Friday 22 November 2019

Blues and Reds more alike than they will ever admit

Ignore the stereotypes – this ferocious rivalry is founded on shared values

What kind of 'welcome home' was this in 2006 as I am tackled by the Munster trio of Trevor Halstead, Ronan O'Gara and Donncha O'Callaghan at Thomond Park
What kind of 'welcome home' was this in 2006 as I am tackled by the Munster trio of Trevor Halstead, Ronan O'Gara and Donncha O'Callaghan at Thomond Park

Trevor Hogan

'You fight more in a family than you do with strangers." Speaking this week, Ireland prop Mike Ross captured the essence of the Leinster-Munster rivalry.

As with most families, the provinces have a tendency towards infighting. But, as with close relatives, there are also profound ties that bind the two provinces together, ties that are often overlooked.

Whether we recognise it or not, it is these similarities that make the Munster-Leinster rivalry so acute, and these fixtures unmissable.

From personal experience, I know that players who transfer between Munster and Leinster face one persistent question: 'What's the difference between the two sides?'.

It's as if there is a constant search for that which separates and divides us. And sometimes, even when you dig deep to try and answer that question, you come up with very little concrete by way of an answer.

I remember Stephen Keogh's response, soon after his arrival at Leinster with me from Munster in 2006, when asked at a press conference what difference he could detect since the move to Donnybrook.

The only one he could identify was the wider availability of 'takeaway lattes'. The memorable headline the next day – 'I didn't come here for the coffee' – followed him around for the remainder of his time in Dublin.

Lattes and inflated property prices aside, there are very few significant differences between the two provinces. Having shared a dressing-room in both places, the truth, I found, is that the work ethic, connection with their local area, and sense of humour are all identical.

INTERACTION

Aside from logistical differences, like Munster's dual training centres in Cork and Limerick, and the natural tactical variations found within most teams, very little distinguishes the two.

The familiarity between both groups is further heightened by their interaction within Irish squads over the years.

It is this closeness, rather than any clash of opposites, which is precisely what makes the Leinster-Munster derby so compelling and intense.

The similarities follow through on to the pitch, meaning that certain key areas of the game are even more keenly contested.

For example, Leinster and Munster both use the maul as a fundamental attacking weapon, and both have a huge source of pride in using it to dominate the opposition.

Revealingly, they also use essentially the same driving set-up. While they have different line-out formations and initial dummy movements, once the ball is won, their shape and structure is very similar in the drive itself.

Both sides look to get the transfer of the ball from the catcher very early, getting the man ripping the ball to the back of the drive as quickly as possible. Both sides have a big emphasis on the next two players in providing the basis for good 'length' in the maul and that important buffer with the opposition.

Most interestingly, like Ireland, both provinces are capable of employing the subtle change of direction either side of the catcher, helping to avoid the 'sack' from the opposition.

It's going to be fascinating to see how the two best mauls in Europe fare against each other.

A second aspect where very little separates the two sides is at the breakdown. This will have been enhanced by the exposure of the Munster players to the level of detail that Joe Schmidt brought to the ruck in recent weeks.

Each side knows the importance of this area to the other's game plan, and it just means the breakdown is going to be even more ferociously contested than usual. Leinster's high-tempo game relies on building multiple phases of clean ball, while Munster's wide pattern needs a huge accuracy on the clear-out in particularly exposed channels.

Added to this is Leinster's sharp awareness of how strong Peter O'Mahony, Paul O'Connell and Damien Varley are over the ball, while Munster have a first hand knowledge of the damage that D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Jamie Healip and Sean Cronin can do on the floor.

It all means that tomorrow's game has all the ingredients for savage combat at the breakdown and in all the tight exchanges.

The intensity of the encounter will be ideal preparation for both provinces in the lead-up to the European quarter-finals.

But, just like any family get together, the focus will be on getting one over on the siblings first.

Sadly, the thrill of these provincial derbies is something that has been taken this week from Connacht prop Brett Wilkinson.

The news that Wilkinson has to retire suddenly with a serious neck injury is a massive blow to the province, as he has been a consistently aggressive and explosive performer for over eight seasons.

Having already had to deal with the enforced retirement of the exciting Kyle Tonetti in recent weeks, it is another reminder of the vulnerability of the livelihood of a professional rugby player.

Pat Lam's description of Wilkinson as a "true team man" is the ultimate compliment and he will be missed not only at the Sportsground but by rugby fans throughout Ireland.

 

'Honey badger' sets standard for post-match talk

The recent post-match interviews of Australian and Western Force winger Nick Cummins, also known as 'The Honey Badger', have become an internet phenomenon.

In one particular video, aptly entitled, 'Best Ever Post Match interview with Honey Badger', Cummins details the origin of his nickname – having seen "a honey badger going toe to toe with a male lion" in a David versus Goliath battle.

He also memorably describes his side's tactics against the Hurricanes, as, to get, "into 'em – up the guts, swing it wide and in the corner."

It's hard to beat a non-PC post-match interview and we've been lucky of late, from Joe Schmidt's regular refreshing honesty, to the reaction of Paul O'Connell in the aftermath of the match against France and Brian O'Driscoll's emotional final interview in the green jersey.

Luke Fitzgerald must also get credit for his honest insight into the low- tempo Leinster v Zebre encounter last weekend. Sports interviews are renowned for giving away very little with a tendency towards clichés. While not everyone can be a 'Honey Badger', let's hope the trend of genuine post-match reflections continues.

Irish Independent

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