Tyrone Howe: Munster v Leinster a match to savour
Just when you think that it cannot get any better, you are hit with the most absorbing weekend of rugby.
Lest we forget, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we really should sit back and enjoy this period in Irish rugby history. It has been monumental.
First, we had the drama of Ireland’s Grand Slam finale and history being made, and now we have experienced some of the most intense and compelling rugby in last weekend’s Heineken Cup quarterfinals.
What is hard to fathom is that the stakes have increased exponentially with the showdown in Croke Park on May 2nd between Munster and Leinster. In October last year, I wrote that I had the strangest sense of inevitability that these two sides would meet in a semifinal shoot-out.
You know what they say about being careful what you wish for, but this is a match that every rugby follower in Northern hemisphere rugby will savour, and probably a lot further afield as well.
While, of course, it is a shame that Ireland’s top two provinces will not contest the final, at least we know that the adventure will continue until May 23rd with the guarantee of an Irish side in the Heineken Cup Final.
I was asked at the weekend whether I thought that the teams would be able to fill Croke Park. Fill it, I thought, you have got to be joking!
They could fill Croker two or even three times over, and there would still be supporters left disappointed at not being able to secure tickets. Without doubt, this is the biggest provincial game in the history of rugby on this island.
In terms of last week’s predictions, I enjoyed a fifty percent success rate. At least I did predict three home wins and a solitary away victory, and while it may have been Leinster instead of Toulouse, surely I can count that as full marks?
Now there’s spin for you. I also said that winning by a nose would suffice. Little did I realise that a nose gave far too much scope and a ‘whisker’ may have been more appropriate for three of the four matches.
However, in a remarkable display, Munster sent out the most ominous warning to the rest of the competition by giving the Ospreys a good old-fashioned thrashing. Tony McGahan’s men proved once again that not only can they play scintillating rugby but also that they are the most ruthless team in Europe.
More than anything else, last weekend was when Leinster and Munster’s foreign legion most earned their crust.
When it comes to deciding about who is the best overseas player of the 2008/09 season, certain individuals will be right up there in the running for the top spot. Could Rocky Elsom have been any more aptly named for such a bruising encounter between Harlequins and Leinster?
In a match where centimetres counted for everything, the forty-capped Australian international struck a defiant pose all afternoon. With a similar style to Stephen Ferris, Elsom is a big ball-carrier and ferocious tackler. He gets in on the ball, creates turnovers and has that rare ability to take the ball forward from a static start and get across the gameline. Elsom was exactly the sort of player that Harlequins missed and had he been in the multi-coloured shirt on Sunday, the result might just have gone in the Londoners favour.
Nevertheless, the character shown by Leinster was hugely impressive and if you saw the game, you would not be surprised to hear Michael Cheika talk about his players being ‘broken’ despite having coming through the tightest of battles.
Munster had their own heroes in Lifeimi Mafi and Paul Warwick. In Mafi, Munster have a gem of rare ability and appetite. His workrate is staggering and the venom with which he hits rucks and opponents must make Munster supporters tingle.
Furthermore, he is exceptionally adroit and produced quite possibly the best offload I have ever seen.
Paul Warwick could certainly turn out to be the shrewdest signing that Munster will ever make as they benefit from having a former number ten who can slot into first receiver, kick the ball beautifully, and yes, drop goal from the halfway line.
Absolute quality, and if he were Irish qualified, he would be the man pushing Ronan O’Gara the hardest.
What a weekend, which was only topped by the wedding of ex-Ulster flanker, Campbell Feather on Easter Monday. Campbell (or Mugabe, as I know him) spent a highly productive spell as Ulster’s finesmaster and I’m sure that my former colleagues would agree that I felt his pain more than anyone else.
On a personal note, can I congratulate Campbell and his lovely local lass Sarah on a great family day with lots of smiles and laughter. I was not alone in being surprised at the bridegroom’s eloquent speech but was reassured that his moves on the dancefloor are as appalling as ever.
Best wishes to them on their new life as husband and wife in New Zealand.