Deeper shade of blue
Published 03/05/2011 | 05:00
A thrilling weekend for Leinster rugby -- a kick in the guts for Munster.
The most obvious comparison came in the few hours between Munster's sad demise at Thomond Park and Leinster's exhilarating triumph at Lansdowne Road in their respective European semi-finals. But being in Donnybrook for the All-Ireland League final also proved to be an instructive experience.
Cork Constitution, Munster rugby's club aristocrats in terms of achievement and influence, went into the Ulster Bank-sponsored showdown with Old Belvedere as overwhelming favourites. This was based on the fact that they had topped the table in the regular season, yet again, and had a squad featuring a host of Munster-contracted players.
Nine of the Con men who took part in last Sunday's compelling tussle had played for the Munster senior side this season. Belvo's Leinster equivalent added up to the grand total of one.
They had a few Leinster old boys in Simon Keogh, Andy Dunne and Chris Keane and the hugely impressive Leinster 'A' No 8 Leo Auva'a as well as Danny Riordan, once of Connacht and Munster. But they could not compete with Con in terms of current provincial influence.
Old Belvedere's win was further evidence, at a feeder level, of the upsurge in Leinster rugby over the past few seasons and their players seemed to be inspired by the verve of their senior provincial representatives the day before.
Despite Munster's well-earned victory over Leinster a few weeks ago, the gap between Ireland's premier provinces seems to be widening and there are a few critical areas emphasising the difference this season.
Good rugby starts with a solid scrum. Both sides were done over by French scrums in last year's Heineken Cup semi-finals but, while Leinster responded strongly to the humiliation, Munster's scrum continues to fail them in big games.
Greg Feek has done wonderful work with his Leinster trench men but, while Munster's scrum coach Paul McCarthy knows his stuff, he has less to work with. A province turns its lonely eyes to BJ Botha.
Injuries and depth
It is no coincidence that Leo Cullen's early season unavailability coincided with Leinster's poorest displays but in the 20 matches since his return, he has led the province to 16 victories -- the four defeats all coming away from Dublin and only one, to Clermont, in the Heineken Cup.
Munster's captain Paul O'Connell had a far lengthier spell of unavailability and, as well as Mick O'Driscoll played coming in for him, it undoubtedly hurt their European aspirations. Munster were insipid without O'Connell in the first half against Harlequins.
Felix Jones' excellent form on his return from injury showed what Munster were missing before Christmas, while Tomas O'Leary's truncated season has also been damaging.
Conor Murray is developing nicely but, at his best, O'Leary is a hugely influential figure. Leinster have had to cope without senior players of the calibre of Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Kevin McLaughlin and Stan Wright but have had the depth to cope more readily.
Richardt Strauss, Nathan Hines and Isa Nacewa have been brilliant all season for Leinster, with Heinke van der Merwe proving another canny signing. Clint Newland was an experiment best forgotten, but not a disastrous one given Mike Ross' performances.
Munster needed tight-head Peter Borlase to be the real deal but he has been a major disappointment, while Paul Warwick has had a hit-and-miss season in the backline.
Doug Howlett has been as effective as ever, but it is hard to have a central influence on the right wing while Wian du Preez and Sam Tuitupou are solid rather than spectacular. More pressure on Botha's shoulders next season and what Munster would give for a Nacewa.
The Leinster ticket of head coach Joe Schmidt, Jono Gibbes (forwards) and Feek (scrum) looks pretty complete, right down to former AIL points-machine Richie Murphy as kicking and skills coach.
In Munster, there have been issues with Tony McGahan's backroom team. Laurie Fisher has not been able to oversee a dominant forward unit and is on his way, with the prospects better next season under Anthony Foley.
That leaves backs coach as the major area for examination -- specifically in attack as McGahan has a proven record as a defence guru.
Munster have shown their attacking potential in the Magners League, but on the big days their backline play has been more meat-and-veg than sumptuous banquet.
Fans of the AIL and Brian Walsh would love to see the Cork Con coach brought on board but, either way, Munster's backline needs a coaching spark.
When Munster hit their physical and psychological peak -- as they did against London Irish in January and Leinster a few weeks ago -- they remain an irrepressible force. However, as they showed when exposed by Harlequins, the province is more prone to uncertainty and panic than before.
By contrast, Leinster never seem to buckle when the pressure comes on and it has stood to them against Leicester and Toulouse. Irish rugby needs Munster operating with maximum self-belief and landing the Magners League, a competition where they have excelled all season. It would be a significant step on the road to redemption.