Saturday 25 March 2017

Absence of leading men fails to dilute intense spectacle

David Kelly

David Kelly

It may have lacked two of the sport's most significant icons but no matter. This storied fixture supersedes its participants. Even the two Antipodean wingers in direct combat did not need the weight of this occasion to be explained to them.

This was always going to be a special event, regardless of judicial decrees and anachronistic debates about alcohol consumption. A drug of choice is not required when adrenaline courses through the bones of 44 athletes and 26,500 blood-thirsty spectators.

Without Paul O'Connell, Munster's eminence rouge, and Leinster's talismanic eminence bleu Brian O'Driscoll, this may have seemed like a Shakespearian play denuded of its leading characters.

But in no way could one anticipate anything less than an epic when these two tribes go to war. Munster had succumbed in the last two battles but, as Leinster coach Michael Cheika remarked before another of these storied occasions: "Last time means nothing." And, even with eyes flirting with next week's pivotal European engagements, nothing but the fullest attention alighted on this contest.

And early engagement is the key. Shane Jennings is the first to make his mark, hitting Tomas O'Leary late. Welcome to the jungle. Jennings then breaks free; O'Leary stands him up in the tackle. Welcome back.

The spotlight shines on the out-halves. O'Gara wins the early rounds, blocking down a tardy kick and slotting two early penalties to copperfasten Munster's early superiority. He maintains his superiority throughout.

In this cauldron, Munster thrive on squeezing the life-force from other teams, encouraging them to make mistakes, suffocating them with throttling pressure and physical energy. A jarred Sexton spurns a pot at goal but Mick O'Driscoll defends the line-out.

Leo Cullen slaps a ball and Leinster are now a man down and their gameplan is being sundered by a more direct Munster.

Leinster recover their poise and physicality, though, and drive through the heart of red. Donncha O'Callaghan plays illegally and is binned. Sexton makes it 6-3.

There is physicality but little subtlety; the prose is harsh, rarely poetic. Girvan Dempsey is normally a mild-mannered chap, the kind to help old ladies with his shopping. In Thomond, he is transformed into a baddie in an 18-rated Nintendo game, barging Jean de Villiers and conceding another three points. Indiscipline is a crippling handicap on fraught nights like these.

Alan Quinlan, the old dog, pushes Jennings and receives stern retribution from Jamie Heaslip. Quinlan is the one smiling to himself as he puts his gun back in his holster.

Anarchy is threatening and so, inevitably, anarchy erupts. Gordon D'Arcy, a beauty among beasts, skips clear but, in the heat of the cauldron, misses a two on zero.

Leinster pummel the line, remorselessly. Munster defend, miraculously, then illegally. Three points a negotiable bounty in their favour. Sexton hobbles away on one knee. The bigger picture intervenes. Leinster's inordinate effort in securing a mere three points is belittled when they fluff a restart. 12-6 again.

Fergus McFadden, O'Driscoll's stand-in, is Leinster's most composed player. He kicks their second penalty. But Sexton misses their third. The plot within a plot thickens.

Munster are, seemingly, in control. Naturally, then, Leinster swoop to take a half-time lead, a quirky bounce deceiving Howlett and O'Leary, Kearney stalking and Sexton nailing from the touch-line.

pressure

Belatedly, their pressure, so often undermined by intemperate play, is rewarded. Theirs is the jauntier trot towards the training sheds.

Leinster's increase in physicality is pronounced as they trundle forward some 80 yards from the kick-off, Heaslip trouncing O'Gara in midfield. Ireland's Six Nations understudies, Reddan and Jennings, are immense.

The foreign contingent are relishing the physicality. As time ticks, tempers fray and the penalty count accelerates. Destroying, rather than creating, dominates the throbbing theatre.

Nathan Hines is the third player sent to the cooler for clumsily flipping Dowling. O'Gara converts to restore the lead with his fifth successive conversion. The warning to Leinster is highlighted in neon red.

The egg-shaped ball inveigles once more; O'Gara misses a catch, so does McFadden with certain glory looming. Ball is hitting boot more than hand as each tries to extract a pivotal mistake from the other. The fear of losing dominates the thrill of winning.

Leinster, territorially, dominate the trench warfare. Sexton strikes well but misses. Sexton strikes well and scores. His side lead. With hooves heaving and blood boiling, we breathlessly, on a knife edge, await the denouement. Leinster hang on.

Who needs the star characters? As the Bard said, the play's the thing.

Irish Independent

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