Adrian O’Farrell, the all round rugby fan, gives us his take on the Magners League clash between Leinster and Munster in a rain soaked RDS on Saturday evening.
A few days after he’d cemented the number 8 slot on the Irish team with a standout performance against France, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Heaslip. His world had just changed pretty dramatically as he had just become a starting member of Ireland’s 6 Nations team.
However, when I asked him to cast his mind forward to the next Irish international match against Scotland 10 days hence, he replied that that wasn’t the next big game for him.
No, the next big game for him was one he wouldn’t be playing in, as Leinster took on Cardiff that weekend in the Magners League. To say he was up for it was an understatement … and he wasn’t even playing! Looking back, I should have put whatever money I had on Leinster at that point because it was clear that the disappointments of the past, when Leinster had frittered away title-winning positions, weren’t going to be accepted on this occasion. And so it proved. They have since won at home to Cardiff (having gone down 14-0), away to Connacht, at home to Glasgow, away to Llanelli and at home to Munster. This sequence includes wins against their three nearest challengers. That’s an impressive close out on the part of a supposedly mentally fragile set-up.
Saturday night wasn’t the most dramatic of recent matches between the two Irish rivals, but it was notable for the efficiency of Leinster’s win and the relative turnaround in perceived strengths and weaknesses of both teams. Whenever critics used to say that these match-ups were about the Munster forwards against the Leinster backs, Anthony Foley used to say that ‘you insult an awful lot of people when you say that’. This may have been true, but the cliché did identify where the strength of each team lay. Saturday was the first time in probably decades where Munster carried the more lively backline threat while Leinster carried off the bouquets in the forward battle.
The first fifteen minutes were almost shocking for the regularity with which the Munster pack conceded penalties. Donncha O’Callaghan alone conceded three and came close to a yellow card within ten minutes. What made it all the more surprising is that Munster are normally masterly at getting into the opposition and getting them to lose their cool and concede penalties. The biter bit.
Leinster’s fringe defence brooked no argument and their driving pods made yardage with relative ease. The collisions were won by those in blue. As were the set-pieces. In a further irony, Leinster’s lineout was precision personified and came with the bonus of steals against the normally effective Munster platform. How Bernard Jackman must have enjoyed that. A thirty yard driven lineout maul will have delivered particular pleasure.
Against this, on a wet night, all that Munster could really offer was a slightly more willing and dangerous backline. But it was never going to be about that really. Indeed, Leinster can reflect with satisfaction on the contribution of Jonathan Sexton, who looks to be growing in comfort and stature on nights like this. He took his game-clinching drop goal with aplomb and he showed a twinkleness of toes that took many by surprise when creating an opportunity for Rob Kearney.
One suspects that when Olly Le Roux heads back to South Africa, he will almost miss the slanting rain that has been the backdrop for Leinster’s most recent run of matches. He has been massively to the fore, along with Stan Wright, in Leinster’s tremendous driving, recycling patterns. So it was again on Saturday, with an impressive scrumming performance (despite some binding issues) against John Hayes to boot. If Leinster are to build upon this League success in the Heineken Cup, they will need to replace him with another formidable presence. The rumour factory has it that there will be a replacement with a similar profile.
In a standout performance from the Leinster pack, it was heart-warming to see Big Mal deliver another of those games that indicate just why he’s been around for so long and won so many caps. Stuck in traffic on my way to Twickenham last month, Big Mal emerged from an equally stationary car about three in front of me, heading for a petrol station across the carriageway. To get there he had to cross a railing acting as a central divide. It’s easier when you’re 6’8”, but his gait was almost tortured. While he looked like he’d played a match that morning, I’m pretty sure he didn’t. He certainly didn’t resemble an international athlete. And then you see him on Saturday night back to his best. His entire career has been pock-marked with performances that say, ‘you might think I’m gone, but I know I’m not’. He hasn’t gone away, you know.
Any analysis of this one comes with a rider however, and that is that for all that Munster would never deliberately concede a match such as this to Leinster, they did have a part of their collective brain engaged on a certain fixture two weeks from now. At this level, you cannot afford to have anything other than 100% focus on the present. It seems that the injuries to O’Gara and Stringer are not so serious as to keep them out of the Saracens match, and if this is correct then Munster will have found this to be a near-perfect tune-up for the Heineken semi-final.
It is undoubtedly difficult to peak every week, and Munster, for all their desire to bloody Leinster’s nose, have bigger fish to fry. And for all that they will have found this one highly frustrating, it will have enhanced their chances of reaching another Heineken final.
With three games to play Leinster enjoy a 12 point lead over Cardiff, with Munster 15 points behind with a game in hand. This game is two days after their Heineken Semi-final. Two of Leinster’s games are against the fairly lamentable Dragons. As ‘An Emotional Fish’ would say, ‘Celebrate. This party’s over. I’m going home.’