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Two Feet, Two Worlds

Two Feet, Two Worlds

The dust has barely settled on the epic semi-final and Adrian O’Farrell gives us his take on one of the great days in Irish rugby and examines the rivalry between Leinster and Munster.

It’s funny how a single image can burn itself into the mind and become shorthand for a whole event.

Many will remember the day England visited Lansdowne Road for a friendly football match against Ireland, a match that had to be called off due to the mindless activities of a bunch of Combat 18 morons.

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For most, however, the single image that encapsulated the stupidity of it all was that of the 8-year-old kid from Greystones that made Macauley Culkin look like an axe murderer such was his air of bewildered innocence.

When the mind turns back in years to come to this seismic upset at Croke Park I’m sure I will remember the faces of the Leinster bloke and Munster girl whose reactions, captured in close-up on TV, encapsulated the ecstasy and the shocked pain that only tribal sport can deliver. Two feet apart, they were two worlds apart.

It’s one of the beauties of the game of rugby that the better team doesn’t always win and that this is the most often the case because the less good team simply decides to give it their absolute all.

Despite the nature of Leinster’s emphatic win on Saturday, how many would say that they are currently a better team than Munster?

Up until the Heineken Cup semi-final, this Munster team was being talked about in the most reverential of tones as one of the greatest club teams in the history of the northern Hemisphere, the strongest of favourites to complete their third European triumph, thereby joining Toulouse as the only two clubs to complete the hat-trick.

A poll on ercrugby.com prior to the weekend showed over 50% believing that Munster would win the tournament compared to just 15% for Leinster (Cardiff were at 27%, with Leicester at just 8%).

Still, there were occasions as a kid when through sheer fury (and winning the race to the old man’s 3-iron) I used to be able to beat up my big brother.

And that is the nature of this unique rivalry in world rugby – a scrap within the family. Nobody can drive you as crazy as your brother, because he knows just what buttons to press.

Any time spent on either Munsterfans.com or Leinsterfans.com will indicate just how badly people get riled by the smallest of things.

Equally, however, it must be acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of Munster supporters had nothing but the best wishes to offer their Leinster counterparts and acknowledged that they were well beaten on the day.

For their part, the players generally rise above any of the less attractive elements and maintain nothing but the greatest of respect for each other.

The comments of both Michael Cheika and Leo Cullen on the Alan Quinlan incident are perhaps the apogee of this, with both keen to minimize the potential damage to Quinlan.

It’s somewhat ironic that the incident was clearly borne of Quinlan’s frustration at the way the game was going, for in previous matches between the two he has driven Leinster to distraction.

My 8-year old son, who plays rugby and football but is more into the latter, simply didn’t understand what he was watching.

He, too, reminded me of that other 8-year-old at the England football match. It doesn’t help the recruitment process.

In Dublin, it’s pretty friendly stuff. There are so many Munster folk insinuated into daily life that it could never really turn ugly. Lessons were learned from 2006. Leinster will probably never fully compete with Munster’s remarkable red wave but there was a concerted effort to show more blue and pressure not to surrender tickets.

My brother was spared a harrowing decision only through an inability to land a second ticket. His wife is from Limerick. I’m not sure how hard he looked.

Nonetheless, the pain of 2006 ran deep amongst Leinster supporters. It was augmented by a deep sense of frustration fuelled by continually being told what you are not. As a player, it must have been worse.

There’s only so long that you can take having your very manhood questioned. ‘Ladyboys’ may ostensibly have been a jokey bit of banter, but cut deep at the same time.

Physically and mentally soft. You’re good enough to be part-responsible for a Grand Slam, but somehow you can’t really cut it when the going gets tough.

As a supporter, you’re told you have no passion, no attachment to your place or people. These are things that strike at the core.

Declarations as to the integration of clubs and branch, the integrity of the team ethic, the geographical equality of the spread of the Munster gospel, even the efficiency of the commercial and admin sides of the operation – you don’t need to be all that sensitive to read these things and see a subtext that says you have none of these things and are therefore somehow diminished as a people.

Saturday was the day that all of this came home to roost through the performance of a team that also, almost incidentally, wanted it’s own share of the glory.

After a previous Munster victory based on their applying suffocating intensity and pressure, I paraphrased the Tango ad campaign to say ‘You know when you’ve been Munstered’. Much more of this and that’ll have to be amended to ‘You know when you’ve been Leinstered’.

A short time ago this would have been shorthand for chasing shadows.

And while Leinster certainly rediscovered their backline brio in this match, this can only mean now that you’ve been battered into submission by pulverizing tackles, had your ball slowed down at the breakdown and made to look a shadow of your previously creative best.

I wrote last week that for Leinster to win, they would need to be much more accurate, and disciplined than they had been in Thomond Park last month. They were all this and more.

However, there was a clue to what might happen in that match. For the first half hour or so last month, the Leinster pack got stuck into Munster and took the game to them. Their efforts went unrewarded as Felipe Contepomi’s kicking was all over the place.

Without reward for their efforts they gradually fell away as their lineout came unstuck. With them went the Leinster hopes that day. But it’s not difficult to imagine the Leinster pack last week telling themselves they could do a number on Munster up front.

In particular, given the close-in defending they had to do, their discipline was extraordinary. A single shot offered at goal in the last 63 minutes (even allowing for the fact that Munster eschewed one or two in the dying stages) represented a tour de disciplinary force.

Remarkably, the win was achieved against a backdrop of a failing lineout. Armed with this knowledge in advance, no commentator would have called a win for Leinster.

However, their accuracy generally beyond that was good, in marked contrast to Munster.

That these errors were borne of Leinster pressure is true, but even allowing for that, Munster made some pretty crass one that were most untypical.

Leinster’s intensity in defence and work at the breakdown more than atoned for a creaking lineout. The backrow pretty much wiped out a heck of an opposing trio. For me, however, the performance was personified in Gordon D’Arcy. He was at the heart of the first blue touch paper moment when taken out off the ball by Keith Earls.

He swung back at the Limerick tyro and next thing there was what our friends in the GAA like to call a shemozzle. It was untypical of D’Arcy but said a lot.

It reminded of a line spoken to me by a wizened Young Munster supporter after I had played for Greystones in an All-Ireland League match at a time when wins for Leinster teams in Munster were as rare as hen’s teeth (not much changed there then!). He said, ‘I knew ye were serious when ye’re full-back ran thirty yards to hit one of our lads’.

Perhaps it’s typical of Leinster that they delivered most when least expected. I wrote last week about the contract that exists between team and supporters in Munster.

The tricky bit for Leinster comes next. In order to grow beyond the culture of being able to deliver outstanding one-off performances, Leinster absolutely must win the final, or at least be seen to die in the effort.

If they can do that, playing the kind of game they are, then this truly can be a team that their supporters can believe in and proudly associate themselves with. A contract can be drawn up and they can move into Munster’s world.