At their peak, who’s better – Munster or Leinster?

Donal Lenihan and Bernard Jackman argue both sides of the debate

Munster’s consistency shades it but time is still on Leinster’s side

The case for Munster: Donal Lenihan

NOW that Leinster have matched Munster’s achievement in winning two Heineken Cups over three seasons, this debate didn’t take long to surface. However, the answer is less straightforward when comparing the Munster class of 2006 and 2008 to Leinster in 2009 and this season.

Despite Ulster’s smash and grab raid in Europe in 1999 — when the English clubs absented themselves — Munster were the real pioneers for Irish rugby when it came to taking on the might of the French and English in the Heineken Cup. Their path to eventual European success in 2006 was littered with shattered dreams that would test the resilience, character and belief of any group of athletes in any sport. That is why their dual victories set them apart.

Losing two finals in 2000 and 2002 was bad enough but it was the defeat in injury time to a highly contentious try by Wasps hooker Trevor Leota in that epic semi-final at Lansdowne Road in 2004 that would have buried the aspirations of any other team in Munster’s position.

Ironically, while the core of that Munster side were on board in 2006 and 2008, that team hit its peak one game before its greatest disaster. Beating the Ospreys by 43-9 in the 2009 quarter-final prompted Ian McGeechan to build his Lions tour squad to South Africa around the Munster model. Not only was Paul O’Connell selected to lead the side but seven of his Munster colleagues were chosen along with him. That was a measure of what one of the greatest minds in the game made of what Munster brought to the table at that time. The fact that seven of that Ospreys side also made the Lions squad gives an indication of just how good Munster were at the time.

Three weeks later, with Munster in the midst of Lions fever, the bones of Leinster’s triumphant side of last weekend turned form and history on its head when they played out of their skins to defeat Munster by 25-6 in Croke Park. This was the same Leinster side that had to defend magnificently to record a slender one-point victory over a distinctly average Harlequins outfit at the Stoop in the Bloodgate quarter-final.

The level of consistent achievement of that Munster side in the Heineken Cup is unlikely to be ever matched — contesting 11 quarter-finals, seven semi-finals and four finals in that eight-year period to 2008. They have since made it to two more semi-finals.

If a Lions squad was announced this week, a minimum of six and as many as eight of the Leinster side would make the plane, with Brian O’Driscoll and O’Connell the only two serious candidates for the captaincy. A head-to-head between Munster’s winning team in 2008 and Leinster’s current champion outfit would provide one hell of a game with the battle of the back rows worth the ticket price alone. A trio of Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy and David Wallace at the peak of their powers against the Leinster unit of Kevin McLaughlin, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien would be some contest.

At half-back, there is little to choose between the O’Leary/O’Gara axis against Reddan and Sexton while Leinster would definitely enjoy an advantage across the three-quarters.

To capitalise on that, however, it would require the current Leinster front five to match a Munster quintet that were all in situ for Ireland when the Grand Slam was delivered in 2009. That gives Munster the edge.

The Leinster side that beat Northampton last weekend is an infinitely better team than the one which accounted for Leicester in 2009 and in time has the capacity to surpass even what Munster achieved over that eight year spell.

Therein lays the issue for me. I suspect this Leinster team is yet to reach the height of its powers and has the capacity to get even better over the next two seasons. With the Lions visiting Australia in 2013, there is every chance that Leinster will be the side back-boning that tour party.

However, at this point in time, the Munster class of 2006/08 period would just about shade it for me. The beauty is that we will never know for certain.

Leinster’s total rugby approach just too much for the men in red

The case for Leinster: Bernard Jackman

THIS Leinster team is without doubt the best provincial side Ireland has ever produced.

In Cardiff last weekend, we witnessed one of the greatest Heineken Cup matches ever. A match now embedded in our mind’s eye as one of the greatest European club games. What made it brilliant was Leinster. What made us gasp was the way they did it.

Inevitably you will have proud Munster fans believing their team, at their height, was better. Why wouldn’t they?

Munster won two Heineken Cups and were the dominant team for so much longer. They were in four finals and involved in some of the greatest club rugby battles ever witnessed. And I can tell you from playing against them, they were the toughest competitors you’re likely to meet.

But if you’re honest and assess which team would beat the other, it’d have to be Leinster.

Munster exploited the laws. Leinster have developed a total rugby approach. The men in red concentrated on exposing specific elements and exposing sides’ weaknesses.

For example when they beat Biarritz in 2006, it was built on a strong maul and kicking game and the team that beat Toulouse two years later played the laws at the time perfectly by picking and going for the last 10 minutes as the referee’s interpretation of sealing off at the ruck were different three years ago.

But you’d struggle to beat Leinster on those tactics alone. They came out of the group of death, taking on the best England and France had to throw at them. Every facet of their game was tested this year.

Noveau riche Racing Metro reached the French Top 14 semi-final last night, Saracens play in the Premiership final this afternoon and Clermont Auvergne are the current Top 14 champions. All defeated in the group stages.

They won five from six and their only loss was away to Clermont. Finishing as top seeds gave them a home draw for the quarter-final and they had to play the current English champions Leicester, which put them through to play the Heineken Cup holders Toulouse in the semi-final.

Without doubt his is the toughest route ever taken by a team on the way to glory.

And they played their own game, a quality style back-boned by mental strength and belief.

The final comeback is well documented but few remember they were seven points down to Toulouse after three minutes. At Saracens away they defended for 27 phases in the final minutes with a two-point lead.

They were also able to deal with being hot favourites for the final, a trait Irish teams of the past have struggled with.

They’ve leaders everywhere you look. Clive Woodward in his book Winning! spoke about T-Cup which is a acronym for Thinking Clearly Under Pressure. The Leinster coaches and players showed they have that quality during their journey this season.

They believe it’s possible to score directly from first phase and have done it consistently through innovative moves and high skill levels.

They play with great width and each player is comfortable passing off either hand, which is down to the emphasis Schmidt places on passing at training. They also have the best counter-attacking game in Europe and Isa Nacewa and his back three partners have a licence to try things if they feel that its on.

Kick to them and you’re dead.

In terms of strength in depth, how many teams would be without a player of Rob Kearney’s ability and not even notice?

The bench for the final contained Shane Jennings, Heinke Van Der Merwe, Stan Wright and Fergus McFadden.

Eoin O’Malley who had played so well for Leinster when Brian O’Driscoll was injured earlier in he season didn’t even make it.

Munster deserve their plaudits but they wouldn’t have beaten this Leinster side.


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