.  Lucky that Stephen Jones missed a penalty he would expect to score, and lucky that Gavin Henson, traditionally Wales’ kicker for long distance, didn’t insist on kicking it.  Lucky that Wales miscalculated and put the ball out on the full so Ireland could set up the winning score.  Most of all, though, they were lucky with injuries.  While Deccie deserved praise for making the four changes before the Scotland game, it must be recognised that doing so was a luxury.  At no time since that game has he felt he could make such changes, and now only really changes players when injury strikes.  Effectively, Kidney could put out his preferred XV in every game.  These days, to be able to do that five times in a row, is unheard of.

The contrasting legacy of Ireland’s two most recent coaches effectively boils down to a missed restart against France and a late missed penalty by Wales.  Fine margins.

Ireland and Kidney’s purple patch didn’t end with beating Wales.  They went the calendar year unbeaten, signing off with a distinguished autumn series in which they drew, somewhat fortuitously, with Australia and beat South Africa, piloted by a new fly-half, Jonny Sexton, from a newly resurgent Leinster.  It was among the best performances of Kidney’s tenure.  Everything was rosy in the garden.  It had been a remarkable season.  But the game was going to change.  The IRB, frustrated with the hideous kick-and-chase monster the game had become, were about to change the “interpretation” of the breakdown law, requiring tacklers to clearly disengage from the tackled player before competing for the ball.  It was enough to hand the initiative back to the attacking team.  Rugby would become a phase game again, and Ireland would have to adapt or be left behind.

Pick me! Pick me!

Keith Earls really, really, really wants to play outside centre for Munster, and presumably Ireland.  The details are here in Earls’ interiew with Charlie Mulqueen in the Examiner.

http://www.irishexaminer.com/sport/rugby/earls-vows-to-make-13-jersey-his-own-202572.html

It’s not the first time he’s made these sort of noises, and unlike his media-schooled colleagues, Keith Earls is the one Irish player who is something of an open book in interviews, and doesn’t seem to mind coming out with heartfelt, honest comments that could leave him in a tight spot. It’s great to see his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the game as well – makes one smile.

However, we’ve mixed feelings on his latest.  We’ve no problem with him saying he wants to play 13 – that’s fair, so why not come out and say it?  We’re always commenting that he’s been messed around too much in his career, so he’s right to try and nail down a position for himself.

But by saying he “hate[s] playing 11” he is in danger of making a rod for himself, and others.  He’s played the majority of his international career and much of his club games there, and if he hates it so much, he at least appears to have made a decent fist of it.  At some point he’ll be called upon to play there, and it puts unnecessary pressure on his coaches when they do it.

Last year his game improved hugely at 13 and he has surely earned the right to start the season in that position. We would see Earls as one of the players Penney should be looking to build the new Munster team around.  Trouble is as a centrally contracted player he’ll be missing the first few weeks of the season, so Laulala has a headstart in the 13 jumper.  Also, Laulala is an out-and-out 13 with little versatility – Earls can be accommodated elsewhere, but Laulala cannot.  Can Munster afford to leave such talent on the bench? Or can Penney, as a new coach, afford to marginalise one of his best players?

It’s a most interesting quandry for Penney.  Thirteenwatch starts early this year.