The RDS has played host to Grand finals, a European Challenge Cup decider and all manner of memorable Leinster wins in the last half-dozen seasons. It’s even been the backdrop for an unlikely home defeat at the hands of Benetton Rugby. What it hasn’t done lately is open its doors to Munster.
It’s been nearly nine years now.
That changes tomorrow as these two quarrelling cousins clash in a knockout contest for the first time since a Leinster side just crowned as the 2010/11 Heineken Cup champions lost out to their neighbours in a Celtic League decider at Thomond Park.
No surprise, then, that the Ballsbridge venue is officially a sellout this weekend.
This isn’t Lansdowne Road in 2006 or Croke Park three years later. The league, in any of its guises or formats, will never compete with Europe for the affections of either of these two clubs. Leo Cullen spoke of Leinster’s “obsession” with the continental Holy Grail after their Champions Cup defeat of Racing 92. Anyone from Munster will understand that.
But this PRO14 semi-final isn’t the worst substitute.
It should, if nothing else, bring to an end a sort of seven-year phoney war between the sides. Seven years of psychoanalysis over whether the rivalry is everything it used to be and whether it is realistic to even consider the possibility that it can again match the heights of the noughties when ‘Lunsters’ symbolised both the closeness and the edge between them.
A fair few ex-players have openly questioned the modern-day rivalry and its place in the hierarchy of fixtures but those still involved routinely preach the gospel according to the media training 101. Among them was Stuart Lancaster who was effusive in his praise for the game just one week after his arrival in Dublin early last season.
“My background over here is limited in terms of club rugby, but my perception having been watching from afar over the last seven, eight, nine years of my coaching career is this is right up there with any of the [Test rivalries]. In the UK and Ireland, Leinster and Munster is top table in terms of derbies and so it should be.”
The truth is that this derby could do with a Munster win.
They have met 14 times since Munster edged that 2011 decider courtesy of a late, converted penalty try and Leinster have won ten of them. Four of those wins have been earned in Limerick. That compares more than favourably to Munster’s sole success in Dublin, a 34-23 win three seasons ago.
Leinster have the greater financial resources, they have a better feeder system at schools level and a larger geographic and demographic base from which to work and that has simply told on the pitch.
They attract larger attendances and they have finished higher in the league five of the seven times since 2011.
And now they are European champions again.
In December of 2016, Leinster travelled to Thomond Park without a host of first-choice Irish internationals and lost to a Munster side packing far more prime beef by 12 points. Rassie Erasmus labelled the intensity of a game played in front of a PRO12 record crowd of 26,200 as equal to that of a Test match.
Twelve months later and Leinster returned with another understrength side, Leo Cullen going with only three of the XV that had seen off Exeter Chiefs in Dublin earlier in the month. It was a selection that prompted a lot of discussion. Tony Ward went as far as to say that the teamsheet was “insulting” to the competition.
The result against a Munster side much better equipped in terms of frontline personnel was very different this time, a ten-point win for the visitors, but the most notable aspect to the evening was the fact that 11 of Leinster’s 23 would make the matchday squad for last week’s win at the Estadio San Mames.
So much for their second-string.
Ward’s gripe was not an isolated one though. The make-up of the two teams has been a regular source of attention and criticism whenever they have come face to face of late. It’s true that all the provinces field stronger sides at home than away when they are facing one of their kin but the issue is overblown.
Dig into the appearances of players who could be deemed Joe Schmidt’s go-to men this last few terms and the stats are pretty good. Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander have played all six derbies this last three seasons. Devin Toner has lasted all 480 minutes. Conor Murray has togged out five times, Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls four apiece.
Jonathan Sexton hasn’t managed more than ten league games in any of his last five seasons with the province and only nine in this last two campaigns combined.
The Lions out-half is a fierce competitor who is confined to barracks more often that he would like and yet he has played in four of the six derbies since returning from Paris.
This relationship clearly still matters but no league game in October or December is ever going to claim primacy in a league with 21 rounds of fixtures and one jostling for air with the Champions Cup and three Test windows.
That’s why this one feels different. Should be different. How different in the greater scheme of things is up to Munster.
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