Thursday 21 September 2017

McGahan hoping Leinster lessons pay off

Paul O'Connell answers questions at a press conference yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Paul O'Connell answers questions at a press conference yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

The passage of time may have eroded memories, but Saturday's inter-provincial showdown at Thomond Park is not the first time Munster and Leinster have met in a league final.

Ten years ago, on a bitterly cold night at Lansdowne Road, the provinces clashed in the final of the inaugural season of what was then known as the Celtic League, playing out a compelling contest in front of 30,000 supporters.

Remarkably, as many as seven of the men who played that match could be involved this weekend, testament both to the durability of the individuals involved and their careful cultivation under the IRFU player management scheme.

Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Gordon D'Arcy and also Leo Cullen were on that Leinster side, with Ronan O'Gara, Marcus Horan, Paul O'Connell and Mick O'Driscoll on Munster's side.


And Saturday's survivor tally could have been 11 had Peter Stringer, John Hayes and David Wallace been available for the southerners back in 2001.

That was O'Connell's breakthrough season, the gangling, fiery 22-year-old from Young Munster would make his try-scoring debut for Ireland against Wales a few months later and he recalls the pain of a narrow defeat that launched Leinster as a European entity and set Munster on a path to improvement.

"I remember the disappointment," said O'Connell yesterday.

"I came off with about 20 minutes to go. Eric Miller was sent off, they scored two good tries which put us under pressure and they came back from a man down and put in a great performance.

"It was a big disappointment for us, but I think that game and the Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Wasps a few years later (2004) were two big games in terms of changing a lot of what we did in terms of training and how we prepared. While they were big disappointments on the day, they turned out to be big learning experiences for us."

A seminal moment for both provinces and, 10 years and two Heineken Cups later, Munster find themselves being forced into lesson-learning again after their European disappointments this campaign, looking on enviously as Leinster line up the plaudits in the wake of their stunning European triumph last weekend.

As well as exacting revenge for that 2001 disappointment, victory on Saturday would do much to bolster spirits in the south and be a worthy return for a superb league campaign, which has married consistency with encouraging player development.

There is also the need to provide for the future. Much has been made this week of the knock-on effects of Leinster's heroics last Saturday, their success and the manner of it guaranteeing an influx of money, supporters and future Leinster stars.

And, while this season has seen coach Tony McGahan bring through talented youngsters such as Connor Murray, Mike Sherry and Danny Barnes, yesterday's Ireland U-20 World Cup squad made for grim Munster reading: 10 from Leinster, nine from Ulster, four from Connacht and a mere two (Shane Buckley and JJ Hanrahan) from the southern province.

Saturday is, understandably, McGahan's primary focus but the Australian is fully aware of the need to inspire youngsters into becoming future Munster stars.

"Our immediate focus is obviously the playing group that we have now and forecasting the squad for the next two, three, four years," said McGahan.

"We've had a lot of young blokes come through, I think 22 made their debut in the last 18 months, (aged) 23 or 22 or under.

"When you look down at the next group coming through, there is no doubt we have some work to do but we certainly think there are some very good players out there.

"The players are there, it's what we do to get them fast-tracked a little bit more because our inter-provincial ('A') results have been very, very strong."

Munster's second-half comeback in their 24-23 victory at Thomond Park last month ended a run of four defeats against their closest rivals, but McGahan's men have not managed to score a try in this fixture for five meetings -- dating back to Denis Fogarty's effort, 131 tries ago, in their 22-5 win back in April 2009 -- and the coach is acutely aware of the need to correct this.

"Absolutely. I have looked back over the last few years against them and we have certainly left a lot of opportunities out there. I think in the last four games against them there has been one try in it and they have been the ones to get the try. It is about finishing and accuracy."

It certainly is. Finishing this turbulent season in front of a concerned fan base by beating the best side in Europe at Thomond Park would go a long way to dealing with past issues, present prerogatives and future foundations.

Lose and ... well, better if they don't go there ... 10 years on from their first major Leinster lesson, Munster have had enough learning experiences for one season.

The First Final

December 15, 2001

Leinster 24 (Horgan, D'Arcy tries, N Spooner 4 pens, 1 con) Munster 20 (O'Neill, Horgan, Foley tries, O'Gara 1 pen, 1 con).

LEINSTER -- G Dempsey; D Hickie, B O'Driscoll, S Horgan, G D'Arcy; N Spooner, B O'Meara; R Corrigan, S Byrne, P Wallace; L Cullen, M O'Kelly; E Miller, K Gleeson, V Costello. Red card: Miller.

MUNSTER -- D Crotty; J O'Neill, J Kelly, R Henderson, A Horgan; R O'Gara, M Prendergast; M Horan, F Sheahan, P Clohessy; M Galwey, P O'Connell (M O'Driscoll); J Williams, A Quinlan, A Foley.

REF -- N Whitehouse.

Irish Independent

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