Tuesday 28 March 2017

Munster get some food for thought as Belvo remind us of core values

Old Belvedere's David Morgan (left) and Conal Keane show their emotions as they celebrate their victory in Sunday's Ulster Bank League Division 1 final at Donnybrook.
Old Belvedere's David Morgan (left) and Conal Keane show their emotions as they celebrate their victory in Sunday's Ulster Bank League Division 1 final at Donnybrook.
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's time to draw breath following another extraordinary weekend of European rugby, the bottom line of which sees Leinster heading to Cardiff for the final against Northampton on Saturday, May 21.

The bookies have already had their say, with the 2009 champions 9/4 on to win again. Crazy stuff. The Saints are available at 13/8 in a two-horse race. Pressure? What pressure?

The beauty of the modern professional game is the ability to quickly turn attentions elsewhere and, in Leinster's case, their focus now turns towards the bread-and-butter Celtic League, with a job still to be done against Glasgow at the RDS on Friday.

As things stand, it's still mathematically possible for the Heineken Cup finalists to lose out on a play-off place in the Celtic League race. Although highly unlikely, a bonus-point victory for Cardiff at Llanelli, allied to Leinster losing at home by more than seven points, plus Ulster winning at Newport-Gwent Dragons, would see last year's beaten finalists lose out.

But given where Leo Cullen and Co currently stand, what happened at Firhill Stadium on the opening night back in September and the massive incentive of a home semi-final should they beat Glasgow, it's extremely difficult to see this Leinster team blowing it now.

And for the record, Glasgow won that night (22-19) as Leinster suffered a second-half meltdown. But that was then and this is now, with Leinster -- on current form -- the best unit in the northern hemisphere.

Munster, with a 14-point lead, are home and hosed for a home semi-final against the eventual fourth-placed team. That would seem to make the visit of Connacht to Limerick a dead-rubber. However, following their no-show against Conor O'Shea's Harlequins last Saturday, it's now anything but that. Indeed, in many ways, it's a blessing in disguise as the derby element will refocus Munster minds that have, for some reason, lost their way in recent times.

Departing

Call me a Munster fossil, but I am old-school and worry greatly when I see them departing so noticeably from the well-trodden route that has served the team so well for so long.

I may be in the minority, but the free- running Brive extravaganza is not the Munster way and most certainly not with the line-up as currently constituted. Not alone must this Munster side earn the right to go wide, even more relevant is the acknowledged forward platform from which they are now departing.

Harlequins couldn't believe their luck in Limerick, where one forward unit dictated in terms of intensity and, quite astonishingly, it wasn't the one in red. If ever the need for old values applied, it is here.

Munster's run-in could hardly be better mapped, with three successive home games on the cards to secure the Celtic League title. Although, if (and when) it comes to the big one we all crave on the final day, it could be Croke Park -- and not the Aviva Stadium or Thomond Park -- that may be required to satisfy demand.

In the meantime, Leinster and Ulster have it in their own hands to consolidate second and third places. That being the case, they would meet at the RDS in a fortnight's time to battle it out for a place in the final.

The real issue is fourth place. Cardiff Blues, currently in fourth on 60 points, face Scarlets in Llanelli, while reigning champions Ospreys -- a point behind them in fifth, but out of sorts -- look certain to take all five points on their travels to bottom side Aironi.

That would leave Ospreys on 64 points, but the issue is complicated by the fact that if both they and Cardiff finish level on points, it will be Cardiff who go through by virtue of the number of games they've won. So, at this distance, Cardiff look a shade of odds-on to be Munster's opponents in Limerick, with Leinster taking on Ulster at the Aviva Stadium.

The Celtic League competition is essential to the professional game in these islands -- the English Premiership apart -- and yet, it still doesn't quite float my boat. The entrance of the Italian sides will eventually fulfill the dual purpose of their inclusion, but in all honesty, you wonder just how committed are the Welsh and Scots to the league?

Munster folk will be the first to concede that their side is in transition, yet they have romped away, winning 18 of the 21 matches to date. It's a tremendous achievement over eight long months, but whether it reflects an outstanding, in-form squad or indifferent opposition, you can make your own mind up on that.

Mind you, how the team that tops the table by 14 clear points gets just one player, Ronan O'Gara, into the so-called 'Dream Team' defies all rational logic. It adds to the indifference.

And why announce that team now, when the business end and most meaningful component of the tournament has still to take place? I want the Celtic League to work for the simple, plain and obvious reason that it must, but 16 years into the game turning professional, we are still -- unlike the Top 14 and English Premiership -- scratching around for the optimum solution.

The decision of Magners to pull out after six years' committed sponsorship suggests they too are unsure, although apparently Fiat are poised to take over. Whoever succeeds to the naming rights, I hope it's quick and seamless, as the absence of a main sponsor to the Celtic competition has done little for the image and outside perception in times past.

I fully appreciate the need for and commercial reality of a professional bread-and-butter league, but it cannot prevent the romantic in me still wanting a more meaningful club competition.

No more than the IRFU or various working groups do I have the blueprint, but lest we need reminding, the players of Old Belvedere and Cork Con provided a timely glimpse of what club rugby still means to so many at a battle-scarred Donnybrook on Sunday. I wear no provincial hat but, like almost every neutral observer, I was absolutely chuffed for Belvo and everybody associated with such a great club.

At a quick count -- and I stand open to correction here -- there were eight former Great Denmark Street pupils in the match-day 22. Club sport, whatever the code, is about identity. Remove it and you're laid bear.

Cork Con, like Shannon and Garryowen, have dominated this All-Ireland competition since its inception and few have begrudged these great Munster institutions their success, as it is the hard graft at underage level that has brought this success about. But the greater the spread, the better it is for rugby throughout the land. Although 'Lunster' fans are fast disappearing, 'Meinster' fans will never emerge.

To witness what Sunday's AIL title win meant to so many ex-players, current and former officers like John Mahony, Mervyn Feely, Ben Gormley, Steve Tormey, Donal Coyle and Ollie Campbell said it all. Perhaps skipper Andy Dunne summed it up best in the immediate aftermath when highlighting that all-important sense of identity and what it meant to him as a proud Belvo boy.

What we witnessed at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday was magical, but without what followed on Sunday and the fundamental underage structures that laid the groundwork for it, we've got nothing.

Of course we must seize the day, but never lose sight of what it is that has brought us to this stage. Leinster's win over French giants Toulouse made it a great weekend for Irish rugby and, in a strange sort of way, Old Belvedere's inaugural national title made it even greater still.

Irish Independent

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