The edgiest rivalry in Irish rugby
Flannery and Horgan look back and into the future
Shane Horgan scores against Munster in the Celtic League final in 2011. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Jerry Flannery speaks to his Munster teammates during a match against Leinster in 2009. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Munster and Leinster matches have always had an edge, but the advent of the professional era and a couple of Heineken Cup semi-final clashes sharpened the rivalry no end, and last weekend’s European wins won’t have blunted matters at all.
That it has become so acute is in part due to the unique flavour of the Irish provincial system. Last Friday in High Wycombe, Leinster’s starting XV featured 13 indigenous players, all but one of whom (Cork man Mike Ross) were schooled and reared in the province.
Last Sunday against Harlequins, all but two of the Munster starting line-up were indigenous players, and all bar the Dublin duo of Felix Jones and James Downey were born and reared in the province. This makes the Irish system fairly unique, and assuredly contributes to that edge.
In turn, overseas signings have bought into the separate provincial identities according to Shane Horgan. “It’s not just that they buy into it at the start, some of the most successful recruits have also been some of the core drivers in it. Don’t tell me Dougie Howlett isn’t one of the biggest drivers of the Munster ethos, or Johann Muller in Ulster? Isa Nacewa is a huge driver of the Leinster ethos. So as long as it’s ingrained in the provinces, it matters less whether you’re from the province or not, but it is helpful on one level.”
That said, Jerry Flannery maintains: “If I had gone over to a professional team in England, like Bath or Bristol, I’d buy into the rivalry, but I know that for all my family and friends this is a massive game. You grow up in Munster, you want to play for Munster, and the same with all the lads who grow up in Leinster.”
Nowadays an analyst on TG4 as well as running his pub, Jerry Flannery’s on Catherine Street, and the lifestyle websites joe.ie and her.ie, the former Munster and Ireland hooker took an invaluable detour via Connacht, and reckons that the intense local identify can also mean “you get too many players not able to see the wood from the trees and stay in one province for too long when they should probably get game time somewhere else.”
Both Flannery and Horgan chart a similar graph to the fixture in the professional era, ebbing from tit-for-tat to a period of Munster hegemony and then, sparked by the ’ 09 semi-final, Leinster supremacy.
“But the level of intensity never dropped, and even when Munster were on top or Leinster were, they never had an easy game,” says Horgan, who maintained they were on a par with Heineken Cup games.
Now an analyst on Sky Sports as well as training to be a solicitor, for Horgan the stand-out encounters were the Heineken Cup semi-finals of 2006 in Lansdowne Road and ’09 in Croke Park, when Leinster were underdogs.
“Munster were coming from a position of supreme power across Europe in the previous years; it was like going against the Empire. That day for a lot of us, and a lot of people in the province, was a make-or-break day. If we had lost badly to Munster it was very difficult to see where we were going to go.
“And I think that sort of fishtails with one of my worst moments in rugby, the Munster semi-final three years before. For a couple of days you were embarrassed to walk down the street, and that probably encapsulates how much those Leinster-Munster games mean to the man in the street. The fans really feel ownership of those games, so you can imagine what it’s like for the players on the field.”
“If you look at when they beat us in ’09 they weren’t the form team or anything like that,” says Flannery. “There were a lot of question marks over a lot of young lads there, and they just grew. Their players were 10 foot taller after they beat us that day.”
Transferring provincial succession to test rugby has proven difficult. Leinster and Munster have won give Heineken Cups in the last eight years, yet the Welsh, without one finalist in that time, have won three Grand Slams and a Six Nations to one Slam by Ireland in the same period.
“It’s a question that it’s difficult to answer,” admits Horgan, “but I think it would be trite to say it’s because players want to play for their provinces more than they want to play for their country. I don’t accept that and I don’t think that’s the case.”
Yet Flannery admits that winning a Heineken Cup is the culmination of what he likens to “a 12-month long obsession”, adding: “Stepping into national duty, you come together and you don’t know really know where you are until about two weeks before the team is picked. You rock up and everybody goes balls out for seven or eight weeks.
