I don’t know about you, but I’ve been waiting for this coming Saturday since 27 January. Yes, that’s right, I’ve been waiting for over 4 months. That was the day that the Heineken Cup semi-final draw was made and the whole of Ireland realised that it could happen again – quite possibly the biggest match in Irish rugby history. I use the words ‘quite possibly’ there with good reason, because although it is true that the biggest matches are going to be Ireland’s potential 6 Nations/grand slam winning matches, there is nothing like the hype that surrounds Munster v Leinster matches.
Rivalry & Form
The domestic furor that envelopes this fixture, the so-called Mother of All Derbies, is on a level above the Ireland 6 Nations matches purely due to the domestic rivalry that it creates. The media and the fans alike get a little carried away with the red versus blue dramatics (myself included). Some of the rivalry is probably rooted in the holier-than-thou attitude that most Dubs display. Some of it in the rebellious attitude displayed by those in the People’s Republic (the real capital). Some of it comes from the Pale versus the rest of the country. This is certainly one reason why many non-Dublin Leinster natives actually support Munster – it maybe hard to believe, but I know a few. It seems that Munster has the appeal of being the country team, as oppose to the city team. And there can be no doubt that some of it comes from the D4 tag many of the Leinster faithful have attached to themselves.
The rivalry between the two teams was only increased during last season, when Leinster managed to do the domestic double over Munster. Arguably, Munster were a different team last season, only concentrating on (and winning) the Heineken Cup and with little to no value given to winning the Magners League. Under Tony McGahon, the team has a new attitude and there is no doubt as to what the boys in red are aiming for this year – the double. As such, this year Munster have reversed their fortunes and done the double on Leinster. A tell tale sign for this Saturday maybe?
And yes, you’d also be right in thinking that I’m a bit fanatical when it comes to rugby. After all, 4 months is a long time to be waiting for something. For one thing, I didn’t think Leinster would beat Quins, and they barely did it at that. Munster, on the other hand, were always favourites for their quarter final win – and win they did, sweeping the Ospreys aside as if they were barely there, winning 43-9 at Thomond Park Stadium.
Looking At Leinster
The squads were named on Tuesday, with the starting teams due on Thursday or Friday. Leinster’s 35 men are:
Backs: Chris Whitaker, Simon Keogh, Chris Keane, Felipe Contepomi, Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan, Isa Nacewa, Girvan Dempsey.
Forwards: Cian Healy, Stan Wright, Ronan McCormack, CJ Van Der Linde, Bernard Jackman, John Fogarty, Devin Toner, Leo Cullen (C), Malcolm O’Kelly, Trevor Hogan, Sean O’Brien, Rocky Elsom, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip.
The problem with the Leinster squad is that its not easy to pick the starting 15. You could predict 12 through 15 with relative ease – Dempsey, Horgan, Fitzgerald, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy. Nacewa could also feature in there somewhere. The back 5 of the scrum will undoubtably be Cullen, O’Kelly, Elsom, Jennings and Heaslip, with Jackman hooking. But with Van Der Linde coming back from injury the props aren’t an easy pick. Does Cheika start with the injury prone but highly experienced South African?
Equally, the half-backs. Whitaker is decent, but does tend to play like hes got somewhere else more important to be. Chris Keane has only played one full game this season, but he would certainly stir the pot.
And so to out-half. Does he risk Contepomi, who failed so miserably in the last derby, or does he opt for the younger homegrown talent in Sexton? The benefit in either pick is that, on their day, both of the out-halves can control the game, and Contepomi is well known for having some individual flair. Then when you consider Nacewa, who can also slot in on the wing, you’ve got a real headache.
Of course the big news in the Leinster line up is the absence of Rob Kearney, who has yet to recover from the mumps. It’s a big blow for Cheika’s men, as Kearney has had a decent season with Ireland (although I believe he is capable of much more) and was recently selected for the British & Irish Lions.
Kearney’s replacement is Girvan “safe as houses” Dempsey. This is the man about whom a friend of mine used to say he has the worst PR guy in the world. Dempsey has been a true soldier for both Ireland and Leinster, always getting the job done, pretty much without failure.
The Munster Squad
Munster have their own injury problems, with Tomás O’Leary having fractured his ankle last Friday and now reports are being made of Ian Dowling having knee problems. Come Saturday though, the squad will comprise of the following men:
Backs: Denis Hurley, Paul Warwick, Doug Howlett, Kieran Lewis, Keith Earls, Lifeimi Mafi, Barry Murphy, Ian Dowling, Mike Prendergast, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara.
Forwards: Marcus Horan, Tony Buckley, Federico Pucciariello, John Hayes, Denis Fogarty, Jerry Flannery, Paul O’Connell, Mick O’Driscoll, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Alan Quinlan, Niall Ronan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.
Munster, in comparison to Leinster, are much easier to predict in terms of the starting 15. Assuming Dowling is fit, the backs will line up as Stringer, O’Gara, Dowling, Mafi, Earls, Howlett, Warwick. Murphy is assumed to slot in for Dowling on the day if the Kilkenny man is still doubtful.
The big talk this week has been the loss of O’Leary. Replacing him with Stringer has both positives and negatives. Stringer is undoubtably a better passer of the ball, but O’Leary added the physical aspect to the No. 9 jersey, which kept the opposition back rows in check. This will make Saturday a much easier task for Elsom, Heaslip and Jennings, in defense at least. In attack, not so much as one of Stringer’s qualities is his ability to tackle guys much bigger than himself.
