This is now the biggest club game in the world
Published 05/04/2011 | 05:00
The clock was turned back at Thomond Park on Saturday night as Munster and Leinster produced a match of passion in what is now the biggest club fixture in world rugby.
It would be too simplistic to suggest the half-time interval turned this game around -- but it certainly had a major effect.
So clinically efficient were Leinster in the first half that the last thing they needed was a break. With the score 20-9, the feeling was of Europe's form team being home and hosed, irrespective of the temporary halt to their gallop. By contrast, Munster couldn't get into the dressing-room quickly enough to regroup, reassess and reinvent themselves. And how.
What reappeared was the Munster of old, as possession was regained from the restart and straight away Damien Varley ran hard and straight at Leinster's previously impregnable defence, making massive inroads for the first time in the match.
A marker was put down and slowly but surely the tide was turned. By any standard it was an extraordinary transformation -- similar to the Gloucester 'miracle match'.
As Ronan O'Gara chipped away at the 11-point lead you sensed something major was going to happen. Here was the Munster of old and the 16th man was to the fore again.
The citadel was heaving as players and fans were reunited as one. Someone suggested to me recently that Thomond, much like Lansdowne, had lost its atmosphere of late. What nonsense. Ireland against England at the Aviva and Saturday's game at Thomond showed a crowd totally dedicated to their team. In Limerick, it's extra special.
I don't know what it is about Thomond, but you rarely come away from a big match not feeling better about the game, about yourself and about the world.
Call me an old romantic, but as a former player, commentator and rugby lover, any visit to the high altar of Irish rugby has a spiritual element attached.
There is nowhere like Thomond for the Heineken Cup, or for travelling teams and supporters from all over the world.
But back to last Saturday's rip-roaring encounter. Fifteen scores, 14 of them coming by way of the boot, with just a single try -- yet this was a classic in which every player contributed.
I cannot think of a poor performance on either side but there were certainly outstanding individual ones to savour -- and with due respect to official man-of-the-match O'Gara, the concept of picking one player is absurd in a game like this.
When all the momentum was with Leinster in the first half, it was David Wallace and James Coughlan who withstood the physical battering and led time and again off the back foot. That's real courage and leadership in the face of adversity.
O'Gara also stood firm despite the physical knocks -- one in the kidneys in a clash with the equally gutsy Jonny Sexton and a second to the cheekbone off Luke Fitzgerald's head. He stayed focused before displaying not just nerves of steel, but remarkable courage to step up and take the match-winning kick.
This was in the same mould as Denis Taylor's black-ball finish for the snooker World Championship or Graeme McDowell's putt on the 16th at Celtic Manor which sealed the Ryder Cup. Courage with a capital C.
And yet there was so much else to admire in the game.
Isa Nacewa again appeared everywhere in another remarkable full-back performance. Sexton's ice-cool goal-kicking was equally impressive under such extreme pressure.
On the plus side too for Declan Kidney was another confident showing from Keith Earls -- although there will be concern over Paul O'Connell's injury.
Forgive the pessimism, but even at this distance (and hopefully he will recover) I fear greatly for the Munster talisman's World Cup hopes.
And while the stats show a 10-tries-to-nil advantage to Leinster over the last six fixtures between the sides, I don't think it will worry Tony McGahan unduly.
Indeed if anything summed up the Munster focus, it was the ultra-professional Paul Warwick's five-minute cameo (with O'Gara in the blood bin) after the break. Sprung from the bench, straight into the action and with a vital penalty to boot, it encapsulated the second-half resolve of Munster.
It will hearten Munster, too, when you realise they can call on Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Denis Leamy and Peter Stringer from the bench. Special mention must also be made of Conor Murray and Felix Jones -- who are both certain to be involved on a more regular basis.
Add Ian Nagle to the equation and you wonder where all this talk of Munster's demise is coming from. There were no cups won but McGahan's squad is in a good place, albeit a little short on potency and guile in midfield.
As for Leinster, they got pipped at the death in a game they should have won, given the first-half performance.
They will be disappointed but, with no injuries to report, Leinster could not have had a better test ahead of Saturday's Heineken Cup quarter-final clash against Leicester
On the downside, they are in a dogfight with Ulster, the Ospreys and Cardiff for a place in the Magners League semi-finals. What they could do without is a return to Limerick for another all-Ireland semi-final but it could well happen. What price the ticket for that one?
With three games to go and Irish sides filling three of the top four positions, the omens are good.
Add a guaranteed All-Ireland League club final between Munster (Cork Con or Young Munster) and Leinster (Old Belvedere or Clontarf) and the inter-provincial rivalry gets hotter by the season.
As regards Saturday's referee, Andrew Small, I do not share the view that one of the top Irish officials (Alain Rolland, Alan Lewis or George Clancy) should take control of a match of this magnitude -- and yes I accept the fact that as IRFU referees they do handle other festive derbies.
Englishman Small did get a few calls wrong and, on balance, Leinster came off marginally the worse -- but Joe Schmidt knows only too well these things tend to even themselves out over the course of a season. All that coaches, like players, ask of referees is consistency in mid-match interpretation. Small provided that.
Last Saturday's game -- O'Connell's injury apart -- was magnificent for Irish rugby and was a true reflection on the current health of the game here.