Saturday 25 January 2020

Cheika's legacy bad news for red army

Of Michael Cheika's 13 derby games in charge of Leinster against Munster, eight have produced a victor in blue.
Of Michael Cheika's 13 derby games in charge of Leinster against Munster, eight have produced a victor in blue.

When 14-man Leinster defeated Munster in the titanic 2001 Celtic League final at Lansdowne Road, a yarn, which has never entirely been dismissed, recounts that a member of the then Leinster management team sent a text to his defeated sporting cousins.

It simply read: 'Leinster 1, Munster 0.'

The sides' subsequent divergent paths mocked that jibe, Munster's rise to unequivocal pre-eminence in Europe casting a dark shadow over an occasionally soulless Leinster operation.

When Michael Cheika pitched up on these shores in the season that marked Munster's first Heineken Cup triumph, Irish rugby's ignorance of the Australian was mirrored by his ignorance of some of the intimate foibles of the Irish game.

That 2006 semi-final embarrassment in Lansdowne Road at the hands of Munster offered him a rude awakening.

"It's only fair for a person who is foreign and doesn't know the intensity of the match to get creamed when he first gets in," mused Cheika late on Saturday evening. "That's what happened to us down there, it's the truth. We can't pretend it didn't happen."

And yet, four years on, Leinster's culture has been utterly transformed. Like the old Lansdowne that staged that 30-6 humiliation, their erstwhile status is but dust. Of Cheika's 13 derby games, eight have produced a victor in blue.

Theirs is the more recent European pre-eminence, theirs the more contemporary Magners League dominance, theirs the greater preponderance of delivery to the Irish national side.

Quite simply, the prevailing wind has shunted them towards the front of Irish rugby's shop window; in stark contrast, Munster's proud pedigree is currently obscured by a cloud of volcanic ash.

Munster's players issued a collective silence on Saturday night, such was their shock and awe at what Leinster did to them; mercifully, perhaps, their supporters were spared the embarrassment of Marcus Horan once more propagating the myth propounded in Biarritz that equilibrium existed within their scrum.

And yet, for all the obvious disparity within this fixture of late, there is little gloating to be heard from the Leinster dressing-room. Nobody would dare emit a text that might read: 'Leinster 4, Munster 0.' Leinster's culture is a winning one, but a respectful one.

"It was a quick learning curve because the next match we got them back here and won," continued Cheika, elaborating on a unique derby whose distinct qualities eluded him at first.

"I learned a bit more and it's been really good for me. I've learned about a different way to play rugby, they play a different style of game and we've had to match them. They've been a big target for us because they've been such a prolific team over the years. So, for us to earn the respect of the public, it's been about getting out there and competing with them on a regular basis."

This latest fixture swung Munster's way for all of about four minutes -- two each at the start of both halves, when respective turnovers seemed to indicate that they were unwilling to allow the tide of recent form continue to wash over them.

And yet when Leinster upped the ante after the break, solidifying their technical approach to the breakdown work and somehow ramping up an already frenetic level of physicality, Munster had no answer to the wave of blue power that suddenly engulfed them.

They had two players knocked out -- that Doug Howlett and Ronan O'Gara were allowed to play on smacks of extreme recklessness -- which was illustrative of the collective damage wrought on this once proud red-clad behemoth.


Tryless in these last four comprehensive defeats, Munster's incapacity in attack against Europe's best defence matched their inability to rise to the physical challenges thrown their way. Whatever way you analyse Leinster's supremacy, it's some achievement.

"Yeah I think it is," said the evening's stand-in captain, Shane Jennings. "It shows the respect we have for them, that if we play badly we know we're going to get dished up.

"I don't know what game it was here at the RDS, they spanked us. They put a few tries on us and I don't think we got any that day.

"Those memories last pretty long, to be honest. So we know if we give them ball, if we let them get on top and get a bit of momentum, they'll do that to us. I think our defence has been good. I think tonight it was good and we really dug in because they had a fair old go at us."

Munster's pride would not allow anything other than a "fair old go" and their bravery, epitomised by O'Gara's self-flagellating before the rampaging Jamie Heaslip, was never in question.

Yet such was Leinster's seemingly complete comfort as the game progressed, they were able to operate with three quasi full-backs, Isa Nacewa, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney cutting off all avenues for O'Gara, the latter already stymied by slow ball and a retreating pack.

The actual full-back, Kearney, offered the stunning riposte to Munster's temporary superiority on the scoreboard with his trademark try, a move of such poise and grace compared to the opposition's sporadic and fitful attempts in attack.

"It is an achievement," reiterated the try scorer. "They're one of the leading sides in Europe. You think back a few years when we were always on the receiving of big beatings from them.

"They're always hugely competitive games and there's a huge rivalry there on the field. Nobody likes losing these matches so to come out on top is a sweet feeling."

In the red corner, a resigned feeling in acknowledging the current force is all blue.

"It is," admitted coach Tony McGahan, getting used to delivering a dog-eared script. "They're a very good side, they're playing excellent rugby, they're very hard to beat at home, they've a terrific home record and they're a well-balanced side.

"I thought their defence tonight was again excellent and I thought their set-piece gave them a great platform as well. So, look, they're a well-rounded side and a very good side."

As one era supplants the other, questions will recur concerning Munster's future. "There's no doubt players are getting to the end of their careers," the under-fire coach was forced to admit.

Question marks will fill troubled Munster minds this summer. Leinster just keep prompting exclamation marks.

Irish Independent

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