“I think I probably enjoyed the Heineken Cup more. From preseason through it’s one long journey, there are ups and downs, and you can only do it if everyone buys in and then the beautiful thing is that in the summer it’s like complete affirmation of everything you’ve done. It’s such a good feeling that it’s like a drug, you just want it all the time.”
Horgan suggests Irish gameplans have been more conservative than the provinces. “There’s a real adversity to risk and I give you the example of exit patterns. If you look at how Ireland have got out of their 22 over the last, say, five years it’s very different from how Leinster might, or even Ulster and to some degree Munster as well.”
In the Slam year, Horgan maintains Ireland were more willing to “have a go from any area of the field” and that when the provinces are at their best “they make decisions based on the defence in front of them, not on what position of the field they were in.”
Similarly, Flannery fears that the idea of penalising the provinces in some way to strengthen Ireland “has no logic”, adding: “If we weren’t winning at provincial level it would be even tougher. You look at Chris Robshaw last weekend, he’s a great player, but Tommy O’Donnell was outstanding, and then when you step up to international level you realise that these guys aren’t world-beaters.”
Flannery looks back at last season’s Six Nations pivotal opener against Wales and the penalising and binning of Stephen Ferris as an example of the fine margins. “It’s a lot easier when you’ve got a settled bunch,” he adds, citing the ’09 Slam.
“You need to have some contingency plans but thinking of the last Six Nations, to get to where Deccie (Kidney) was for the Italian game you’d want to be a mystic to work out ‘right, when my fourth choice is injured I’m gonna have to call up my cousin or my aunt or something’. It’s very easy to criticise after the fact.”
Both Flannery and Horgan identify last Sunday’s win in the Stoop as a potential turning point for Munster. “They clearly modified their gameplan to a huge degree,” says Horgan. “What I saw was a system that allowed players to perform at their maximum level, and I’d like to see those players continue on that. They’re coming up against a very, very strong team in Clermont away but they will have a chance, and with the other system I don’t think they had a chance.”
Flannery believes that last Sunday regenerated a togetherness he and his generation almost to came to take for granted, but he doesn’t believe Munster have turned a corner yet.
“It was awesome and we can say that was a pivotal moment in so many young Munster players’ careers as long as we kick on and make something happen. In three years’ time Paul O’Connell mightn’t be playing so you need to capitalise when those lads are there, and the same for Leinster. Losing Joe Schmidt would be a big loss but they’re doing a fantastic job with the infrastructure and the schools system and producing players. We’ve been slightly hamstrung in paying off Thomond Park,” says Flannery, who also points to Leinster’s bigger population and ability to fill out the Aviva two or three times a season.
Horgan believes Leinster “haven’t been quite as accurate in attack or defence as they might have been”, save for perhaps the Clermont performance away, but that nearing full-strength sees them “really clicking on a couple of occasions”.
In the longer-term, Horgan also has concerns about losing their “most influential player” in Jonny Sexton as well as Nacewa.
“They have a big recruitment season coming up and there could be an issue with the coach. Joe built on the work Michael Cheika did and it’s very, very difficult to recruit those sort of individuals, because there aren’t many of those individuals around.”
“No team in the competition will benefit as much from that result as Munster,” says Flannery, citing new players, a new coach, a new game plan and the preceding 50-pointer in Glasgow, but adds: “Leinster coming down here are going to be licking their lips. They lost to Ulster, they’re a bit pissed off. If I was Leinster I’d be coming down here to really burst Munster’s balloon and say ‘here we are again’.
“Munster were so relentless against Harlequins, contesting every single aspect of the game, and never got into that impotent, east to west and no-one coming back on another line to hold anyone.
“Munster were very direct and confrontational, and I’m wondering can Munster keep that for the weekend. If they do, they’ve got a good chance but if they start shifting the ball for the sake of it, Leinster will start making offensive tackles and turning us over.”
Arguably the league points are more important to Leinster but as Horgan says: “That’s disregarding 100-odd years of history and a more focussed history over the last 15 years and a more intense rivalry than has ever existed and probably at any level of the sport. I don’t know a greater rivalry between two teams in rugby than Munster and Leinster. At the moment I can’t see it.”