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Mixing and matching to produce right chemistry

B ack in 2000, when Munster were beaten 9-8 by Northampton in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham, there were questions about Ireland's capacity to stay alive at the top level of professional rugby. How could the Irish provinces compete with the free-spending English and French clubs? How could Munster, turning grey together, replace the old guard when they finally dropped? Oh, woe was Ireland.

How they tricked us then and how they continue to tease the world now. Munster kept going, fuelled by the slaps of fate -- or the hand of Back -- on their big days out, until they won the Heineken Cup in 2006, then again in 2008. This was not merely gratification for the rugby of one corner of Ireland because as a driving force in Europe Munster also dragged their nearest rivals with them, until in 2009, at one of the most spectacular fiestas ever thrown at Croke Park or anywhere, Leinster charged past the standard-bearers, 25-9. And went on to beat Leicester in the final.

Leinster are now the powerhouse and the questions about Ireland's rugby resources and chances of survival have evaporated. It might appear that a professional sport in a troubled economy would struggle but in hard times everybody loves a success story. And rugby seems a special case, resistant to collapse.

If there are still questions, they come from afar, from rugby exporting countries like New Zealand. The Kiwis are growing a little weary of being charmed by the Irish who arrive, say how down on their luck they are, how delighted they were to give NZ their vote for the World Cup and, by the by, is it not going to be the grandest tournament, all right . . . and who then depart with a couple of signatures safely on an Irish contract.

After New Zealand's World Cup, so generously swung their way by the Irish vote, John Afoa and Jared Payne will play for Ulster, the latest province to be dragged upwards by the spiral of success.

As if Ireland should care. Prudent purchasing has helped make Leinster the force they are. Isa Nacewa was a bit-part New Zealander, capped by Fiji as a two-minute replacement against Scotland at the 2003 World Cup, but is now, as a resident of Dublin, one of the most creative full-backs in the European game.

Heinke van der Merwe and Richardt Strauss have given South African single-mindedness to the front row but have revelled also in the freedom of movement associated with the Leinster style. Stan Wright, from the Cook Islands via New Zealand, is still around, adding his bulk to that same front row.

Leinster can retort that importing players is only a complementary part of the building process. Home-grown counts too and their starting props against Leicester in the quarter-final and Toulouse in the semi were Cian Healy and Mike Ross.

There is nothing wrong with what comes off the domestic production line except for an overload of lookalike talent in the back row as Jamie Heaslip, Kevin McLaughlin and Seán O'Brien all stand tall and run hard. They form a thumping unit but might the team need the slightly less stacked Shane Jennings to range more widely?

Outside the pack Leinster appear faithful to complex first-phase set moves when many other teams reduce their exposure by bashing their way forward by grunt, at least until the prepared defence has been shifted around. It is almost as if Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy cannot help but tell Jonathan Sexton to start looping around them, shuffling and flicking and delaying, because, hell, it is fun. What is the point of a chemistry set if you are afraid of making a bang?

It has helped having two games in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup at the Aviva Stadium but this is not the time to make a political point about the need for neutrality at the semi-final stage. The final is in Cardiff and it will be interesting to see if Leinster continue to be as inventive straight from the set-piece at the shaded Millennium Stadium as they are in their Dublin greenhouse.

Why should they not? To change tack and embrace the protection of possession above creativity would take the Irish into the mantraps of the Aviva Premiership. And you do not want to get your Avivas mixed up. There is no need to be reckless but neither can Leinster be cautious. By now O'Driscoll and D'Arcy can decide for themselves what powders and liquids they can mix and heat.

Northampton at full bore are hugely tough, conditioned by their English system to be uncompromisingly committed and forceful. Leinster come from a system that affords a little more comfort to their star performers.

O'Driscoll in his autumnal days is not flogged. But the Irish system is constructed this way so that on occasions such as the Heineken Cup final they are free and fresh to perform at their very best. It is the perfect answer to the question posed a decade ago: so how do we survive in this?


Sunday Indo Sport