The forwards will be Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy. There isn’t much that can be said about these 8 men that hasn’t already been said. All of them are in the Ireland squad, five are going to South Africa and together they run a tight ship.
A Little Analysis
In Brent Pope’s article on RTÉ he makes the comment that “in midfield, Leinster have Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll and may just have a slight advantage over Lifeimi Mafi and Keith Earls”. One of crunch areas come Saturday will be the battle of the centres, but here I think Popey has got it wrong. D’Arcy has yet to show the form that made him great since returning from injury. Contrast that to O’Driscoll who has played some of the best rugby of his career in the last few months and the centre partnership is balanced.
Munster’s centre partnership on the other hand is flourishing. The loss of Tipoki earlier in the season saw much speculation as to how Munster would fare without one of its Heineken Cup winning stars. Enter one Keith Earls. The Limerick native has filled those boots, and then some, even earning a spot on the Lions tour. An amazing attacking player, he is a future star for the rugby world. Playing next to him is Mafi, who is a great player in both attack and defense. I will put pen to paper (in a sense) and say that I think he is one of the biggest glories since Gavin Henson, but there is no denying his talent. I really can’t see how Leinster have the edge in this area – surely the combined force of Earls and Mafi is greater than that of a great O’Driscoll and a struggling D’Arcy. But maybe its just those rose-tinted glasses I wear.
A huge boost for Munster will be in the full-back department. The ability of Paul Warwick (my own pick for Munster’s player of the season) to be such a high quality utility back has been a massive boost for the squad. Previous seasons have seen Munster fail in the Magners League due to the inability to field a top quality No. 10 – but not anymore. Add to that his ability to play at full-back, and no doubt centre and wing too, and its not hard to see that this guy is top quality.
I know that I’m highly biased on this, but I really can’t see anything but a Munster win. The bookies back me up on this one, so I am somewhat justified. Munster are keen favourites at 1/3 (Boylesports) or 3/10 (Paddy Power), with Leinster being backed at 5/2. Funnily enough, in the 2006 semi, Leinster were the bookies favourites and went onto lose, so maybe the bookies don’t know what they’re talking about.
Unfortunately writing a post like this, I’m bound to be lumped in with all the other bullshit articles that are part of the pro-Munster and anti-Leinster hype. Take this article that describes Contepomi’s last performance against Munster as shambolic and Stinger’s passing as bullet like, causing fear amongst the Limerick Gardaí. I’m as proud as the next Munster man, but reading tripe like this is actually boring. But, it’s something we have to put up with during an occasion such as this.
But at least I am not alone in my thoughts. As Billy Keane points out, all the anti-Leinster sentiments that dominate the press and web will do nothing but get Leinster more psyched up. They will be out the prove a point and more importantly they will be the underdogs. Being the underdog was always a plus to the Munster team in years gone by, but having won two Heineken Cups in the last three seasons, they are firmly not deserving of that title anymore.
I already mentioned reading some commentary by Brent Pope, but some of the other better articles out there include Stephen Jones at The Times, Hugh Farelly at the Irish Indo, Rob Kearney talking revenge on scrum.com and The Irish Times examining the match’s key areas (line out, half-backs and back row). Also, RTÉ and IrishRugby.ie have posted some stats about the epic clash. In short, I recommend taking Friday off work (for those of you with jobs) because in order to read all this wonderful commentary – you’ll need more than just Saturday morning, which will be need to be spent reading more rugby in the papers.
And The Winner Is?
But no matter how you look at it, taking a balanced, rational view – how can Leinster win? Previous form, current form, bookies odds, team line ups, gut feelings. They all add up to one thing – a decisive Munster win.
Given all that, I will grant that there is a slim chance of a Leinster win. The Magners League match in Thomond in which Munster won 22-5, where Contepomi was shambolic, people tend to forget that had Contepomi gotten his kicks then it would have been a very different second half. So like I said, Leinster have a chance – it requires an in-form Munster to have an off day and Contepomi to bury his demons and actually perform against Munster.
Still Crave More Rugby This Weekend?
Not many people are thinking this far ahead, but there is the small matter of who Saturdays winners will face in the final. Cardiff Blues will be taking on two time Heineken Cup winners Leicester on Sunday. Cardiff are in great form, having absolutely battered Gloucester 50-12 a couple of weeks back in the Anglo-Welsh EDF Energy Cup final. Having said that they have not done well in the Magners League, especially for one of the four best teams in Europe, currently positioned at 3rd from bottom. Leicester on the other hand have just topped the Guinness Premiership, beating an already relegated Bristol by a massive 73-3. So both teams are capable of scoring, both teams feature Lions (although Cardiff boasts 6, to Leicester’s 1) so this match also has potential to be great display of rugby.
And if that wasn’t enough rugby for you, this weekend is also the annual Kinsale Rugby Sevens. Matches run from Friday to Sunday and its a great weekend, for both drinking and rugby, and is (usually) lucky with the weather. If you’re not traveling to Croker, then its a brilliant alternative day out. And don’t worry – they have 5 screens on which they’ll be showing the Heineken Cup semi.
If you’re lucky enough to be going to the match, like I am (thanks again Lucia), then soak up the atmosphere and enjoy a great day. Extra trains have been scheduled for the Red Army to travel up from Cork & Kerry.
The match kicks off at 17:30 on Sky Sports 1, but coverage begins at 17:15. Personally, I feel like a match such as this deserves the talents of Messrs. McGurk, Hook, Pope and O’Shea, but I guess those gobshites at Sky will have to do.
UPDATE: Salvation – RTÉ will be showing highlights of the match at the later time of 21:30.