Auditions for New Zealand begin at Thomond as Madigan shows Kidney he can play key role
IRISH rugby has a long tradition of being fascinated by what our southern hemisphere visitors think and, following his first taste of the much-heralded Munster-Leinster rivalry, it is safe to assume New Zealand's World Cup-winning second-row Brad Thorn was besieged for his impressions.
The 37-year-old's reputation for courtesy is well established and his replies would have been unfailingly diplomatic but, in his private reflections, Thorn is entitled to a shrug of his sizeable shoulders and the internal question: "What's all the fuss about?"
Yes, Thomond Park was jammed with colour and parochial passions -- more than Thorn would have encountered in Super Rugby or, certainly, in Japan. But the crowd struggled to get its teeth into a fitful contest and Thorn was hardly blown away by the quality on show.
The incredible levels of hype that accompanied two epic Heineken Cup semi-final clashes in 2006 and '09 set the bar extremely high but, if we are honest, since that '09 clash, anticipation has not been met by reality in their subsequent (league) meetings.
There was no shortage of intensity or commitment on Saturday night but the knowledge that this was not a win-or-bust scenario and that there were more significant battles to suit up for the following week definitely took the edge off.
The build-up was scatter-gunned with the usual hackneyed references to 'bragging rights' and 'two tribes going to war' but, while victory over traditional rivals is always welcome and will be used by Leinster to bolster their challenge against Cardiff next weekend, the reality is that the Irish provinces' primary purpose is to fuel the national side.
And, following Ireland's travails in the World Cup and Six Nations, that is what truly matters. Saturday provided a host of players with an ideal opportunity to promote themselves for the summer tour to New Zealand.
And, while there were no utterly conclusive statements to force the hand of Declan Kidney, it was still instructive viewing for the Ireland coach -- particularly in the case of Blues replacement 10 Ian Madigan.
Ronan O'Gara's assertions during the week that he felt he was hard done by in the Six Nations, was playing as well as he ever had and had no intention of stepping down from international rugby added extra intrigue to the out-half duel.
O'Gara also re-emphasised that the notion he and Jonathan Sexton did not get on was "a myth". Fair enough, but there is undoubtedly a competitive edge between the two, which came to the fore when O'Gara's uncharacteristic first-half fumble elicited a slice of Sexton sledging (reminiscent of '09) which his Munster rival (who knows how to dish it out but also how to take it) chose to ignore.
It could have been a gentle slag among mates or a dig between rivals but Sexton will be the happier for, while both 10s went well, the Leinster man made the bigger impression as he benefited from a better, and more regular, supply of ball.
However, Madigan was the real story. There are plenty who remain to be convinced but Madigan has been consistently impressive since he starred in a routine win over Cardiff a couple of seasons ago and in this campaign, benefiting from the injury to Mat Berquist, he has flourished under Schmidt.
Just turned 23, Madigan drips assurance, as he showed when dropping a sweet goal in the final scoring act of the game, and if he can continue to impress between now and the end of the May, he has to force his way into the New Zealand touring party.
The Six Nations pairing of Gordon D'Arcy and Keith Earls had good outings, particularly in defence, while it was extremely encouraging to see Brian O'Driscoll come through 80 minutes while throwing himself into contact.
Off the bench, Fergus McFadden, whose bit-part involvement must continue to frustrate, provided further evidence of his power at 12, executing the best midfield break of the match late on -- how Munster would love to have him.
Luke Fitzgerald commanded a great deal of attention this week and, while never able to break free, the Leinster No 11 showed why should still be coveted by Ireland as he fizzed with purpose every time he took possession.
For Munster, Johne Murphy did well to contain Fitzgerald, while on the far side Simon Zebo looked sharp again with limited opportunity on the night.
A worthy contest at No 8 with no clear winner. Jamie Heaslip was prominent in continuing his 100pc record as Leinster captain, while James Coughlan was one of Munster's best players (alongside Peter O'Mahony) despite being forced to operate on the back foot -- at one stage pulling off two back-to-back tackles in the space of a few seconds.
A rough night at Thomond for the Munster pair as the line-out wobbled badly, although Mick O'Driscoll tackled well in the first half. Devin Toner soared well at line-out and for kick-offs, but the best impression was made by substitute Leo Cullen, who looks rejuvenated after injury break.
As was pointed out last week, Damien Varley's status as third-choice Ireland hooker is only threatened by line-out accuracy and, though his all-round game was typically robust, his throwing suffered badly.
Mike Sherry will be pushing hard to take over this week and lift himself into the Ireland reckoning.
The big issue. Marcus Horan's impact in the previous week's action put him back into the international mix, but he had a rough night at Thomond Park on Saturday.
While it is hard to know exactly what was going on at scrum time, it seemed as though Mike Ross had the edge on Horan; both men ended up in the dirt before the contest was allowed to develop, and then both ended up in the bin.
Leinster coach Joe Schmidt's take was pretty clear afterwards: "One of the clear edicts about scrummaging is that you keep your shoulders above your hips -- as soon as you hinge down from the hips it is impossible to stay up. It is pretty clear to see that when Wian du Preez came on, I don't think any scrums went down, so you can work that out."
Jamie Hagan did okay on his introduction to the game and has something to build upon, while there was good news for Leinster and Kidney on Saturday with the possibility of Irish-qualified tight-head Michael Bent arriving from New Zealand to replace the Connacht-bound Nathan White.