LET’S put the scale of Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final into perspective. The Champions League final featuring Manchester United and Chelsea in Moscow last season attracted an audience of 67,310.
Back in February, Super Bowl XLIII between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals in Tampa, Florida had an attendance of 70,774.
When Munster face Leinster on Saturday, those figures will be surpassed with ease. Irish rugby has gone mad. There will be more stewards on duty in Croke Park than the largest crowd that ever watched an interprovincial between the two teams when I played in the annual fixture. It is truly amazing and needs to be acknowledged and enjoyed.
The build-up to the game has been soured somewhat by the untimely injury sustained by Lion-elect Tomás O’Leary last Friday night. I can empathise all too easily with the disappointment and pain that Tomás is going through at present. In 1983, I left family and friends at Cork airport on a Monday morning with fellow Lion Michael Kiernan full of the joys of life with the prospect of an 18-game, three-month tour of New Zealand to look forward to. Within 24 hours I was back home again, having failed a medical late on the Monday evening after attending a reception at the New Zealand embassy in London decked out in my full Lions regalia.
While it was a shattering experience at the time, I was fortunate to recover after an operation and was subsequently called out to New Zealand for the latter part of the expedition. With shorter tours now, Tomás will not have that opportunity but has time on his side and will certainly challenge for Lions honours again. In the short term, however, that will offer little consolation and I know I speak for all rugby people in wishing him a speedy recovery after his successful surgery last Saturday.
Back to the match. The corresponding semi-final in Lansdowne Road three years ago provides the template for this one. On the day Leinster were beaten on and off the field with a display of colour and ruthless efficiency from the Munster supporters and team respectively. With late tries from Ronan O’Gara and Trevor Halstead, the final score did flatter the victors somewhat.
Leinster have already attempted to address the fans’ colour issue by warning their constituent clubs that should any of their ticket allocation be infiltrated by patrons wearing red then their supply of international tickets will be rescinded. Talk about waving a red rag to a bull. The Munster faithful will thrive on such a challenge.
On the pitch, on the evidence of recent form Michael Cheika’s men will be equally challenged. While their 36-13 victory over Glasgow Warriors on Saturday looked impressive on paper, in truth it raised more questions than provided answers. That fixture was Leinster’s 23rd competitive outing this season in Magners League and Heineken Cup, yet afterwards Cheika was still unsure as to what his best team is.
It was only with the introduction of Jonathan Sexton, Shane Horgan and Sean O’Brien after half-time that Leinster began to grab a hold of the game, and the question of whether Felipe Contepomi is better suited to the inside centre role is set to be debated once again when the management team meet to finalise the side to face Munster.
Shane Horgan looks far more effective on the wing than Isa Nacewa and O’Brien is pushing Shane Jennings all the way for a starting position. The out-half role is the one that will cause most concern. Cheika persisted with Nacewa in the number 10 jersey for long periods of the season but in the end accepted that the Fijian lacked the tactical nous to direct a game in northern hemisphere conditions. With Ronan O’Gara on top of his form at present, Leinster have a problem at half-back.
The other major worry I would have from a Leinster perspective is that they are not getting the ball into the hands of their chief persecutors often enough to do damage. Against Glasgow, Brian O’Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald only touched the ball twice in the opening 34 minutes. That is crazy. Fitzgerald is constantly running good lines off his wing but rarely gets a pass. As a result he is spending more time clearing out at rucks than terrorising opposition defences. That will suit Munster just fine. Likewise the chemistry that existed between O’Driscoll, Contepomi and Gordon D’Arcy, which punished and exposed such experienced teams as Toulouse and Bath in 2006, has not been in evidence in recent months. The loss of Rob Kearney is also a blow they could have done without. Cheika has much work to do and key decisions to make this week.
LIKEWISE, Tony McGahan will not be overly pleased with aspects of Munster’s recent displays against Connacht and the Scarlets. Over the course of those two games the lineout creaked and the receipt of restarts against Llanelli, in particular, was very poor. The return of Paul O’Connell should have a profound influence on both of those areas.
The other issue McGahan must address is the tactical adjustment required because of the loss of O’Leary. Munster are so fortunate to have a player of Peter Stringer’s ability and experience to promote from the bench, but the two number nines play a different type of game. Stringer will not assume as much kicking responsibility as O’Leary, while defensively they also undertake different roles. Fortunately, given the amount of time that O’Gara and Stringer have appeared together over the years, it won’t take much for the modifications to be made.
At present, Leinster remind me of a team that know they are playing below their capability and if anything are trying too hard to rectify the problem. Their continuity game is poor, they are forcing passes and are lacking in confidence. They will seek to take on Munster physically and no doubt there will be a bust-up at some stage. However, they will need to play smart to win. If they attempt to turn this game into a brawl they will lose.
In a one-off game like this, form can be irrelevant. If Leinster get their selection right, play the game in the right part of the field and create quick ball and a bit of space for O’Driscoll, Fitzgerald and Horgan (if selected), they have the capacity to win this game.
I have seen these two provinces play in Croke Park before. Forty years ago I was brought on a day trip by train to see Munster and Leinster clash in the Railway Cup in hurling and football. While I recollect the thrill of the journey and the day out in Dublin, I don’t recall much about the games. I have a feeling I will remember this one for a little longer.
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