There may already have been four rounds of the Pro 12, but ask any Munster or Leinster fan and you will find that the season doesn’t truly kick off until their customary Heineken Cup ‘curtain raiser’ this weekend.
It has become the norm for these two great Irish sides to renew their rivalry as the domestic season breaks for European competition, and it’s usually breathtaking as a result. Their fierce competition provides the perfect preparation for both sides as they up their intensity and fine tune their playbook.
There is no shortage of potentially epic encounters across the rugby world this weekend as Leicester Tigers host Northampton Saints, Toulon and Clermont meet in the Top 14, and New Zealand face the challenge of South Africa at Ellis Park. It promises to be a great weekend for the neutral viewer, but for 26,500 inside Thomond Park and thousands more across Ireland this game will be the only one that counts for anything come the end of the weekend.
Traditionally, this fixture has been a clash of styles and rugby culture. Munster provided the brutally effective win-at-all-costs rugby which was rarely easy on the eye but earned endearment and silverware. In the blue corner, Leinster, in contrast, represented a 15-man brand of free-flowing rugby which year after year produced one of the most entertaining back divisions in Europe.
In recent years these lines have blurred. Leinster’s more recent success has been built as much on a toughened ruthlessness to their play as it has on their lines of running and handling skills which continue to set the standard for Northern Hemisphere rugby. The greatest catalyst for changing Munster is undoubtedly Rob Penney – now in his second season he’s intent on revolutionising the Munster style and there are signs that it is beginning to pay off. The result has been a much more open end-to-end contest like the corresponding fixture last April which Leinster won 16-22 courtesy of a Brian O’Driscoll try.
For the players themselves, bragging rights are also on offer before the internationals convene for the autumn tests in just a few weeks. It’s a chance to stake a claim for inclusion ahead of a rival or leave a not-so-gentle reminder that they’ll be waiting in the wings should a current squad member not perform. Incidents will be blown out of proportion – no-one at Leinster will have forgotten O’Connell’s misjudged boot on Dave Kearney last season, an incident which infuriated Joe Schmidt and dominated the post-match chat, and which may yet ignite further hostility.
It’s easy to overstate personal rivalries but the players will set aside friendship for eighty-plus minutes when they don the red or blue, and just on occasion there are moments of real disdain which show that genuine animosity exists when these provinces meet in battle. O’Gara and Sexton weren’t always the meilleurs amis they are now, least of all when an overconfident, bordering on arrogant, Sexton first threatened Radge’s jersey. You’d love to have been able to eavesdrop on kicking practice at Racing Metro this week.
Leinster have held the upper hand since that famous Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park in 2009 when they ended Munster’s European reign and changed the balance in Irish rugby. More recently, Leinster have won the last four encounters and three on the bounce at Thomond Park, a statistic which will no doubt provide further inspiration for a Munster side approaching the final stages of their transition.
After an impressive game against Cardiff last weekend Leinster are probably narrow favourites to give Matt O’Connor a win in his first visit to Thomond Park. They hold the advantage at half-back, and could control the game from there, with Ian Madigan likely to play a prominent role. Munster are boosted by the return of Paul O’Connell, though, and with Conor Murray on the bench they’ve a strong final quarter in them if the game is still in the balance.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images