Gordon D’Arcy: Leinster v Munster derby needs to get back to its roots

Leinster versus Munster has become sanitised. Too much about rugby.

Tempers flare during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Inpho

Tempers flare during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Inpho

 

Whenever I played Munster I did foolish things with my body. Put my head where it could be gnashed by long steel studs. Shunned all logic from my mind, even at the risk of missing out on a few caps due to injury. So what? Pile in. Nothing else mattered when you were living those games.

Such intensity seems to be missing in recent seasons. Leinster versus Munster has become sanitised. Too much about rugby.

On Saturday I think it will revert to type.

It feels like there is more anticipation about this meeting than there has been for a while. Plenty of new players for the latest chapter in the greatest rivalry Irish rugby has ever known.

I’m not looking for eye gouging or stamping on heads - of course not - and maybe we were spoiled by the European semi-finals in 2006 and 2009 but I believe this derby has an awful lot to do with the pair of us winning five Heineken Cups in six years.

But there will be violence. There has to be.

At the beginning of my career beating Munster was all that mattered.

“This game means everything,” Trev Brennan told me in 1998 just before we lost in Donnybrook.

The shoeing that followed my first carry was like nothing I had experienced before despite having played European rugby for Leinster.

The men from Cork and Limerick brought a different level of aggression.

Nobody helped me out because Trev and the others were at it whenever Munster had possession. Savage stuff, every time I played them, but the late 1990s were proper dirty matches.

It has a different purpose now.

Leinster versus Munster, and Connacht against Ulster at the Sportsground for that matter, are scheduled to prepare all four provinces for the French packs that follow when the Champions Cup begins next week.

So it needs to be brutal. It should end like it did last season; the team leading by a score defending their try line with time up.

The rugby season gets going now. Most Leinster and Munster fans will only switch over properly on Saturday afternoon. Fair enough. People have been distracted. The Guinness Pro 12, while improving as a tournament, remains a slow burn.

Certainly last weekend with the All-Ireland football replay and Ryder Cup most people missed what happened against Cardiff and Zebre.

My generation of Leinster players can relate to the Mayo footballers.

Ironically, that performance against Dublin could be a template for Munster on Saturday and beyond. They showed that if every player reaches the required intensity then no team, not even Dublin with their superior players, will easily beat them.

I relate to Mayo because of how they forced Dublin out of their comfort zone. They made them blink just by refusing to break. Every time Dublin tried to slow the tempo Mayo would drag them into a football match. Ciaran Kilkenny jumping for that late throw up when he wasn’t involved gifted Cillian O’Connor his free to make it a one point game. That action came from pressure. Why else would somebody as composed as Kilkenny do that?

It was an incredible contest that came down to an individual error.

Again, the pressure told. I feel sorry for Rob Hennelly but, again, I can relate. His error showed how the slightest crack in a collectively resilient performance can prove so costly.

Sport is cruel more than it is kind. I missed a tackle on Aurélien Rougerie at Lansdowne road in 2011 and France won 25-22. Nobody remembers the nine other tackles I made on the centre they call Roro (Horse) or Damien Traille or some other huge French forward galloping through midfield.

Second Captains

The snapshot of the game was Rougerie bumping me and putting Maxime Medard in for the try. And the result, people remembered the result.

Mayo are actually in a different place to where Leinster once existed because they now have knowledge that we didn’t possess until we beat Munster in the 2009 semi-final and Leicester in that Edinburgh final.

They already know they can perform on the biggest day, under the most intense pressure.

Dublin, collectively, handled the pressure better but it was Mayo who created that unbelievably tense environment. They just need to keep going, harness the pain, because they are already playing at the pitch needed to win the All-Ireland in 2017.

That can’t be taught, it has to be learned.

To win on Saturday, Munster must bring Leinster to where Mayo brought Dublin.

I remember, awkwardly, arriving into Ireland camp a few weeks after this fixture to train and eat alongside Munstert.  Despite all of us knowing we crossed the line no-one cared because winning the game meant more than anything else. At that time.

Monday’s national camp in Carton House, while essential considering the enormous challenge that lies ahead, was hardly ideal.

Of course the logic behind this gathering is clear: Ireland must be ready to face the greatest team on the planet. The coaches will only get a few training sessions before facing New Zealand at the zenith of their season on November 5th. So needs must. Joe would have had them off their feet, working on specifics ahead of the four November test matches.

