Monday 23 October 2017

Changing of Irish guard

Ruadhri O'Connor

POWER may corrupt, it may come with responsibility, but one thing is for sure --it doesn't last forever.

The plates beneath European rugby have shifted many times in the 17 seasons of the Heineken Cup and, at this moment in time, Ireland is setting the agenda with the trophy having spent five out of the last seven summers on this island.

Glory in this competition once seemed to be the sole preserve of Munster, who spent much of the last decade on a mission to claim the European Cup. They claimed the ultimate honour twice in this period and, for a while at least, it seemed like their era of dominance would never end.

Then, on a spring day in 2009, Leinster shattered their aura, before going on to win three of the next four trophies.

Munster have not been quite the same force in Europe since and, as the players from their two title-winning teams slowly decline or retire, a third force has risen in the form of 1999 winners Ulster, who had been dormant for so long.

Last season at Thomond Park, the men from the north laid down a marker when beating Munster in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, before going on to reach the final where they lacked the strength or experience to topple Leinster. This year, however, they return having strengthened their squad and are ready to challenge the hierarchy once more.

Ireland's era at the top may be at risk as the boardroom wrangling over European club rugby's future continues, but that will not have an effect this season.

With the Heineken Cup final set for Dublin in May, we review the power shifts that have affected Irish teams since Ulster first claimed the trophy and see where it leaves the provinces ahead of this year's charge.

1998/9 -- Ulster took full advantage of the English clubs' decision to withdraw and went all the way to become the first Irish winners, beating Colomiers at Lansdowne Road in the final. Munster were beaten by the same French opposition in the quarter-finals, while Leinster lost out at the pool stage to Stade Francais.

1999/2000 -- The northern province could not build on their win and failed to get out of the pool stages for the first of 11 seasons in succession, paving the way for Munster to become the dominant Irish force as they reached their first final. Defeat to Northampton was hard to stomach after their heroic conquering of Toulouse, but their determination to get their hands on the Holy Grail was to dominate the agenda for much of the decade.

2000/1 -- Munster were denied a spot in the final in heartbreaking circumstances as John O'Neill was deemed to have been in touch while scoring what would have been the winning try. The men in red were again the strongest Irish contenders as Leinster and Ulster failed to get out of their pools.

2001/2 -- Neil Back's hand helped deny Munster as Leicester Tigers claimed back-to-back European Cups. The English champions also accounted for Leinster, who threatened a breakthrough by reaching the quarter-finals, but ultimately came up short.

2002/3 -- The year the dream final was denied and the last time that Dublin hosted the Heineken final. Leinster and Munster reached the semi-finals and an ideal all-Irish final was in play until a devastating weekend saw Munster denied at the death by Toulouse and Leinster bow to Perpignan.It was a disappointing end to a year that saw Munster maintain their reputation as European hard-nuts, despite defeat, as fears grew about the Blues' character.

2003/4 -- More brave Munster heartache dominated the competition as they fell in one of the competition's epic games, losing 37-32 to Warren Gatland's Wasps at Lansdowne Road. After showing promise the year before, Gary Ella's Leinster lost out to Biarritz and failed to get out of their pool along with Ulster.

2004/5 -- Declan Kidney steered Leinster out of their pool, but a poor display in their quarter-final defeat to Leicester again contrasted greatly with Munster's heroic defeat to Biarritz in San Sebastian. Both sides went out at the same stage, but the perception remained that Kidney's old club were better prepared for European success.

2005/6 -- With Kidney back at the helm, Munster finally got the job done and gave Leinster a firm reminder of just how far off they were with a devastating 30-6 semi-final destruction at Lansdowne. Michael Cheika's first season had been going so well with a spectacular win over Toulouse in the quarter-finals, but they were forced back to the drawing board as Munster went on to end their hurt with a final win over Biarritz at the Millennium Stadium as an era of Irish domination was about to begin.

2006/7 -- A disappointing lull before a succession of Irish titles as Wasps beat Leicester at Twickenham. The Londoners hammered Leinster in the quarter-finals, with their future scrum-half Eoin Reddan scoring twice. While Llanelli stunned Munster at Stradey Park.

2007/8 -- Munster regained the trophy with a final victory over Toulouse that confirmed their place among European royalty. Leinster struggled in a pool with Leicester and Toulouse and failed to reach the last eight for the first time in four years and watched on as Paul O'Connell lifted the cup.

2008/9 -- On the day that changed the landscape of Irish rugby in Europe, Leinster gained revenge for 2006 in a Croke Park semi-final with Jonny Sexton coming off the bench to star in a

25-6 win. Cheika's charges went on to win their first title at Murrayfield with victory over Leicester as they finally put the tag of underachievers to bed.

2009/10 -- The two dominant Irish forces again raised the prospect of an all-Irish final, but defeats in France proved their undoing. Leinster showed that the previous season's win had not been a flash in the pan by beating Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals, but injuries took their toll against Toulouse. Munster's display in their defeat to Biarritz raised question marks about whether the team was on the decline.

2010/11 -- Leinster's second title came in marked contrast to their old rivals Munster, who made their first visit to the Amlin Challenge Cup after failing to qualify from the pool stages for the first time since 1998.

Tony McGahan's side's defeats at the Ospreys and Toulon indicated that the miles on the clock had taken their toll, while Leinster came back from the dead to defeat Northampton in the final, adding to their reputation as the continent's dominant force. Ulster also showed signs of new life as they qualified from the pool stages, but the Saints were too strong for them in the last eight.

2011/12 -- Connacht made their European bow as Ireland had four teams for the first time and, finally, we had an all-Irish final. It was not the expected pairing, however, as Munster were long gone after Ulster rose to storm Thomond Park as they surpassed Munster in the competition for the second season in succession.

Leinster won their third Heineken Cup in four years at Twickenham, Schmidt's charges looking irresistible as they comfortably saw off the Ulster challenge.

And 2012/13?

Munster are in transition, while Leinster are trying to achieve three-in-a-row in the face of a worrying injury crisis. So, is it now Ulster's time to shine again , 14 years after winning the trophy for the first time?

New coach Mark Anscombe has a stronger squad than the one that lost last year's final, while the death of Nevin Spence could prove a unifying and inspirational force.

They certainly look to be better placed than at any other time since 1999 and in better shape than their irish rivals.

Irish Independent

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