On path to dream final
Munster and leinster setting scene for repeat of historic 2001 decider
Hard to believe it is almost a full decade ago, but it was December 2001 when the inaugural Celtic League final was staged at Lansdowne Road. Over 30,000 fans saw Leinster defeat Munster in an absolute belter of a final.
In retrospect, it was probably the day rugby became a serious competitor with Gaelic games and soccer in the hearts and minds of Irish sporting folk everywhere on this island.
Prior to that, we had Munster and Ulster -- the latter successfully in 1999 -- reaching the biggest European stage in the Heineken Cup but once Munster and Leinster fronted up, albeit in the lesser competition, a new point in the game's development had been reached. And the ultimate tribal war was under way.
Lest Munster need reminding, 14-man Leinster took that final 24-20 having had flanker Eric Miller sent for an early shower (just 25 minutes in) by referee Nigel Whitehouse for a relatively mundane incident involving Anthony Foley.
As history records, it was to prove the catalyst not so much for the winners but the beaten finalists: Munster went on to establish control across the length and breadth of Europe. Now, there is precious little between them. Joe Schmidt's men are blazing the Heineken Cup trail while Tony McGahan's ultra-competitive squad have guaranteed top spot, by a country mile, in the league, even with two games still to go.
Thoughts turn to a possible repeat of that '01 final. The weekend's results helped the possibility of such an outcome, not least the Ospreys and Scarlets losing to the Dragons and Munster shadow team respectively.
Cardiff are best placed of the Welsh three (provided they can beat the Dragons in their difficult extra game) to join the Irish three -- Munster, Leinster and Ulster -- in the knock-out four.
The beauty for the three Irish challengers -- even Ulster, despite defeat at the RDS -- is that their destinies are in their own hands. The aim for Leinster and Ulster (with Munster already assured of top position and a home semi-final) is a maximum return in the two remaining games.
For Leinster, with Aironi away and Glasgow at home -- the bottom two -- that is eminently achievable. Full points will also help their chances of securing second place, thereby ensuring a home semi-final with the added incentive of avoiding Munster until the final.
Ulster have by far the trickier path, albeit against sides -- Connacht and the Dragons -- with no play-off incentive. It puts Irish rugby in a pretty good place heading towards New Zealand and World Cup 2011.
All recent evidence suggests the distinct possibility of a Leinster-Munster European trophy double (with Connacht the bonus beneficiary by way of a place in next season's premier tournament, for the first time ever, on the back of either Munster or Leinster going all the way). An All-Ireland Magners League final is also very much on the cards.
Were that to be the case then, with all due respect to our Ulster brethren, the dream ticket would be Munster versus Leinster. Even Croke Park couldn't cope, such would be the demand for the hottest show in town.
Although they are dependent on results elsewhere, defending champions Ospreys could still sneak into fourth place, thereby necessitating a semi-final trip to Limerick, leaving a repeat of Saturday's RDS showdown between Leinster and Ulster as the other semi-final and allowing for a possible repeat of the Big One in the final.
But for now, let's take one step at a time.
Munster paved the way to the dream final with a typically determined but ultimately professional job, despite fielding a largely second-string unit, at Llanelli on Saturday.
McGahan is pretty much set in his mind as to his starting XV for the big business games to come. That said, the options in the front-row, and specifically the form of Marcus Horan, is working towards the type of selection headache he would want in the coming weeks.
Who would have believed that with Jerry Flannery out, a front-row of Horan, Denis Fogarty and John Hayes would not be set in stone? At hooker, the recently returned Fogarty is at best third choice following Damien Varley and Mike Sherry in that order.
Horan, at 33, is still young in propping terms. Don't rule him out as a World Cup contender, despite a lack of game-time this season. He can be a loose cannon in conceding cheap penalties but once he keeps a lid on self-discipline he has so much to offer in set-play and around the field.
You cannot buy propping experience. He may be in the twilight of a great career, but he has much to play for in the coming weeks.
The same applies to Shane Horgan. Along with Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, the Leinster man has been the epitome of consistency down the outside channel over the course of the season. He is also a natural leader, one whose presence matters on the training field and in the dressing-room in the build-up to big matches.
Ultimately, it will all come down to numbers but, on current form, I cannot see how Declan Kidney can afford to leave him off that flight to Auckland.
Beyond that there were big back-row statements made by Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings for Leinster and John Muldoon, albeit as a replacement, for Connacht.
With Sean O'Brien on the bench and Stephen Ferris watching in from the stand, I don't envy Schmidt or Kidney their back-row dilemmas in the coming weeks and months.
O'Brien will be a certain starter for Leinster and Ireland, and Ferris will command a seat on that World Cup plane but with little beyond that guaranteed for the Ulster wrecking-ball. It looks like McLaughlin versus Jennings for a position alongside O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip for Leinster, the same two competing with David Wallace and Ferris for the final back-row position a level up.
One other plus from the weekend, despite defeat for Ulster, was the continued progress being made by Craig Gilroy. The young Ulster three-quarter is a mazy runner with a natural scent for the try line. It's still early days, but he is beginning to look the business and, along with Nevin Spence, is one of two real quality young backs in the making.