Tony Ward: 'Cheap shots and leadership deficit see Leinster pay dearly for lowering their standards'
On Saturday, I penned a piece on my beloved Leeds United. Sod’s Law – they went and lost later in the day to Hull. Still, Elland Road, irrespective of the opposition, the competition or league positioning, will always have that special appeal for me, that hairs-standing-up-on-the-neck, unquantifiable feeling.
In a rugby context, only one ground can match that feeling for me and that ground is Thomond Park. On Saturday, in a journalistic context obviously, but also as a member of the ’78 Munster squad being honoured by way of a pre-match civic reception courtesy of Mayor James Collins and Limerick Council, I was in the Mecca of rugby on this island for the biggest game outside of the international arena – Munster v Leinster.
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The Kingspan, because of its optimum size (Thomond has at least 6,000 seats too many), has stolen some of the Limerick venue’s thunder by way of its guaranteed electric Friday night atmosphere at the revamped Ravenhill. For Munster, irrespective of advance (season) ticket sales, it depends on the opposition to fill the ground with the visit of Leinster and European games the guaranteed premium sell-out events.
So for Saturday’s fully-loaded clash and with extra seating in place we probably had the biggest crowd ever for the fixture outside of Croke Park or Lansdowne Road.
However, in every respect it turned into a damp squib. High on endeavour but filled with cheap shots, we saw the reigning double champions lowering their standards and ultimately paying the price with the four points going where they were unquestionably most deserved.
Put simply, Munster wanted this more and they got it. In terms of composure in the white heat of battle, Leinster’s so-called leaders let them down. If you are a recognised leader, whether Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, or James Lowe – the biggest culprits on the night – then stepping outside the laws, even of tribal battle, is simply unacceptable. A siege mentality has no place in any leadership make-up. And just to put my own feelings again on record, I love the player but loathe the captain in Sexton.
Munster took this because Leinster imploded. The main reason for that implosion? Lack of discipline and cool heads. Rudyard Kipling wasn’t too far out when he suggested that need to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs”. In Limerick, Leinster lost individual and collective discipline and paid the price. It was ugly, low on quality, a game of few thrills with precious little creativity – but the right result.
When the ‘Fields of Athenry’ (which should be the Connacht preserve anyway) is sung with a funeral-like dynamic then you know you are witnessing a dud. It is not quite the dreaded Mexican wave but you get the drift.
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One other point: the opening 40-minute half took just over an hour to complete and in a professional age that is not acceptable. Frank Murphy will have learnt much from this experience too. And no, it matters not a whit that he is a former Munster scrum-half.
On a positive note, there were big performances from Keith Earls, Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander in particular, while the Joey Carbery graph continues to rise but with still a way to go in tactical management.
But he is paddling a lone canoe in terms of creativity. The Munster midfield continues to be bereft of guile. The return of Chris Farrell cannot happen quickly enough. As to the best midfield combination? Your guess is as good as mine.
For Leo Cullen and Leinster, little to enthuse about. Josh van der Flier and Garry Ringrose maybe, but I am clutching at straws. My admiration for Jack Conan is unashamed but in future Jack, ahead of any game, save the breath for cooling the porridge.