Monday 5 December 2016

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Blue is the colour as old foes face litmus test

After a summer of change, Aviva showdown will tell Leinster's Cullen and Munster's Erasmus how far they have progressed

Published 08/10/2016 | 02:30

Munster's Peter O'Mahony Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Peter O'Mahony Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

It's been a summer of change for the great beasts of Irish rugby who once lorded it over Europe.

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It is now two seasons since either Leinster or Munster won a trophy, a period that most sports fans would deem normal but one that is anathema to the provinces who between them claimed 10 out of 16 trophies available from 2008 to 2014.

Today, they again demonstrate an impressive pulling power as more than 40,000 make their way to the Aviva Stadium for the latest instalment of a storied rivalry.

It is an impressive figure, but the marketing people at Leinster's UCD base have had to work hard for it. The retirement of Ireland's so-called golden generation has denied this rivalry its biggest names, and the current crop just don't have the cross-over appeal of an O'Driscoll or an O'Connell.

It is seven years now since Croke Park heaved and the balance of power swung in Leinster's favour. Only four of the men who started the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final will line out today. Twenty-two of those players have retired, and another four are winding down their careers in England or France.

Neither team escaped from their European pool last season, while both have lost Pro12 finals in successive years.

Connacht have upset the domestic apple-cart and Ulster currently top the table. As for the Champions Cup, the Anglo-French dominance is now established and the days when Munster and Leinster fans booked passage to finals in confidence rather than hope are long past.

Rebuilding

All eras must end and both provinces are now in the process of rebuilding. The coming month, with two interpros and two European pool games against difficult opposition, will give us a measure of their progress. Starting with today.

In the blue corner is the man who led Leinster to victory on that tumultuous day in 2009. Now in his second season as head coach after being unexpectedly promoted as a result of the hasty sacking of Matt O'Connor, Leo Cullen survived the summer by bringing in outside help.

World Cup winner Graham Henry came in for a lucrative two-week advisory stint, before the unfortunate departure of Kurt McQuilkin left a vacancy for former England coach Stuart Lancaster to fill.

The role of a 'Senior Coach' is hard to pin down, but Lancaster has likened it to a head coach's role under a director of rugby.

Which is the position Munster's Anthony Foley finds himself in after he was supplanted last summer.

While Leinster decided to try and surround Cullen and his inexperienced, indigenous coaching ticket with knowledge, Munster broke up their homegrown management team and brought in a new boss to work over the old one.

Enter Rassie Erasmus, who arrived in Limerick with an impressive CV and a string of endorsements for his innovative work in South Africa.

He brought with him defence specialist Jacques Nienaber, whose job is to restore steel to a struggling rear-guard, while Erasmus and technical coach Felix Jones work on an attack that found holes in opponents last year but failed to make the most of them.

Foley looks after the breakdown and the lineout, while his former playing partner in the Munster pack Jerry Flannery - the other remaining survivor from the changing of the guard - is in charge of the scrums.

So far, so good. Despite a slip-up at home to Cardiff Blues, Erasmus has overseen a solid body of work that has seen his team win four of their opening five games and progress their game-plan.

He has been blessed with some good fortune. The Limerick training centre is complete, Tyler Bleyendaal is finally free of injury, while Peter O'Mahony is back after a year out.

Munster's squad is thin in certain areas and his late appointment meant that there no big names were added last summer.

Now, Erasmus is aggressively pursuing transfer targets. New Zealand-born hooker Rhys Marshall arrives soon, while Jaco Taute, Cathal Sheridan, Steve Crosbie and Thomas du Toit have also been signed up short-term.

Long-term, the province want Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki and are also pursuing an overseas prop and have been linked with South African Oliver Kebble.

For now, Erasmus is dealing with much the same personnel as Foley had last year and the first priority has been the defence which has tightened up considerably. In round one, there was a noticeable improvement in Munster's line-speed and aggression as they beat the Scarlets away and, while it hasn't been perfect every week, their work without the ball has been crucial to their wins.

"Defence is guts and blood, attack is confidence," Erasmus said after round one, and that belief appears to be growing.

The schedule has been kind, but performances have improved week on week. Darren Sweetnam has emerged as a winger worthy of international consideration, while the scrum has been dominant in recent weeks.

This month, Leinster, Racing 92, Glasgow Warriors and Ulster will test all measures of progress. Munster's attack has shown glimpses, but they still kick away plenty of ball and have struggled to dominate possession.

Cullen, meanwhile, added Robbie Henshaw, Ian Nagle and Jamison Gibson-Park to his squad last summer, but the premature retirement of Luke Fitzgerald and departures of Ian Madigan and Ben Te'o damaged his backline options.

Last season, the three-time European champions struggled for attacking penetration at key moments and, although they topped the Pro12 table, their defensive efforts were undone on big occasions - in the European pool defeats against Wasps, the league reverse to Ulster and the final loss to Connacht.

In his brief stint so far, Lancaster has also looked to improve the Blues' line-speed, while the attacking shape has evolved far beyond what they were trying to do last year.

Concerns

Although Erasmus has squad concerns, Cullen has so much quality he can leave a top-performing Josh van der Flier out of today's squad and still pick an all-international back-row of Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and Jamie Heaslip. Their battle with Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and CJ Stander will be worth the admission fee alone.

The Leinster academy keeps producing players, so for all the retirements and departures there is plenty of quality in the squad.

Like Munster, Leinster have four wins and one loss to their name but their schedule has been more punishing.

With a scrum that is winning 100pc of its own ball, a lineout returning an 88pc success rate and Johnny Sexton dictating matters from out-half, there is a winning formula to be built on and the attacking shape should help get them over the line.

Today won't be a day for fire-works; with Ireland head-to-heads across the park there are opportunities for individuals to make strides towards a starting jersey in Chicago next month and from a team perspective there is a chance to build on a decent start.

Both protagonists firmly believe that they are on the road back to the glory days. Today, we will get a good idea of how far along on that journey they are.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER - R Kearney; R O'Loughlin, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, I Nagle; R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip. Reps: J Tracy, J McGrath, M Ross, R Molony, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, J Carbery, N Reid.

MUNSTER - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, K Earls, R Scannell, R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; D Ryan, B Holland; P O'Mahony, (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Reps: D Casey, J Cronin, S Archer, R Copeland, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, I Keatley, J Taute.

Ref -D Wilkinson (IRFU)

Leinster v Munster, Live, Sky Sports/TG4, 2.05pm

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