Thursday 26 April 2018

Neil Francis: Hate is all you need when it comes to planting bums on seats for Irish rugby's biggest derby

Leinster-Munster hype is not justified by sides' standing, but rancour makes it unmissable

Munster's Francis Saili is tackled by Leinster's Cian Healy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Munster's Francis Saili is tackled by Leinster's Cian Healy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I wasn't sure if there were directives or regulations about whether you could advertise for Christmas in August or September.

I have already seen and heard advertisements for Pantos, Christmas parties and other yuletide events. Every year it seems to get a week earlier and every year someone will amaze you by saying "do you know what I heard on the radio this week and the sun tan lotion not even packed away?". Yeah, I try and spend as much time with those people as I can as well.

You can't blame retailers and the hospitality industry; a lot of them will tell you that they earn between 40 and 50 per cent of their turnover in the month of December. Why not let people know what products and services they have for Christmas - even if it is five months ahead of the big day?

The retail and hospitality sectors have other big days too - a lot of them centring on big sporting occasions. The Six Nations are also a Godsend as many fans have to bend down and touch their toes when it comes to hotel room prices, pubs, clubs and restaurants. But it is primarily Santa who everyone in the industry waits for.

I found it interesting so that the advance advertising for the Leinster versus Munster game seemed to be beating even the early Christmas advertising by weeks. The Leinster website, Donnybrook Stadium and other rugby websites were telling us that the big game was on October 8 at the Aviva - book early for the big match. As we know, sometimes it is important not to overplay the hand.

After the England football team's embarrassment at the Euros in France at the hands of Iceland, even Sky gave it a good breather before they started to advertise the Premier League. Those soft-grain images of Wayne Rooney doing cartwheels after slotting one in against Hull just don't sit right after the choke-damp reality of being completely overshadowed by somebody like Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.

A sobering perspective when the world found out for sure that they didn't really care about England. Yeah, give it a week or two more and they'll forget just how shite the 'quality players' in the Premier League really are.

Well the blue riband of the Pro12 should really have waited a week or so before they started to lay it on thick.

That 20-10 loss to Connacht in the Edinburgh final! Well the 10-point margin doesn't adequately convey how listless and disjointed Leinster were that day. Simple things like receiving and giving a pass, straight-up tackles and catching the ball in the air under no pressure - all of these skills seemed like chores, and the match was pretty much decided in the first ten minutes.

It is simple to say that this was going to be Connacht's year and sure you wouldn't begrudge them their moment in the sun. You would actually - when there is a trophy or a title at stake - choose another day to underperform against a side you normally beat nine times out of 10. Ulster would not have lost to Connacht in the final under any circumstances. They never do; their problems is that they have not figured out a way to beat Leinster in a serious match.

The other titan who will be involved in 'the Big One' next Saturday are Munster, who finished a desultory sixth in the league. The term fitful wouldn't be appropriate here as it suggests that Munster might have done something right with their programme last season.

As with Leinster, they had a couple of embarrassments during their schedule. The last-gasp wins against the Italian teams, a hiding by the Dragons, a double loss to Leinster and to Connacht on the highway to ignominy. A horror show in the Champions Cup. The 35-19 trashing at the Sportsground, though, was a new departure. I have never seen a Munster side give up but they were in their number ones and on the bus long before that match ended.

So what do you do when you come to promote the biggest match of the year? Go low-key or go early and put bells and whistles on it, even though both teams are a long way short of 'the Big One' status at this moment in time.

It was a telling statistic that in Ireland's last match in their three-Test series against South Africa, for the first time in a long, long time Ulster provided the most players for the starting XV, with six. Connacht had one starter and two on the bench, and Robbie Henshaw was out injured. The titans are beginning to lose their hegemony in the national side. Munster in particular are in short supply. Conor Murray is a certainty whenever fit and Peter O'Mahony hopefully will return to the team shortly, maybe in place of CJ Stander. Keith Earls, although he performed well last season, is not guaranteed a place. How many starters?

Years ago a journalist who had very little regard for golf wrote a piece about the Ryder Cup. At that stage there were more SANZAR and Asian players in the top 30 players in the world. They had to sit and watch Yanks and Europeans play it out in their own private show. I didn't agree with his thinking and even now, though the rest of the world might have Jason Day, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace, the bulk of the best players in the world are involved this weekend. The Ryder Cup has always been where it's at!

That can't be said for the weekend coming while Ulster, as they take on Connacht in the Sportsground, can say 'Hey we have the best roster of Irish-qualified players'.

There are many things that will sustain the Leinster v Munster fixture, though, and set it apart from intrusions from Ulster and indeed Connacht. The main ingredient is hatred. Every county in Ireland hates Dublin. It's intuitive: a lot of the time you don't need a reason. The constituents of Munster hate Leinster a whole lot more than Connacht or Ulster and this to the same degree is reciprocated. There is a real bite, a real edge to the match. It isn't hyped and there hasn't been a need to overplay the enmity.

I have always maintained that sport is the purest form of racism, and while we don't kill each other any more like we did hundreds of years ago, we can come damn close to doing it on a football or rugby field. There are many reasons why it is worth winning this game.

Ireland play New Zealand in five weeks' time. This is a final Irish trial and that will definitely motivate the participants. There are four or five points on offer in the league - yeah okay. We could name a few other points, but we all know why this game counts - nobody bothers to deny it anymore - they hate each other. There is no better reason to win a match. If in a generation or two there is diminution of this enmity, then this fixture loses something!

As for the early advertisements, both camps would look at their European draw: Leinster have Castres, Montpellier and Northampton. Munster have Leicester, Glasgow and Racing 92. Difficult but not impossible, particularly for Leinster, but given the slippage, the odds are against both sides. This leads you back to the realisation that this match could be the 'it' in terms of bums on seats and a big match atmosphere for the whole season. Champions Cup quarter-finals are but pipe dreams.

They hate each other but they have only got each other!

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