WITH Irish rugby’s days at Croke Park on borrowed time, how appropriate that at least one episode of domestic tribal warfare should get an airing at the country’s leading venue.
Croke Park has been good to Irish rugby and it is only fitting that the closest rugby has to the rivalry, tradition and intensity that defines the GAA’s All-Ireland finals should enjoy at least one day showcasing their wares.
GAA headquarters is even destined for the rugby record books, as a full house of 82,500 for the Munster vs Leinster semi-final would represent a world record for a club match. As an international rugby venue, Croke Park has been wonderful and even played a significant role in Ireland’s first Grand Slam in 61 years. On May 2, however, it is set to rock to an entirely different tune.
Given the excellence of Munster’s display in completely obliterating the challenge that a star-studded Ospreys side had to offer, the focus will now be firmly placed on Tony McGahan’s team. This is something that the players will have to deal with, and is a complete role reversal of the situation that presented itself when the teams last met at this stage of the tournament three years ago.
Leinster entered that contest on the back of arguably their finest ever performance in Europe, a 41-35 victory over Toulouse in the Stade Municipal while Munster had survived a searing test against Perpignan at Lansdowne Road winning by 19-10. Leinster were favourites for the semi-final. Sound familiar? The fact that Munster have won the two Magners League contests this season by an aggregate score of 40-5 tilts the balance even further in their favour.
Yet each and every Munster player will know from personal experience the type of commitment and hunger that Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, Jamie Heaslip, Leo Cullen and others will bring to the table. They will not be made fools of in their own back yard, and to some degree the pressure is off them.
Since winning the trophy in 2006, Munster have come to terms with the rising level of expectation and are now playing a more complete game than at any time since the advent of the professional era. Their ability to vary the point of attack is such that they are now a very difficult side to defend against. Last weekend they registered more points than the combined totals of the other three winning quarter-finalists Cardiff Blues, Leicester Tigers and Leinster — 43 to 35.
Of even greater significance is the try-scoring returns that Munster are now posting. The comparison with Leinster, who not so long ago had the ability to score tries for fun is even more enlightening. Leinster have failed to produce a single try in their last three European outings against Wasps, Edinburgh and Harlequins. That must be a worrying statistic for Michael Cheika, given the talent at his disposal behind the scrum.
In the same period, Munster have returned a whopping fifteen tries, six against Sale Sharks, five away to Montauban and four against the Ospreys. That is a phenomenal return against such quality outfits. Leinster need to use their next two Magners League outings against Edinburgh and Glasgow to address that drought. Unless they take the semi-final to Munster and rediscover their scoring touch, they will be in trouble. Leinster cannot rely on their impressive defensive organisation alone to prevail in this one.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s game, it was no surprise to hear Ronan O’Gara once again heap praise on Tony McGahan. It is some feat to constantly challenge and re-energise a group of players who have achieved as much as these guys over the last 12 months. Not only that, but he has even managed to further improve the skill sets of highly experienced international players. The players are loving their rugby at the moment and seem very conscious of the fact that the good days won’t last forever.
One of the big losers from last weekend’s sequence of results was Lions coach Ian McGeechan. With the Heineken Cup final scheduled for May 23, just one week before the Lions tour opener against a Highveld XV at the curiously named Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in Rustenburg, he would have been hoping that at least one French team would have progressed to the decider.
A final between Munster and Cardiff Blues, for example, could have anything up to twelve Lions tourists involved and it is unlikely that he would consider any of them to play in the tour opener seven days after a bruising European finale. It is also likely that they would miss the early days of tour assembly, when so much of the ground work is done.
Such is the lot of the modern frontline international player. That said, having to cope with the demands of a Heineken Cup final and a Lions tour is the sort of challenge that any player would relish.
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