Leinster v Munster: Is the war over?
Opinion: Most of the spite and bitterness is gone
Leinster supporters in full flight. Photograph: Alan Betson
Munster fans share a moment. Photograph: Eric Luke
There was a time when rugby matches between Leinster and Munster were as weighed down with symbolism as any medieval pageant. In those days, Orwell’s description of sport as “war minus the shooting” seemed particularly apposite.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were so many layers of meaning to the games that you felt that Roland Barthes, the great French semiotician, should have been called in to help the referee.
Among other things, these games were billed as tribal clashes, conflicts between one brand of Irishness and another. It was Gaelic Ireland against the Pale, “Irish” Munster against “Anglified” Leinster. They were also supposed to represent another skirmish in the ongoing class war, working class Munster against middle class Leinster, Limerick dockers versus Dublin doctors, Moyross against Mount Merrion.
Then there was the political dimension. For years, according to Munster perception, Leinster players had been picked for the Irish team ahead of better Munster ones. The selectors, with their built-in Leinster majority, had looked at the world through blue-tinted spectacles.
Some commentators even dipped into the world of gender studies: manly Munster were taking on the Ladyboys of Leinster. It was brawn against brain, raw physical commitment versus mere skill, substance versus style. Really, it wasn’t a rugby match at all, but an exercise in competing versions of masculinity.
On top of these layers of history, sociology and politics was placed yet one more: geography. Leinster were based in Dublin, the capital city. Munster had twin bases, Cork and Limerick. It was the provinces versus the capital.
Twenty years ago, there was some validity to each of these. Yes, Munster had been hard done-by in selecting the Ireland team back in the days when the starting XV were scribbled on the back on an envelope in Paddy Madigan’s pub in Donnybrook. The team seemed immutable; the joke was that it was harder to get off the team than get on it.
Yes, the game in Leinster relied heavily on the output of private schools and their supporters were often to be found in sheepskin coats with special pockets for a hip flask.
Certainly, there was an element of “second city” disaffection in Munster ranks. Beating the boys from the capital was part of the enjoyment of playing Leinster in Thomond Park back then. And Munster were definitely the tougher team. They were more physical, more direct, and more successful. They got to four Heineken Cup finals, winning two of them, before Leinster began to pull themselves together.
But does any of that still pertain, almost 20 years after the game turned professional? Will any of the players running out on to the pitch tomorrow feel the weight of any such symbolism? Will any of the supporters? I don’t think so. Most of the rancour has been lanced. The layers of meaning that once may have enclosed and almost smothered this fixture have been peeled away.
Munster, so long motivated by a Munster-contra-mundum feeling, have tasted success on many levels. It’s tricky to feel put-upon when you are champions and when half the Irish team comes from Munster, as it did in the Grand Slam year of 2009. Leinster have broadened their playing base to include men from Wexford, Carlow and beyond. Their supporters are more socially diverse too. The demographics of both sides have changed, and for the better.
As for playing styles – or versions of masculinity as some would have it – well, Munster have tried to play a bit more like Leinster, and vice versa in the past season or two. Both teams aspire to be able to play different styles depending on the circumstances.
Then there’s the geography. Instead of seeing their “second city” status as a reason for grievance, Munster have used it positively. It has ceased to be about what they’re not, but about what they are.
Tomorrow, after years of rancour and bile, a Leinster versus Munster match will be what it should have been about all along. The rugby.
Dave Robbins is a freelance journalist and lectures in DCU’s school of communications. He played junior rugby for Bective Rangers RFC from 1986 to 1995