Perception is Reality

It’s funny how one game can change the perception of a team. Especially when it’s Leinster vs Munster – for all the two provinces successes, they still measure themselves against one another. It’s pretty tough to remember before the two most famous of their clashes, but in both cases, perceptions after the game were diametrically different to those before:

  • 2006: Before the game, Munster were thought of as having lost their best chance to win a HEC when losing an epic semi-final to Wasps in Lansdowne Road. Leinster were coming off a most stunning second half of attacking rugby in Toulouse (an actual fortress back then) and were slight favourites going into a game where it was “how do you stop Leinster’s razzle-dazzle back play?” Post-game, Munster morphed in an unstoppable machine of forward power and passion, and Leinster became the ladyboys
  • 2009: Leinster were still the ladyboys – they’d tightened up up front, but couldn’t score tries and were liable to lose to a Castres or an Embra and not one to put any money on. Munster were double European champions who had just hammered the Hairspray Glacticos in the quarter-finals. The hubris was in overdrive, but then 80 minutes later, Munster had chinks in the armour – now they were an ageing team whose aura was punctured, while Leinster were a force to be reckoned with.

Nobody’s saying this game will prove to be as landscape-shifting as those, but the comprehensive nature of Munster’s victory at least passed an unwanted torch up the N7 for the next few weeks.  On Friday, Leinster had had a scratchy start to the season, but Munster were supposedly bordering on crisis – management’s feelings on some fringe squad players had gone public and it felt like the squad hadn’t quite managed to forget about it. They had lost in Thomond twice, in front of meagre attendances and only managed to beat hapless Eye-talians.

Now? Well, Munster are back to porridge – a pack whose feral intensity cannot be matched, driven on by the personality of Paul O’Connell and led by the general behind the pack – this time not a 10, but a 9; Conor Murray. The hard-working backs chip in, but it’s all about the piano shifters. And CJ Stander?!  What a find.  He looks increasingly like the real deal. And who cares about the early season messing about? Don’t worry about the Ospreys or whatever, we can do it when it matters. We got this one.  Was it ever any different?

It was remarkable how Munster got across the gainline in nearly every phase, cleared out brilliantly, and presented the ball quickly. When the pack deigned to let the backs have the ball, Murray distributed and kicked superbly, putting up contestable box kicks (which Munster invariably eventually won) and showing up the callow positioning of hipster’s choice Mick McGrath. Dinny Hurley had an excellent game, fixing the Leinster centres and making space for Keatley to orchestrate yet more gainline success. They were more disciplined than the four – four! – yellow cards suggests. The first was for cumulative penalties in Leinster’s half, and the fourth in garbage time. Bird-brained pair BJ Botha and Dave Foley conspired to give Leinster a thoroughly undeserved toehold in the game, but predictably they couldn’t take advantage.

And Leinster? Well, Leinster are the ones bordering on crisis now. They weren’t exactly in a fantastic place before the game, but they were so utterly dominated at the breakdown and now have been left with more injuries and selection issues (not of the good sort) in several positions. Jimmy Gopperth, for once not having an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, was abysmal – his passing was all over the place and his kicking aimless and often pointless. The nadir came when he kicked the ball twice – twice! – down the throat of Munster’s outside backs in oceans of space when Leinster were two – two! – men up. Barnesy remarked that Gopperth panicked, and that’s fair – he crumbled under pressure. Matt O’Connor has hoisted up the Gopperth flag, but even he has to reconsider based on that performance – Madigan might a little wilder, but if your pack is going backwards, Gopperth effectively offers you no game-winning options. As Keynes might have put it, when your outside half plays himself off the team, you change your opinion.

At the breakdown, Leinster were blown away – Dom Ryan finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, but had no discernible impact on the game, bar a few Hollywood tackles on Robin Copeland. On paper Leinster looked to have an advantage at the breakdown, with Munster’s backrow stacked with ball carriers, but that was turned on its head. Leinster are really down to the bare bones – Jordi Murphy can’t return quickly enough, and Shane Jennings would also have made a big difference.

And to add to DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Murphy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitz Roysh, Dave Kearndashian on the disabled list is Ferg, Tadgh Furlong and Rosser. Ferg had a horrendous-looking leg injury when some big lump fell on him, and both tightheads limped off looking uncomfortable.  Even Joe Schmidt’s Super-Duper All Conquering Leinster wouldn’t have been able to withstand such an injury crisis. And this iteration of Leinster aren’t super-duper or all conquering.

In weeks ahead, what looked like a group of death in the ERCC will now be approached with confidence by Munster (though it’s still pretty horrible), whereas Leinster’s gimme group suddenly appears daunting with a decimated pack and no direction to speak of. Funny how perceptions change innit?

Postscript: for this Ulster fan, the game has to be commended for being pretty watchable – not something that can be said about recent vintages of the fixture. High fives all round!

Very Mild Fever in the Aviver

Four weeks of decidedly ho hum build-up is over and the real season begins this weekend. At least that’s how it feels anyway. Leinster v Munster has come to represent the start of the ‘season proper’ and this season is no different. Coming the week before the first round of European matches, the tuning up is over and the intensity increases several notches.  Unless any province has a disastrous start to the season, the early skirmishes tend not to matter too much. The real business starts now.

