Pictures sometimes express far more than words can ever do. When Brian O’Driscoll intercepted to slam the final nail into Munster’s coffin with almost twenty minutes still on the clock there was an image which summed up the action and mood of Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final.
A Leinster-shirted fan stood with arms outstretched, looking heavenward, while a woman clad in the red of Munster stood in the row behind, hands over her face in utter shock and apparent anguish. Neither moved for what seemed like an eternity.
Before the kick-off you could clearly see marketing material scattered around the advertising hoardings.
“Believe in Leinster” was the message.
As it turned out, belief was at the epicentre of the rugby earthquake that hit Croke Park on Saturday. None of the rest of us had it, but the boys wearing blue believed and that was all that counted.
The passion and intensity that the Leinster players displayed seemed to draw on the hurt that they must have felt after their semi-final defeat in 2006 and home and away defeats this season.
Payback time, I think it is called.
Then, after referee Nigel Owens had blown the final whistle, I spotted a poster with the words, “Irish by birth, Leinster by the grace of BOD”. This adaptation of the Munster mantra reflected the tactics and outcome on the pitch — basically, Munster were out-Munstered. It was a demolition job and the dye was cast as soon as Felipe Contepomi stuck the ball under one arm and ran straight over the top of Ronan O’Gara. Despite coming off with a cruciate injury that will rule him out for the next six months, the Argentinian’s contribution will ensure that the ghosts of 2006 have been well and truly exorcised.
While BOD, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, Rocky Elsom and Jamie Heaslip all gave performances which confirmed their superstar status, it was the forgotten men of Irish rugby who deserve the most enduring praise.
The likes of Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen, who for seasons have lived in the shadow of their Munster counterparts in the backrow and engine room respectively.
Jennings was everywhere and as soon as a tackle was made, he was in there competing for the ball, either slowing it up or creating turnover chances.
Leo Cullen played a captain’s role, not only in plucking the ball out of the sky on kickoffs but throwing himself into contact with complete disregard for his body.
These were unsung heroes for Leinster, as were the likes of Chris Whitaker, who has taken a lot of flak for the speed of his service at scrumhalf, Isa Nacewa, who played his biggest game of the season in the unfamiliar role of fullback and Shane Horgan, who came onto the wing with little form but showed the touches of class which made him so dangerous in an Irish shirt.
An unsung hero for Munster over the years has been Alan Quinlan, but he’s potentially in huge trouble now that he finds himself in front of the citing commissioner over alleged eye-gouging.
This is dangerous territory at the moment and not much can be said or written on the subject until the matter is settled.
Therefore, I would prefer to not share my thoughts on the alleged incident just yet. Needless to say, however, if Quinlan is found guilty, he would face a serious ban from the game, his Lions tour would be over before it has started and his reputation within the sport would be indelibly stained.
On paper we certainly seemed set for a Munster Cardiff final. There were seven selected Lions involved with Munster compared to the Leinster three, while Leicester’s sole representative, Harry Ellis, did not even make the starting XV against Cardiff’s six representatives. So what went so badly wrong?
Having tipped Munster to triumph over their keenest Irish rivals, I did point out, however, how selection to the Lions squad and the injury to Tomas O’Leary could potentially have an effect on the psyche of the players involved in the semi-finals.
You cannot help but try to look for reasons and somehow the Munster players did seem to suffer from a strange affliction.
Complacency is too crass a description, but when all the papers and other media are predicting a waltz into the final, it may be difficult not to slightly buy into this build-up, no matter what you keep telling yourself.
This could have been further compounded by even greater self-belief because of the recent acclaim of the Lions selections. Things don’t just happen because you are a Lion.
The label is not a magic wand. Success is achieved through a tried and tested process. It was this normal Munster process that malfunctioned.
Whatever the reasons, this should in no way detract from Leinster’s effort, which was the main contributing factor behind their classic victory.
For anyone who watched the game live, it was exhilarating, intoxicating, smothering and suffocating, all rolled up into a package of the highest quality and entertainment.
In what has already been a wonderful season for Irish rugby, you really wonder how much more drama we can take. If last weekend was anything to go by, please just keep it coming, sporting action and theatre does not get much better — apart from a Heineken Cup win on May 23.