Low-key Munster-Leinster occasion did not live up to golden past
Events in Ellis Park and Rosario underline daunting November schedule for Ireland
Paul O’Connell wins a line out during the Munster versus Leinster RaboDirect Pro12 game at Thomond Park last Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Saturday was more than a little sobering, whether watching events in Thomond Park in Limerick, Ellis Park in Johannesburg, or to finish it all off late into the night, the Gigante de Arroyito Stadium in Rosario. If Joe Schmidt was of a mind to watch all of them, you’d venture he didn’t sleep particularly well.
Nothing this year could compare with the South Africa-New Zealand version of Fantasy Rugby in Ellis Park, save for their first meeting in Eden Park a month previously and Munster v Leinster was always going to struggle to match such skill levels and intensity.
It certainly ebbed even if – with Romain Poite in charge – it didn’t always flow. Intensity was bursting out of the ground, as ever, and it was encouraging to see the continuing emergence of indigenous players.
The “new” kids on the block did fine, none more than 26-year-old Ian Keatley, and at 22, Ian Madigan’s career is ahead of Johnny Sexton’s at the same age. It was also encouraging that seven of the eight props were home-grown, Irish qualified, and to again behold the rapid progress of James Cronin.
For the Irish game’s sake, it was possibly as well Munster won. A fifth successive defeat to their old foes, and third on their own patch, would have dented much of the optimism generated by last season’s Heineken Cup run.
But Matt O’Connor was right to say the defeat was not the end of the world for Leinster. By the law of averages, they had to lose in Thomond Park eventually, and Cian Healy, Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip should all benefit from the outing.
Even so, the occasion was deflating. First off there was the crowd, or lack of one. The attendance looked closer to the 17-18,000 mark than the official 20,648, which includes season ticket holders.
Either way, it should alarm the Munster Branch given the capacity crowds which attended the fixture for the four seasons following the ground’s redevelopment prior to last season’s drop to 23,037. Munster Branch have to re-examine their ticket pricing (€35 to €50) in the city hardest hit by recession.
Saturday’s game lacked the A-listers of yore and, accordingly, even some of the edge which came with the fixture.
Saturday saw a Leinster side not only shorn of the retired Isa Nacewa and the departed Johnny Sexton, but also the injured Brian O’Driscoll, Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings. But given their age profile, this was a glimpse into the future.
Besides which, Cullen and Jennings, two of the key drivers of the Leinster machine when others are away on international duty, are not returning any time soon, and O’Driscoll remains a major doubt for next Saturday’s tricky opener against the Ospreys.
Galloping line break
Apart from one galloping line break aside before again tweaking his hamstring, understandably Lote Tuqiri didn’t look up to match speed.
Leinster lacked an X factor and while tries have often been in short supply, this game produced only one, from a cross-kick, against 14 men.
The fixture, having defied the post-Celtic Tiger gloom, had a distinctly post-Golden Generation feel to it.
Furthermore, it underlined the task facing Schmidt when New Zealand come calling in November, all the more so after their stunning five tries to four win at altitude away to South Africa.
As Will Greenwood observed in the Sky studios, there’s possibly never been a team who can so stealthily spring from the ropes when they appear to be cornered.
Nor was there much light relief from events in Rosario.
For sure, the record 54-17 winning margin over Argentina flattered the Wallabies, but even so they have clearly rediscovered their mojo, with Israel Folau now rivalling Israel Dagg as the best fullback around, and will move on to their November tour with a revived spring in their step.
And for starters, of course, there is Samoa. Lacking drawing-power for supporters, they will attract the lowest attendance for a no-win fixture, while surviving 80 minutes intact physically is an equally tall order for the Ireland side chosen.
No wonder no-one else is playing them, apart from Georgia and the French Barbarians which, as Schmidt has noted, means Einstein is not required to work out which game they will target.
The provinces have, of course, traditionally defied the odds, but last Saturday made the next few weeks appear more daunting, especially for Leinster, and November much more so.