Unfortunately, Munster have brushed with disaster in a spectacularly ignominious start to Axel Foley’s leadership. The catastrophic own goal of the leaked player review email has set the tone for a dire start. If Foley didn’t know the extent of the job he has at Munster, he does now. Two wins and two defeats doesn’t sound that bad, and is no worse than Leinster, but the wins were against meagre Italian opposition and the defeats were at home, where the proletariat have gone a bit cold on the revolution, seemingly preferring the more bourgeois pursuits of sitting at home watching deh telly. Consider that Munster still have all their hard away games to come this season and it already looks like they’re on the back foot. To make matters worse, the media – who we assumed would be utterly supine to the point of cheerleading Foley – have been surprisingly unsparing, with Gervais Thornley particularly critical.

Not that Leinster have been that much better. They’ve won their home games at least and both their defeats have been narrow and against teams that often beat them, but the same problems as last season have marked all their performances: in particular a lack of attacking cutting edge and a rudimentary game plan at the centre of which appears to be a desire to kick the ball to the opposition and chase it half-heartedly.

Much has been made of the lacklustre build-up to the latest round of what has come to be one of the biggest – but at times the most suffocating – derbies in the rugby calendar. The middling form of both teams hasn’t helped, and neither fanbase will be arriving feeling especially bullish. Indeed, the overriding feeling is one of fear. Leinster fans are thinking ‘If we lose to this Munster team…’ while Munster fans have come to expect defeat in the Aviva, and another loss would mearly exacerbate the sense of gloom around the team.

It doesn’t help that lots of players are injured: the derby would be so much more attractive (not to mention intense) if Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony were on the pitch, among others. But they won’t be – although O’Mahony is apparently back training and Munster must be desperate to get their talisman and most talented forward back in the team. A whole heap of jerseys are up for grabs and how both sides line up, and how they play, will be the first item of fascination.

In the front row it’s advantage Leinster, with Jack McGrath making a timely return to fitness. Either Mike Ross or Marty Moore will start on the other side, and the collective should be enough to get the edge on the waning BJ Botha and David Kilcoyne. At hooker Sean Cronin has tremendous pedigree but has yet to hit the heights of last season’s stupendous form and Munster have unearthed yet another fine No.2 in Duncan Casey. In a lineout-heavy game he hit his man an impressive 20 out of 21 times against the Ospreys. He’s young and looks set to go far.

Kane Douglas has arrived and should get another hit out alongside Devin Toner. Toner’s ability to give and take a pass was one of the more impressive elements of Leinster’s win over Cardiff last Friday. We can only presume that Paul O’Connell will be partnered by Dave Foley. If Axel persists with O’Callaghan it will be a staggeringly bad pick, as the once Stakhanovite lock is now several shades of completely useless. Good partnerships both, but O’Connell gives Munster the slight edge.

In the backrow, Leinster are down three opensides, with Jennings, O’Brien and Murphy all out. Dominic Ryan should keep his place, and he’s having his longest run in the team for some time. The stratospheric expectations from 2011 have been put away but he can still become a decent squad player. Heaslip has started well, as ever, his footwork especially impressive and Rhys Ruddock is one of the revelations of the season. Always strong but not particularly dynamic, he looks to have added a deal of explosiveness over the summer and it’s helping him break tackles. A strong showing here, and he’s duking it out with POM for the green 6 shirt.

Munster will line out with CJ Stander at 6 and Copeland at 8. We’re guessing one of O’Donnell and Dougall will play at 7, with O’Mahony probably not quite ready. It’s a good unit. Stander is proving a big success and Copeland may not have the multi-faceted game of a Jamie Heaslip, but he can certainly carry ball. Both can get Munster on the front foot.  How the two contrasting No.8’s get on in direct opposition will be instructive. If O’Donnell plays, who is going to focus on the breakdown?

Come noon on friday, all eyes will be on the backlines to see if the cause-celebre 10/12s get picked. We think Madigan will – at 12 – and Hanrahan won’t. The Gopperth-Madigan-D’arcy axis had its moments on Friday and is good for another run out. McFadden and Darragh Fanning will probably stay in the team. Fanning playing in a Leinster v Munster derby – there you have it.

We’ve nailed our colours to the mast as regards Munster’s centre picks, but we’re expecting Keatley-Hurley-Smith and all that goes with it. Leinster will be happy not to face Hanrahan. Simon Zebo and van den Heever should give Munster a huge advantage out wide, so it would strike us as barmy not to include a centre who can pass a bit.  Dare we suggest that Leinster will be looking to bosh through the middle, while Munster look to move the ball wide as often as possible?

The match is unlikely to be a classic with so many big names and good players missing. But the game is timely for both sides; it has a habit of focusing minds.  Munster will surely put up a better show than they have so far. It was reassuring to see Foley talking about accuracy and execution and playing down the importance of the pishun. Nonetheless it’s hard to see an outcome other than a win for Leinster on their home turf, even if the Palindrome has lost some of its lustre for them in recent outings.  Strangely, performance could be more important than the result for both teams, or sets of fans at least.  Munster might take a loss if they at least go down swinging, while Leinster fans have been starved of quality under O’Connor and want to see some panache.

There are some signs of hand-wringing that “only” 40,000 tickets have been sold, but, to be frank, that’s about 30,000 more than the rank rugby served up so far by both sides warrants. If the improvement doesn’t happen, both provinces will go into European rugby in as glum humour as they ever have done. One can only wish RTE’s Rog-cam was re-constituted by Sky, live from Jonny’s apartment, to see the two generals who have given so much to this fixture shake their heads and go back to the foie gras and comte reduction and croissantsin order to get through the substitution-riddled, error-strewn second half.