Tyrone Howe: Lethal Leinster will sup from Heineken Cup
European action last weekend provided definitive proof of the changing face and fortunes of Irish rugby.
While Heineken aristocrats Toulouse fell to the collective might of Leinster, a Harlequins side, which has an equally flamboyant history but with far less recent success, sacked the Thomond Park fortress.
Taking nothing away from Harlequins, it was the manner of the Munster defeat that will hurt Tony McGahan’s men most.
While it was still only the second European defeat at home in 16 seasons, you don’t establish that record without something very special at the heart of your team and performance.
Harlequins made their opponents look almost unrecognisable from the Munster teams that we have come to admire so much over the last decade.
It was all so, well, un-Munster-like.
Where was that ruthless edge, that hard-nosed collective core running through the team?
Of course, you can always have an off day, but Munster don’t do off days, they give you very little and make you toil for your points.
Munster have character in bucketfuls, and have no doubts they will bounce back, but this particular defeat will hurt the players and coaching staff deeply.
Above all, it revealed a vulnerability that other teams will seize upon.
Added to the disappointment is that Munster would have fancied their chances of lifting the Amlin trophy against a Stade Francais side that has somehow made it through to the final despite playing the most limited rugby.
There is no doubt that the innovation of adding Heineken Cup runner-up teams into the Amlin tournament has sparked further interest in the competition.
The semi-finals had a distinctly Heineken feel to them with Clermont Auvergne and Munster expected to make it through — and what a final that would have been, the perfect Cardiff curtain-raiser to the main Heineken event.
However, in Paris it was completely a case of Clermont losing the game rather than Stade winning it. Clearly the superior side, the current Top 14 champions produced the class, but contrived to throw a final spot away by giving away silly penalties and throwing two intercept tries, a full 14 points.
No one really believed that Harlequins would win in Limerick and, instead, we assumed that Munster would be delighted to face Stade rather than the stronger Clermont side. By the end of Friday night, I thought that Munster had the Amlin trophy in the bag.
Maybe this was the key problem. Did the players entertain those same thoughts? Did complacency, from which Munster have never suffered, finally infiltrate the minds of players normally fully respectful of their opposition?
Whatever the reasons, Quins and Stade ripped up the script and have created the unlikeliest Amlin final. Then again, maybe it is apt that the two finalists actually started out in the Amlin pools rather than coming down from the supposed superior Heineken ranks.
Another cause of hurt for Munster will be that whatever was lacking in their performance was abundantly present in Leinster’s sterling effort at the ‘Battle of Aviva’.
We have known about the rise and rise of Leinster for some time, and their Heineken Cup victory in 2009 finally banished the demons of missed opportunities and false hope.
That day in Edinburgh, Rocky Elsom was the star man. Last Saturday, there were 15 star men, and together they demonstrated an almost apocalyptic refusal to submit.
The combined efforts of Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and — unsurprisingly — O’Driscoll, directed the collective effort.
The intensity of Leinster’s defence suffocated Toulouse for the most part, and the ferocity of collisions was captivating in a way that almost bordered on the psychotic.
Defence sets the tone for Leinster, and both Toulouse’s tries were fortuitous — a bounce off the upright and obstruction from Yannick Nyanga on Sean O’Brien. It is quite possible that O’Brien will be cited for lashing out at being illegally held back.
Were this to happen, hopefully the authorities would take due notice of the extreme circumstances and show clemency. Nyanga deserved a good belt and he should be the one cited for cheating.
Leinster were simply immense and rightly go to Cardiff as favourites to lift the Heineken trophy.