There was an almost mesmeric dullness to this season’s fifth Leinster v Munster instalment last Saturday.
For Munster, it was adapt or perish. And so they gave a performance of heroic stoicism and beat the pants off Leinster in the contact zone.
The indignance they showed was a sort of jealousy with a halo. They deserved their win and stopped the rot but did they show Ronan O’Gara how to beat Leinster?
The undoubted highlight of the game was Stephen Archer’s ‘shoeing’ of James Ryan on the Leinster line in the first half. Some thought it was uncalled for, others that it was necessary.
Either way, the act was called ‘old-school’ by many for days after. Maybe ‘old-school’ should be back in vogue.
I was cleaning up my Sky Q recordings last Monday when I happened upon an eir Sport Gold recording of the 1991 Rugby World Cup quarter-final between Ireland and Australia in Lansdowne Road.
That match happened 30 years ago, which is a scary thought. I had not watched the game in a long time – it was a tremendous game of rugby. Its relevance?
In nearly every ruck somebody took a dreadful shoeing. If you tried to kill the ball, slow it down or roll over onto the wrong side, you paid the price.
Jim Fleming, the referee, did not ping anyone at the breakdown for rucking with their feet – everyone did it, but the rucks were self-policed. When men were men and all that . . .
It was fascinating when you make the case for ball-in-play or time-in-play in the modern game.
I watched what we did in all the scrums – we were bound and packed down in a millisecond.
OK, we literally ran into the scrums but it took about five seconds to form every scrum. The ball was in and gone and there were no interminable collapses and resets.
If you take an average international now there are about 15 scrums per game. That is one minute per scrum and that is without the collapses – do the maths.
The other notable thing was the time taken for lineouts. There was no committee meeting, nobody doing seagull impersonations to exhort the opposition to get the ball in. No Siege of Limerick choreographed moves. The call was made, the ball went in and it was gone.
The place-kickers, Michael Lynagh and Ralph Keyes, did not do the Dance of the Seven Veils in the lead-up to the kick.
They simply placed the ball on the ground, took aim and kicked the bloody thing.
How much more value do we really think we get when the modern game allegedly has so much more time in play? I don’t think so.
One of the reasons why we did not get thrashed 50-0 in that game was because we were not bothered to stand back and give Australia quick or usable ball so that their all-court three-quarters could cut us to pieces.
They got nothing from the breakdown – no quick ball – and they rarely got over the gain-line. That was why they looked ordinary.
Last Saturday, Munster committed, once again, a high number of unforced errors. The difference, though, was what they did at the breakdown.
I don’t think I have seen a team in blue manhandled as badly since the last two Saracens games.
Maybe it was simple all along – hit the breakdown at greater velocity. Go after the ball carrier with more intent.
Leinster never really got any fluency or tempo because the quality and speed of their ruck ball was poor.
Poor old Hugh O’Sullivan needed a mechanical digger to get the ball away from the ruck.
When was the last time you remember Leinster not scoring a try?
It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Leinster had put out their full side.
There was a notable difference in Munster’s demeanour and attitude. Would that have been the same if they were facing a full deck of cards.
Full deck or not, if you want to beat Leinster you have to be prepared to be ruthlessly efficient and aggressive in the only phase that matters in these high-end games.
What do O’Gara and Jono Gibbes know now about how to play Leinster?
Gibbes probably knew what to do when he was with Ulster but did not have the manpower or the mentality.
O’Gara has been playing this one over in his mind since he started coaching.
Which is the bigger test this Sunday? Leinster to overcome a fairly dynamic and exciting but unproven French side on their home soil or O’Gara to back himself with a game-plan to beat a side that he knows so well. He might only get one chance.
Johann van Graan’s only lesson from myriad losses to Leinster was to ramp it up at the breakdown and yet somehow I suspect this gambit probably came from Graham Rowntree.
La Rochelle will have to do an awful lot more than be ultra aggressive at the breakdown.
The French side looked really good in 2018 but got caught cold by Wasps and Ulster when the conventional view was that they would top their group and get the No 1 seeding. Instead, they had to play against Scarlets in Llanelli and got well beaten (29-17) by a streetwise and eager Welsh side.
La Rochelle did not feature in the following years and overcoming average Premiership sides like Sale and Gloucester in the run-up to the semi-finals does not really add to their CV.
If this match was on in the RDS there would be only one winner. La Rochelle are your typical flat-track bullies – apparently unbeatable at home and uncertain away.
There will be no baying crowd on Sunday but the compensation of having a cagey and canny head coach who knows what it takes to beat Leinster more than offsets that.
Leinster struggle with monster packs. Saracens proved this and even in their win against Racing in Bilbao Leinster found it really difficult to play or get any traction.
The men in blue still prevailed because they have this innate ability to fall over the line ahead of their opponents even when they have not been let play.
What does O’Gara do? Does he try and smash them up front or does he play the extravagant rugby La Rochelle are renowned for.
If it is a loose game Leinster will win. I think the Corkman must go for the power game and pull a few trick plays that he knows will flummox Leinster.
Mentally, La Rochelle are a little stronger than they were and have some experienced performers and a few dangerous gunslingers, but when the heat comes on some of these guys have a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot.
Even Brice Dulin came a cropper in the Six Nations.
Mentally, Leinster are light years ahead of them and their experience of winning when it counts will also be a huge factor.
Sexton won’t be there but that does not seem to matter any more if Leinster get into their groove.
The pressure is all on ROG. Is he as good as everyone thinks he is?
You live to play in and watch these types of games.