Scar tissue: Munster haven’t scored a try against Leinster in more than 400 minutes of action
Munster haven’t scored a try against Leinster in more than 400 minutes of action but a win tonight against their fiercest rivals could re-ignite their season
The drive for five is gone -- now the race for six is on. The much-travelled NFL coach Sam Rutigliano once opined that losing streaks were a little like having a series of heart-attacks. "You can survive them," he'd say. "But there's always scar tissue."
Heading into tonight's second of two regular Magners League meetings between Irish rugby's fiercest rivals, Munster are the side bearing the most blemishes; Leinster, in stark contrast, present an image without imperfection, particularly viewed through the prism of this fixture's recent history.
Where once Brian O'Driscoll spoke of his envy of Munster's double Heineken Cup-winning success, his side have transformed that negative emotion into a supremely positive vibe.
Their own Heineken Cup glory, their metronomic destruction of even the most stubborn obstacles in domestic and European fare since Joe Schmidt's arrival and the conveyor belt of talent emerging from their academy has turned the tables on this unique rivalry.
This week, it is Munster captain Paul O'Connell who speaks of envy.
If Munster feel enervated by the dramatic swing in fortunes towards their rivals, Leinster, too, have acknowledged how significantly the tide has turned in their favour, as aptly illustrated in 'Blue Blood', the autobiography of recently retired Bernard Jackman.
Writing in the aftermath of the fourth successive victory against Munster in the RDS, Jackman offered a searing analysis of how Leinster had confirmed their pre-eminence in this fixture.
"They quickly ran out of ideas," he wrote. "I think the evening showed just how Munster are in decline and cemented everything I've suspected about them since the beginning of the season. That 30-0 defeat in the RDS in October put a screw in their heads alright.
"That game in Thomond on Good Friday would have been won by the 'old' Munster, but they could not get across the line that night. The game in Thomond on Good Friday would also have been lost by the 'old' Leinster. There has been a swing in the fortunes and abilities of both teams."
That much is undeniable. Munster's inability to deal with the Leinster threat currently posed is highlighted by the remarkable statistic which shows that it is now more than 400 minutes since the team in red has crossed the whitewash. In fact, it is almost two years to the day since Munster last scored a five-pointer against Leinster.
The last such period of dominance in this fixture came towards the end of the late 1990s when Munster also won five-in-a-row, before the 2001 Celtic League final was claimed 24-20 in Lansdowne Road by Leinster following a titanic struggle -- despite the sending-off of Eric Miller.
In the intervening period, Leinster have edged the numbers game -- 11-8, with one draw -- culminating in the latest five-in-a-row success.
Leinster supporters at the Dublin v Mayo game last week were crowing about doing a "six in the sticks" this evening. However, Joe Schmidt issued a noteworthy offering of caution this week when he observed that "if you base anything on history, the present gets overlooked".
Supporters of both sides need only take a glance at their respective Heineken Cup knockout implosions against the other; on neither occasion were the winners offered even the merest scintilla of hope on the morning of those titanic Lansdowne Road and Croke Park occasions.
Yet for all the past hype about this fixture, particularly among its avid players and supporters, one senses that it needs an urgent injection to spark some new life into it. Only a Munster win this evening can provide that.
Remarkably, the bookmakers have discarded history and installed runaway Magners League leaders Munster as ungenerous 4/7 favourites to stop the rot; their league form has been impressive, but can the prognostications be so justifiably one-sided?
After all, Leinster's backline offers more threat, their defence is determinedly resolute, their back-row superior and their tight play has trumped Munster's in recent outings.
There are few measurables whereby one can realistically point to a Munster success.
But an incipient return to basic values may be a starting point, hinted at by the promotion of Anthony Foley to the position of forwards coach following Munster's belated admission that Laurie Fisher was not the answer -- thousands of supporters had known that fact for many, many months.
Leinster, as Schmidt tacitly admitted this week, cannot be faulted if they are casting one eye ahead to next week's mighty Heineken Cup quarter-final tussle with Leicester Tigers in the Aviva, even if a formidable starting XV dilutes such a stance.
Munster have no such fall-back position. Yet their own European odyssey, if a little off the beaten track, should not be dismissed entirely out of hand. Indeed, Munster can guarantee a mammoth pay-day in both European and domestic competition by winning their next two games.
A successful Challenge Cup tilt will, ironically, copperfasten Munster's ranking as the No 1 seed in next season's Heineken Cup competition; it is a status they are rightly proud of and a potential tipping point for a transformation in their European fortunes next term.
A steady flow of young talent -- belatedly being deigned more trust by the management -- hardly masks the giant strides being made by the Leinster Academy; a recent Irish U-20 side contained not a single Munster player, for example.
Following the Leinster clearout of coaching staff and players last summer, one would have had justified fears of a debilitating changing of the guard in Dublin. That has not been the case and, instead, Munster's ability to cope with transition has been called into question.
Re-establishing some balance in this particular rivalry would provide the perfect launch pad for those ambitions as Munster may yet have to overcome Leinster next month, possibly in a Grand Final, to claim at least one piece of silverware this season.
A win this evening would be the perfect rejoinder to the claims of Jackman and others regarding Munster's decline.
Time to erase some of those scars.