Saturday 18 August 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: All-Ireland final can complete dream year for rugby

Isa Nacewa fends off the tackle of Richard Wigglesworth to set up Garry Ringrose for Leinster’s first try yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa fends off the tackle of Richard Wigglesworth to set up Garry Ringrose for Leinster’s first try yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Leinster and Munster are the yin and yang of Irish rugby. They represent not just two different sporting worldviews but two different aspects of the national character. Like yin and yang they combine to make a whole. Without either we'd be incomplete.

No matter what honours Munster win their followers will always regard them as being in some sense underdogs. On Saturday that was probably the correct attitude. For much of the game Toulon looked the stronger team. Munster didn't look like winning until they'd won.

Suggestions they were fortunate ignore the fact that an essential part of Munster's make-up has always been the ability to extract the maximum possible return from unpromising situations. That's what underdogs do.

Conor Murray's first-half try was as bizarre a score as you'd witness in any code. His touch down appeared almost apologetic. The scrum-half seemed like the only person in the ground who suspected a try might be possible. But there was a Munster craftiness about the score which brought to mind Peter Stringer darting round the blind side to catch Biarritz napping or Ronan O'Gara sliding over the line while South Africa chatted with the ref. Call it a rub of the red rather than the rub of the green.

Andrew Conway's very different try was also rooted in a desire to make the very best of things. The weaving run which carried him through the Toulon ranks will long be remembered. Yet the key moment may have been the balletic sway which kept him just the right side of the line as he caught the ball.

The keenness of Conway's concentration contrasts with the moment Semi Radradra lost the ball over the Munster line when a try looked inevitable. Radradra is a hugely gifted performer who oozed menace throughout but at a key moment he was slipshod in a way Conway was not. Luck had nothing to do with it.

Munster delight in the unlikely and the odds defying. Their attitude is a defiantly provincial one. It's the same as that of the Cork City and Dundalk faithful convinced Dublin teams get everything from referees and of every rural GAA side that loves to beat the townies. It's an old school Irish attitude, a conviction that, in the words of the great Merle Haggard, "another class of people put us somewhere down below," and a determination to make those responsible pay for their condescension.

Leinster are a different animal. It's doubtful that, no matter what the results, they've ever felt like underdogs. Theirs is an unapologetic and imperious excellence. They're in tune with a newer kind of Irish outlook. It's one comfortable with self-confidence which reflects, oddly enough, the words of a very famous Munster man. As Christy Ring said, "Modesty isn't saying you're no good when you know you are. It's knowing how good you are." Leinster heroes, O'Driscoll, Heaslip, Darcy et al, tend to be a brasher breed than their southern counterparts.

The win over Saracens seemed emblematic of Leinster's values. How many times over the years have they broken out from their own 22 as they did for that first try? If Munster's philosophy is largely pragmatic, Leinster's always finds room for adventure.

Perhaps the reason they, rather than Munster, are tournament favourites is because they've evolved more over the years. The backline flair is traditional but the steely ruthlessness and power of the pack would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Things change in rugby. Witness the contrasting fortunes of Maro Itoje and James Ryan. A year ago Itoje was a star player on all-conquering England and Saracens teams. European Club Player of the Year in 2016 he was even better in 2017. At home in both the second and back rows, Itoje looked a new kind of world class forward and a potential superstar.

A year ago James Ryan was still in Leinster's academy set-up after needing an operation for a serious hamstring injury. He had yet to play senior rugby for his province and while everyone agreed the big second row had huge potential it seemed likely that he'd take a while to break through.

What a difference a year makes. Itoje cut a forlorn figure in a Six Nations where no-one conceded more penalties. There are suggestions that right now he's all sizzle and no steak. Yesterday he figured only in fits and starts.

And Ryan? The unquestioned forward find of the Six Nations yesterday produced a second half performance which called to mind one of those take the game by the scruff of the neck, tour de force displays Paul O'Connell once specialised in. The highlight may have been the thunderous run which paved the way for James Lowe's match-clinching try while the neat pass which gave Dan Leavy the chance to score Leinster's second showed another string to the wunderkind's bow.

Leavy, one eye swollen like a battered boxer's, also reproduced his international heroics. The 1-2 he played with Ryan before galloping in for his try displayed the Kildare man's sizzle, the moment ten minutes from time when he drove a couple of Saracens forwards off the ball in the ruck showed yet again that he possesses enough steak to feed a large dinner dance. Leinster's number seven plays like he's miming 'work rate' in a game of charades.

What a month. Two weeks ago Ireland defeated the side which had won the previous two Six Nations. Now our top provinces have beaten the two clubs which between them won the previous five Champions Cups. And what a season. All we need to complete the annus mirabilis is that Munster-Leinster final clash which never happened the last time they ruled Europe.

According to Hollywood the forthcoming Marvel movie, Avengers: Infinity War is, "The most ambitious crossover event in history." Gents, you have no idea.

Irish Independent

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