Monday 23 October 2017

Bad blood

O'Connell becomes latest casualty in long list of Munster-Ospreys feuds

Sunday's ref Christophe Berdos reaches for the red card despite the protestations of Paul O'Connell and Denis Leamy (R).
Sunday's ref Christophe Berdos reaches for the red card despite the protestations of Paul O'Connell and Denis Leamy (R).
David Kelly

David Kelly

From the moment that Brett Sinkinson stamped on Ronan O'Gara's ankle en route to Munster's Celtic League final romp in 2003, bad blood has coursed through the recent history of clashes between the two-time European champions and the perennial pretenders from Wales.

In fact, it goes back even further.

During the 2003 World Cup, Munster travelled to Neath with a callow side minus 13 internationals and Jeremy Staunton was singled out towards the end of a narrow 33-26 defeat.

Bearing the visible scars of a terrific shoeing, a dejected Staunton prompted Declan Kidney to issue a stirring broadside to his deflated troops. "Look at the state of that man's face," Kidney said to a stunned dressing-room.

"I don't mind if you get beaten on the scoreline, but don't ever let yourselves be beaten up again."

It was a lesson his side would never forget. But that hasn't diminished the intensity attached to the fixture, although at times the undercurrent has been more unsavoury than should be necessary within the sport of rugby.

A year later, Munster came out on top on a 20-18 scoreline at St Helen's in a Heineken Cup pool victory which decanted fuel upon the nascent flames of a fiery relationship.

The Welsh side's winger Richard Mustoe had been binned for splitting Marcus Horan's forehead with his size 12s; as was the contemporary custom, Munster cited Mustoe.


However, the Welsh side's attempted camouflage descended to ignominious levels when they counter-cited, asserting incredulously that their Samoan centre, Elvis Seveali'i, had suffered racial abuse from Marcus Horan.

The blameless Clare man had to wait until days before he was due to play for Ireland against South Africa to clear his name; Munster angrily responded by stating that "the action taken by ... Ospreys has no place in sport."

Horan later admitted that he would never speak to Seveali'i again; nor Shane Williams, who remains at the club, although he is currently sidelined.

"They're the two guys who lied that day," Horan later recalled. The controversy prompted the ERC to introduce their independent citing system.

Two months later, Munster won a Celtic League tie in Cork 13-9. Ryan Jones was sent off for stamping on Donncha O'Callaghan but argued that Peter Stringer should also have been punished for kicking Andy Newman.

Lyn Jones, their outspoken coach, claimed Munster were not "God's gift to rugby" before the return Heineken Cup clash in Thomond Park; Munster exacted retribution with a 20-10 win to confirm their European pre-eminence against the Welsh upstarts.

With so many Grand Slam winners and Lions representatives, the edge is keener than in most inter-club rivalries and it is no coincidence that Leicester, a dominant, traditional European force like Munster, have also seen the Ospreys develop into one of their fiercest foes.

Warren Gatland's comments before the 2009 Grand Slam denouement in Cardiff, when he claimed that the Welsh and Irish players disliked each other, may have been publicly ridiculed but privately few will have demurred.

Ospreys are intensely envious of what Munster have achieved in Europe and the vast gulf between the sides' respective aspirations was vividly illustrated during the 43-9 Heineken Cup quarter-final rout in Limerick in 2009.

Their latest tussle in Europe has already proved to be incendiary -- Paul O'Connell's red card may have grabbed the headlines but bubbling underneath are a number of issues which could boil over this weekend.

Munster are still seething at what they perceive to be a prejudiced perception of their breakdown work, especially after referee Christophe Berdos' laughable admission to Tony McGahan that he was concerned about issues highlighted on Sky Sports.

"It did have an effect on the referee because he mentioned it before the game," McGahan fumed. "Those things are fine in your post-game analysis but two or three days before a game, you could probably do without."

For their part, Jonathan Humphreys, the Ospreys forwards coach, appeared to put pressure on the ERC to ensure O'Connell receives a lengthy ban with his post-match comments. And he also raised the issue of Munster's tight-head scrummaging, which he claimed was illegal and unjustly led to his loose-head Paul James entering the sin bin, from where he watched his side concede 14 points to transform last Sunday's narrative.

Cardiff's coach Dai Young trod a similar path last week before his side's clash against the mighty Northampton, levelling a similar charge and, after his side won two early free-kicks, his gambit seemed to have worked.

However, Northampton's power ultimately prevailed, with the referee unwilling to bow to pressure from the Welsh -- Roman Poite will need to be equally resourceful this Saturday in the Liberty Stadium.

Anthony Foley once mused upon the nature of Munster's fabled bitterness thus. "The bitterness is a state of mind -- that you will prevail no matter what obstacles there are because you want it more than the opposition," he said in 2006. "For that to happen, you have to hate the other side. That's the way it is."

Munster have learned how to channel this hatred while preserving their focus, but last Sunday indicated the pitfalls when they abandon that concentration. The history of this particular rivalry shows that the side who can keep their cool will succeed.

Irish Independent

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