Something unusual happened last Friday night. Without Brian O’Driscoll for 50 minutes, Leinster fronted up in a manner they’ve rarely achieved when travelling south to face their red shirted interprovincial rivals.
Twenty-three years separated this victory since last a Leinster coach etched a ‘W’ into his notebook after a match in Cork.
Nine years had passed since they last won in Munster before a crowd of around 300 at Dooradoyle. That’s right – 300 – roughly the seating capacity of Carrick-on-Suir’s Strand Theatre.
It says much for top tier rugby’s new found popularity that, even on as miserable a night as Friday last, there wasn’t a bare spot of terracing to be found inside Musgrave Park.
Even allowing for how long standing a rivalry exists between the provinces; it’s only been big business at the turnstiles for less than a decade.
This is primarily due to the success of the European Cup, which has captured the attention of long standing and newly established rugby fans across the country since the late 90s.
The Magners League has proven a somewhat slower burner when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of supporters. But there’s little doubting that the increased availability of our leading players for selection in this competition will surely change that perception sooner rather than later.
The publicity which the match garnered in the days prior to last Friday’s clash indicates the public appetite for Munster v Leinster.
These matches don’t require heavy marketing to gain widespread attention, which once again supports the theory that if the product is good, then the audience will follow.
The fact that so many of the players know each other so well only adds to the anticipation and the excitement for a head-to-head which has consistently delivered in recent seasons.
And, whether you like it or not, the sledging that goes on during these games has poured further fuel on the flames of this rivalry. The sometimes nasty banter which sledging provides during a match may not be one of rugby’s more pleasant facets, but it’s been going on for decades.
The fact that there are microphones around rugby grounds these days and tree-loads more comment on the game in print than in previous eras could give one the impression that sledging is something new.
It’s a little like saying there was no such thing as an ‘off the ball’ incident in a match until somebody somewhere decided to describe it as such one day.
There are lines you don’t want to hear being crossed either on the field of play or from the stands (anything religious or racially-related for example) which are unacceptable in any sport. But sledging is and will remain part of the game as long as people kick, ruck and tackle in the name of an oval ball.
Pretty this match was anything but. Yet this was entirely forgivable given how atrocious a night it was, with the rain sheeting across the pitch, ably assisted by the gale which howled for most of the game.
The Leinster pack, even more maligned in the media than Munster’s, drove the hosts back and back again during the final quarter of an engrossing night’s rugby.
As Declan Kidney’s side sought a reply to Shane Horgan’s 65th minute try, Leinster ploughed into their opponents the way Munster normally plough into theirs.
Thanks to the sterling efforts of Bernard Jackman, Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, Michael Cheika’s side repelled the Munster heave and closed out the game excellently.
Leaving the ground, while kids clamoured for an autograph from Colm ‘The Gooch’ Cooper, there were few, if any dissenting voices to be heard among the saturated throng regarding the result. The better team (on the night) had won.
And boy did the D4 set enjoy their win. Cheika, who looked like he might have required a sedative so animated did he become during the game, positively danced down the steps towards the Sunday’s Well end of the ground.
The news that assistant David Knox had missed the noon train to Cork from Dublin (with home sickness being cited) wouldn’t have done anything for the Leinster coach’s mood that afternoon.
But the resistance that his team provided on the night will have done wonders for the confidence of both coach and staff ahead of the visit of Edinburgh at the RDS this Friday.
As for Munster? In truth, this game could have gone either way and was always likely to be decided by a moment of genuine line-breaking quality, which Luke Fitzgerald provided in the build-up to Horgan’s try.
It was nip and tuck on the scoreboard throughout, and there’s little doubt that Ronan O’Gara will have ruefully reflected on three penalty kicks he would have backed himself to make, even allowing for the Corkonian tempest.
While Felipe Contepomi had a similar mixed night off the kicking tee, his conversion of Horgan’s try was a stunning effort from the far right edge of the Munster twenty-two. It won applause from around the ground and rightly so from an audience which appreciates good footballers.
The conditions were a highly significant factor on the night but Leinster coped with the rain and the slop better than Munster, traditionally viewed as masters of the mucky sod. Jackman threw well for all ball his final couple of darts and Malcolm O’Kelly and Cullen excellently marshalled the lineout.
The home lineout never settled and for the first match of note this season, Mick O’Driscoll didn’t master proceedings on the home throw. Just as they did in the pack, Leinster upset the Munster lineout and there’s little doubt that this psychological advantage helped tilt the game in their favour.
On a night when backs couldn’t have been predicted to shine, quite a few did. At full-back, Shaun Payne is surely producing the best rugby of his Munster career. His assuredness under the high ball was a joy to behold and his fielding rightly won the awed gasps from both sets of fans.
Payne must rank as the best player wielding an Irish passport to have never worn the green jersey and watching him play top class rugby at a time in his career when he didn’t expect to has been a delight.
He’s due to assume managerial duties with the province, but surely that appointment could be delayed until next season because he’s simply still too good a player to be sitting in the stands.
At the opposite end of the pitch, Leinster’s Rob Kearney produced a peach of a display until he was withdrawn in the final minutes due to injury. His positional sense was outstanding and one hopes he’ll fare out a little better than Payne has when it comes to future test selection.
Ian Dowling’s physicality continues to catch the eye. The Kilkennyman clearly relishes the fight and enjoys drifting in from the flank to add some bite to the infield action.
And with Luke Fitzgerald’s superb crossfield dash providing the impetus for Horgan’s winning try, one hopes the watching Niall O’Donovan took note of the excellent contributions of the younger players on show.
Jonathan Sexton also played excellently when replacing Brian O’Driscoll and another Tony Buckley cameo late on won the plaudits of the home support. One suspects the Munster faithful has found a new cult hero in the Garryowen prop and he’s warming to the task superbly.
The European Cup visit to Stradey Park this Saturday (kick-off: 5:30) will give Munster a chance to somewhat extricate the memory of last season’s quarter-final elimination from this competition.
And while the Scarlets are effectively out of contention having lost their opening two games in Pool Five, Kidney and co will not be lulled into thinking a cushy number faces them this weekend.
Both packs will moreorless feature the same personnel as what faced each other at Stradey in March, when the Scarlets front five outscrummaged Munster.
That Munster didn’t bully Leinster up front will have surely caused some concern for Kidney, who knows that his team’s European hopes were undone in the forward battle last season.
Should the province at least break even in the tight against a club still mourning the loss of one of its greatest sons in Ray Gravell, the platform for an away victory should be made possible.
And with the Munster backs an altogether different attacking prospect this time around, one hopes the only red flag flying high come full-time on Saturday night will have three crowns on it.