Still, very odd for Leinster and Munster men to be teammates the same week they go to war. Suppose it’s better than the Monday after.

Because if this fixture goes the way it should a few friends will not want to meet each other for a week or so.

We know about past indiscretions – Denis Leamy and Felipe Contepomi got on well, red cards for Eric Miller and John Hayes, Alan Quinlan and Leo, Johnny screaming at Ronan. Rog jumping into the south terrace (or the south terrace jumping onto him). These were all acts that these men wouldn’t normally commit but the desire to beat Munster/Leinster consumed us all. This should always be the way of it.

Raw, violent.

In 2009 at Croke Park every player was dying for something to happen.

Just to get it out of our system.

My scuffle with Keith Earls boiled over after Lifeimi Mafi fumbled the ball in midfield and Jamie got hold of him. I supported Jamie in driving Mafi backwards but Keith came offside and tackled me to ground despite Munster being in possession. So I reacted.

Keith Earls is a great guy but that day he was nobody to me. A stranger in a dark alley. I was hoping he would throw a dig but the heavies arrived as soon as Leo pushed him.

Nigel Owens was referee. David Wilkinson will be on Saturday. Owens knew what to do. He knew this tangling of arms needed to happen.

This game should always be like that. Not necessarily a fight or dirty play but lads showing where their heads are at before journeying to Paris and Montpelier.

Because the next men they play against are actually strangers in dark alleys, intent on burying their season before it gets going.

We know the Leinster and Munster players are physically and tactically prepared now Leo and Erasmus have both had proper pre-seasons, so who can dig deepest mentally?

Even in defeat enormous benefit can come from this meeting. A committed performance means the coaches will know all they need to do is iron out tactical issues. Especially Rassie Erasmus. He will learn more than ever about his men on Saturday.

Peter O’Mahony, despite this only being his second game of rugby in 12 months, will be his usual confrontational self. I’d say Pete is dying to start against Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier.

Both Leavy and Josh are already showing serious form. This could be the moment they step from the shadows of O’Mahony and CJ Stander.

Ireland jerseys are on the line. That alone raises the stakes.

The breakdown is usually where this game is decided. Munster hammered Zebre 49-5 at the weekend but without Stander and Conor Murray they would have struggled for the bonus point.

Some players were hitting rucks far too high. A few backs were guilty when Simon Zebo’s grubber had Zebre pinned near their try line. Lower body positions here from Zebo and Darren Sweetnam would have probably delivered a try.

munster clip

Moments later, perfect clean outs by Darren O’Shea and Stephen Archer allowed Murray to race clear.

munster clip

Contrast that with Leavy’s powerful early carry in Cardiff and van der Flier’s one man ruck.

munster clip

This has become a feature of Leinster’s play. Leavy does it moments later when driving past a grounded Fergus McFadden and legally taking out the potential thief.

munster clip

His low body positioning and leg drive are textbook. One man per ruck, when it works, creates huge attacking momentum.

It will be fascinating to see how the other six forwards perform behind O’Mahony and Stander. That will tell us a lot about Munster in the 2016/17 season.

Tyler Bleyendaal looks like an outhalf who knows exactly what he is doing as he is doing it. His presence is hugely important for Munster this season because he ensures they play with more width and in the right areas of the field.

If there isn’t an incredibly high level of intensity in this match I fear for the months ahead. For both teams.

If one team overawes the other it is also bad news. Irish rugby needs this to be a rivalry.

One rainy night down in Musgrave Park in 2007 I did one thing and one thing only: tackle. At least twenty times and I loved every one of them. Because we won 10-3 all the pain, the bruises, the blood were welcome signs of success. It was a Pro 12 game but it meant everything. Not a moment of skill, not a flash of pace, just tackle, up, hit the next ruck. Up, back in the line, tackle again.

Those games stay with you forever, win or lose, and your body certainly feels them for a long time. Professional rugby players train to win easier and more efficiently but the games that make you dig deepest are the ones you treasure most. The bus home that night was one of those great moments that a sporting career can give you. One of those journeys that cements a team’s culture.

Learned, not taught.

The old intensity will be hard to recreate because these are different players, different times. But that is the history of this fixture ensures that players have a responsibility to uphold a tradition that was born out of AIL rivalries into a hugely fertile period for professional rugby in Ireland.

Days we will always have. Great days because the level of sport was so uncompromising, and it was enthralling and of such a high standard.

That is what Leinster versus Munster should be. Memorably brutal rugby.

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