Munster set the bar for Cheika
“They gave me an opportunity to have the experiences that I had while I was there, not just the good ones, the bad ones as well. That’s what makes it. You’ve got to take the bad bits on the chin.”
As rollercoasters go though, the good memories outweigh the bad. And it wasn’t just the trophies or the wins. “I remember guys like Sexton giving me daggers from the bottom of the Donnybrook stand because I wouldn’t give him a run-out. And I remember bringing home guys like Jeno (Shane Jennings) and Leo (Cullen), and seeing the change and the maturity in guys like O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, who really became temples for their province, and that changing culture more than anything.
“The titles, you need a bit of luck to have those, but it felt like there was a long term and serious culture change that had echoed not just through the playing ranks, but also through the supporters and the whole perception of Leinster from outside, and respect from our closest neighbour, that being Munster. That’s what stands out for me. The rest is a consequence of that.”
No fixture assuredly cost Cheika and Leinster more grief, if ultimately more reward, than the meetings with Munster. Having traded home league wins in his first season, 2005-06, Munster put Leinster to the sword in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road before finally conquering Europe with their win over Biarritz in the final.
After trading home league wins again in his second season, Leinster would complete the double in ’07-08 en route to winning the Celtic League, but that was overshadowed by Munster regaining the Heineken Cup. Whereupon, the roles were reversed in that Croke Park semi-final.
That constituted a landmark day, kickstarting a run of five successive Leinster wins over their rivals as they went on to win the first of their three Heineken Cup crowns.
For all the pain Leinster and Munster cause each other, they are good for each other. “Without doubt. Each side knows that if they can be competitive with the other, they can be competitive with anybody.”
Munster became the benchmark. “Not to emulate, just to be better than.” Ask him what Munster had that Leinster lacked and he says: “Probably team spirit really; a togetherness at that point. We put that together through our experiences, our ups and downs. They probably had more experiences then, more adversity, and they reacted to that adversity. For us, it was probably about learning how to react to adversity. We had to get respect and that was something that we claimed.”
The Heineken Cup meetings also contributed to the fixture outgrowing the RDS, to the point that Leinster are today hosting a third straight meeting in the Aviva.
“That’s become one of the best derbies around, just the passion that’s brought to it by the crowds and the players themselves, and how much everyone is up for it. It’s shown by the amount of people who go to the game and the way that it’s played – as I’m sure it will be played again,” he adds, with a knowing chuckle. “It’s almost a throwback to the old days, and I think that the Southern Hemisphere have lost days like that, in the way that they market their game.”
As for forecasting a winner, he admits: “I can only support one team, but I think they’ll have a few guys who were rested for last week’s game, and they’d paid for that a bit, they’ll benefit from that this week.”
To see Joe Schmidt and the current coaching staff build upon the foundations left by Cheika so spectacularly is “awesome”, according to former coach of the province. “Awesome,” is how he describes his successor’s work. “They’re a happy camp, they’ve improved their skills and they’re playing good footy. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
He continues to be a fan, and has watched them from his TV set in Paris regularly this season. “I know they got well beaten last week but they were missing a stack of players and Connacht are getting better and looking better. They’ve got their act together a lot more. It was never easy to go there before and that lesson will help the young guys. Once you start putting the experienced quality back in with those guys, it’s a good cycle to be in.”