Stage set for Leinster v Munster
Ten years ago in Dublin, Munster retained their inter-provincial title after cruising to victory over Leinster.
Remarkably, there are nine players who saw action that night that will tog out this evening when the two provinces play for much higher stakes — a place in the Heineken Cup final.
In Donnybrook in November 1999, Munster went in as warm favourites, just as they do today, and justified the tag by seeing off early Leinster pressure before easing their way to a four-try victory.
Leinster, despite containing backline talent of the calibre of Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan and Denis Hickie, spurned numerous opportunities to get the ball wide and the match report in the Irish Independent noted that: “Hickie, probably the most elusive runner on the pitch, didn't receive the ball going forward until 11 minutes from time.”
The report also noted that “apart from the odd burst from Declan O'Brien and Victor Costello, Leinster produced precious little” and that they were “bereft of attacking ideas.”
A decade has elapsed, during which time the game has changed considerably, but there are many potential parallels between that day and this — not least Alan Quinlan's man-of-the- match award, which he continues to pick up for fun.
Munster again go in as prohibitive favourites, Leinster still have a backline oozing creativity without any indication that they will bring a game-plan to best utilise those attacking instincts, and Rocky Elsom and Jamie Heaslip (successors to O'Brien and Costello) are probably Leinster's most reliable source of ball-carrying momentum. That was the season Munster announced their arrival as a European force by getting to the Heineken Cup final and, arguably, the season that turned Irish rugby around as provincial achievement slowly started to be reflected on the international stage.
It has been 10 years of charting Munster success or ‘glorious’ failure, and Leinster disappointment, sprinkled with several false dawns. And, while Leinster have flowered into an impressive professional brand with their excellent RDS home and well-choreographed off-pitch activities, they continue to be overshadowed by their southern rivals, whose superbly refurbished Thomond Park has acquired shrine-like status in Limerick, while their brand recognition and cultural impact has gone off the chart.
On that basis, a Leinster victory this evening would carry a novelty factor and represent a change to the well-worn ‘onwards and upwards’ Munster story.
It could happen, but all the evidence points to another red-letter day for the Munster men, and by a margin similar to the one they achieved 10 years ago.
A Leinster victory would require Tony McGahan's side to fall some way short of the impressive standards they have set in a season where they appear increasingly impregnable. It would need the Munster front five to fail to provide the set-piece platform that the same players produced in the Six Nations — the launch pad for Ireland's Grand Slam glory.
It would require the Munster back-row, containing two Lions and a No 8 (Denis Leamy) unfortunate to miss the cut, being comprehensively outplayed by their counterparts. Leinster's trio of Elsom, Heaslip and Jennings is their most effective, in-form unit, but they are not going to cow their opposite numbers to the degree that the Munster back-row achieved against a much-lauded Ospreys back-row in the quarter-final.
A Leinster win would also need their overseas half-back combination of Chris Whitaker and Felipe Contepomi to outplay the Ronan O'Gara-Peter Stringer partnership that has tasted success against every significant side in the game, with the notable exception of the All Blacks.
And it would require Leinster's outside backs to produce fluency in attack and solidity in defence at a level that outmatches their Munster equivalents.
There are too many imponderables there to predict anything other than a Munster win. Overall, Munster look too polished, too powerful, too secure and too experienced to be derailed.
Ten years ago, Leinster were clinically dismantled on a 30-13 scoreline and a similar result and margin looks likely at Croke Park this evening. It is fair to say that all has changed, changed utterly on the Irish rugby landscape since that match, but there are some things that remain very much the same.