Monday 18 December 2017

Demolition derby spices up the long good friday

Most neutral eyes will be on the out-half battle between Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton after both players experienced mixed emotions during the Six Nations campaign
Most neutral eyes will be on the out-half battle between Ronan O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton after both players experienced mixed emotions during the Six Nations campaign
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Don't you ever worry about your liver?"

"Nah, we're just good friends."

The Long Good Friday, 1980

It didn't need a row about drink to spice up rugby's greatest rivalry. As if Munster versus Leinster was not mouth-watering enough. In recent times, these fixtures have tended to define the sides' respective seasons -- no more so than in 2006 and 2009 -- and yet even though Friday's fare is 'merely' of the Magners League variety, you'd hardly need the spur of a pint to get the blood racing.

Ever since their seminal Lansdowne Road meeting in the 2001 Celtic League final, these two tribes have waged war with an often frightening intensity.

And yet although it is a rivalry based almost entirely on mutual respect, rather than outright hatred as one might discover in other sports, don't be fooled into believing that there isn't an onfield edge to these fixtures.

The surfeit of sledging would make an Australian cricketer blush -- it may not be as easy to get away with the overly physical stuff in these days of political correctness, but the verbals will be flying.

While both sides of the great Irish rugby divide often flag the fraternal nature of this unique internecine rivalry, there will be more than just league points and bragging rights on offer at the packed Thomond Park citadel.

This time last year, as provincial rugby seemingly sashayed forth from the tremendous high of the Grand Slam triumph, Munster were virtually odds-on to finish the season with silverware.

They did pick up a trophy -- but not the one they had expected. Two victories against Leinster contributed to a Magners League title win for Munster but the Heineken Cup clash in Croke Park swung dramatically against the day's overwhelming favourites.

Munster may have been ranked the No 1 team in Europe but Croke Park, then Murrayfield, cemented Leinster's reputation as the best team in Ireland.

While their 22-5 league success this time last year seemed a harbinger of utter domination to come, a feeling hardly undermined by their superlative drubbing of Welsh superstars Ospreys in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, the "machine", as Ronan O'Gara labelled them, spluttered to a halt in front of that world-record crowd in Croke Park a month later.

Fast forward a year and it is Leinster who are plotting a unique course towards an unprecedented league and cup double, buttressed by last autumn's demolition of their fierce rivals in the RDS.

And yet one recalls that a week later, perhaps still surfing the physical and mental highs of the astonishing 30-0 thrashing dished out to Tony McGahan's men, Michael Cheika's side were humbled 10-9 at the same venue by London Irish in a limp opening to their Heineken Cup defence.


Subsequently, both teams have maintained a steady, and at times spectacular, route towards securing home quarter-finals on the weekend after next but, if you think either team can afford to head into this fixture half-cocked, then you really do need a stiff drink.

Imperceptibly, and contrary to much of this season's comparative mood music between the sides, it is Munster who seem to have less issues than the visitors, given their contrasting fortunes at the weekend.

Friday could maintain the psychological trend; another win for Munster would offer further solace ahead of their Northampton rematch as they belatedly strive for a better level of consistency.

"In our last three games, we've had two average home wins and a bad beating away from home, so this was a massive win for us," said Mick O'Driscoll of last weekend's win against Glasgow.

"It's a good step forward for us. We've four regular league games to go and a win next week would put us right up there again."

While Munster are chirpy this week, Leinster are in chippy form. They face Clermont on Friday week and can't afford the prospect of an even more urgent performance inquest than the one which detained them for much of yesterday, although they did actually beat basement strugglers Connacht.

True, Leinster are hardly likely to be undone in the physical stakes yet again -- quite simply, they can't afford to be. Mentally, too, the challenges are significant.

"It's one of those things," says Munster coach McGahan of the difficulty in re-integrating Ireland's international stars into the provincial line-ups.

"Whether they've been successful or not, they get on with business. They've been doing it for a long time and they can easily park disappointment or elation and get ready to put on the red jersey."

Leinster won't have that luxury, with Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy absent, alongside long-term absentee Luke Fitzgerald, while doubts surround the state of injuries to Nathan Hines and Shane Horgan.

"Well it will certainly fix the mind, put it that way," says Cheika of Saturday's poor display. "It was good because after the match all the players were in there, all the ones who didn't play as well, and I think they got a clear picture of the atmosphere."

Aside from the narrative of the collective, there are several individual tales which will serve as intriguing sub-plots with the summer tour and next year's World Cup looming ever larger on the horizon, still more so given the damp squib that was Ireland's Croke Park farewell.

There are intriguing battles to be wrought in all three lines of the pack, while there are several players in the back-line hoping to build upon decent displays of late and perhaps push for a squad berth this summer, such as Denis Hurley and Fergus McFadden.

Most neutral eyes will be on the out-half battle between O'Gara and Jonathan Sexton after both players experienced vacillating emotions during the Six Nations campaign.

"I'm not really into all that," says Cheika of the apparent necessity for Sexton to summarily renew his performance levels in a blue shirt. "I think he had a good championship so I don't think there's really much to bounce back from."

O'Gara's seamless form in green and red brooks little argument from his coach. "Ronan was tremendous," McGahan enthused after the Glasgow victory.

"He kicked the ball well out of hand, kicked well at the posts and controlled things well. I'm delighted to have him back in the mix with us."

Sexton's goading of O'Gara in Croke Park remains a seminal snapshot of last May; a regrettable one, according to the Leinster man, but utterly understandable in the heat of a derby that has seen players sent off for kicking and stamping in the past.

The legal eagles who argued against the opening of boozers this Friday tried to claim that the fixture was not "a special event but an event that is happening on a special day".

No wonder they lost their case.

Irish Independent

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