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Gordon D’Arcy: I would always measure Leinster’s early success against Munster’s achievements

Exciting young players are emerging and Rowntree and his coaching team are doing the right thing in committing to a regeneration process.

I occasionally choose a match to illustrate the moment when the rugby world stopped rotating on a particular axis. On November 30th, 2007, a Leinster team travelled to Musgrave Park and won 10-3, to end a run of nine consecutive away defeats to Munster.

Conditions were horrific, rain pouring down, but were soon forgotten from our perspective in the aftermath as Shane Horgan’s late second-half try, converted by Felipe Contepomi, separated the sides at the final whistle. If you’ll pardon the pun, it really was a watershed moment.

The date of the match was almost equidistant from two seminal moments in Leinster’s evolution, the crushing humiliation of the Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Munster at Lansdowne Road (2006) and then beating them at Croke Park in 2009 en route to a first European triumph.

It’s funny but I would always measure Leinster’s early success by holding it up to the light of Munster’s achievements. They were a component part of our success as we were initially driven to try and emulate their triumphs in Europe and, once that genie was out of the bottle, hugely motivated to eclipse our provincial rivals in terms of silverware.


Ulster won Ireland’s first European Cup but, on a personal level, Munster were the standard bearers at that time when we were in the foothills of a climb to the summit of European rugby success. Like all sibling rivalries, we wanted what they had.

The boot is on the other foot now as Munster look to find a pathway to eventually challenge Leinster’s pre-eminence.

I was genuinely impressed by Munster’s performance last weekend, one that showed ambition and revealed plenty of character within the squad. No Munster player wants a pat on the head, or to celebrate losing, no matter what the level of gallantry, but the defeat was different to some of the others they have endured in this fixture in recent times.

Graham Rowntree and his coaches gave youth a chance, some of which was down to injury, but there were also choices made to entrust the game plan to several less experienced players. It ensured that there was no room to attach the millstone of “old Munster teams”, and with expectation dampened the players were allowed to breathe and take ownership on the pitch.

Passion is woven into the fabric of every provincial jersey but intensity, specifically the ability to maintain it through 80-minutes, is a different dynamic and challenge. The two should not be confused.

Under Johann van Graan selection was clearly ordered, which fostered a dependency on certain players to be the focal point of performance. When CJ Stander played well, invariably the team did so as he carried the lion’s share of the workload on his broad shoulders, or of more recent vintage when Damian de Allende sparked the backline into life, others followed.

On other occasions it was Peter O’Mahony trying to galvanise the group in leading by example, defending his players but all the while questioning the lack of success. He appreciated the legacy left by Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, and David Wallace – to highlight three standout players from the era when Munster last won silverware.

The burden shouldn’t be O’Mahony’s alone and there is a suggestion now that it might not have to be. Players other than the excellent Gavin Coombes are putting their heads above the parapet. John Hodnett, Jack O’Donoghue, Liam Coombes, Diarmuid Barron and Jack Crowley stood tall in the Aviva Stadium last Saturday.

Munster are in the throes of regeneration under a new coaching ticket but there is huge positivity in that some of the younger players understand the responsibility and are happy to embrace it. They don’t need to be led by the hand by the older generation; they feel the time is now.

Thomas Ahern is another who has stepped forward since returning from a couple of excellent performances with Emerging Ireland in South Africa. He made some positive contributions in the Leinster match, without imposing himself on the game.

Secondrow, or the engine room as it is often referred to, is such a visceral position, one of the few that require so much more than simply doing your own job. There is a great deal of detail to absorb from set piece to breakdown to kick-off responsibilities, and on to general play. Ahern’s learning curve is steep, but he has already shown that he possesses the aptitude to manage.

Ahern is on the natural arc of a professional player learning the craft.

I recall some feedback given to me by Eddie O’Sullivan at a similar stage of my career. It still holds.

Eddie told me: “If your positive moments outweigh the negative ones, that does not leave you with a positive balance in the ledger. You need to maintain and build the positive impacts and reduce the poor decisions to succeed.”

In O’Mahony’s absence, Ahern took a considerable amount of responsibility on himself at the lineout especially. At one point early in the first half with an attacking lineout in Leinster 22, he looked perfectly at home, taking control and barking orders.

Moments like these enhance the DNA of a squad over time. Trust is important to that development, from your coaches but also your team-mates.

Munster demonstrated a willingness to work hard in attack and defence in the Aviva Stadium and while Leinster were sloppy in not finishing off opportunities, some credit must go to their opponents’ scrambling cover.

Defence is primarily about mindset and organisation once you’ve nailed the technical detail and, while Leinster created some lovely flowing passages of play, Munster scrambled for their lives just long enough to force poor decisions.

The performance against Leinster isn’t a watershed moment for Munster. That would be too glib a conclusion to draw but what they did do was dig deep emotionally. That comes with a tariff for this weekend when Ulster visit Thomond Park. It is very difficult to maintain intensity, doubly so on foot of an ever-lengthening injury list.

The season to date has been a case of one step forward and two back, a situation that might pertain for a little while longer, until the injury situation eases. Munster’s squad is threadbare and even the potential return of Mike Haley, Simon Zebo and Roman Salanoa, while welcome, can’t hide the fact that the trio is short on game time this season.

It is vital that there is honest conversation between coaches and players this week. Everyone wants to play but it’s important that no one does so running on fumes rather than fuel. Ulster, despite the gastroenteritis issues in South Africa last week, will ironically be in better nick physically.

Dan McFarland’s Ulster has more strength in their wider squad that Munster are only beginning to develop. There is no shortcut, as we have heard Leo Cullen remark numerous times, the only way to get a player to 50 caps is to pick them 50 times.

Munster will have to try and monopolise possession to try and curtail Ulster’s desire to impose a fast and loose game plan. Tired bodies and limited selection options ensure a tricky selection conundrum for Rowntree and Mike Prendergast.

Trying to replicate the tempo of last week without the time to scrutinise some of the fundamental work that needs addressing such as ball placement, discipline, and the set piece, will be very tough. The likelihood is that Ulster will not be as inaccurate as Leinster.

The identity of those who fill the Munster nine and 10 jerseys will make a statement. Jack Crowley has yet to start a meaningful match at outhalf this season. His attacking prowess was evident in the Aviva Stadium last Saturday, albeit in a different position at fullback, and in the less pressurised role of second receiver.

He didn’t have to control the tempo of the match and was largely able to focus on himself and what he could bring to the game. He is playing like a person who benefited massively from time in the Emerging Ireland environment. In my opinion he must play outhalf against Ulster. Give him his head.

There is without doubt a lovely group of young players beginning to filter through, but that process requires patience. Judging a team simply by success is a waste of time when weighed against Munster’s current situation.

It’s not about trophies for them in the short term and if they were to lose at the weekend, qualifying for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup would look a very difficult proposition. Missing out on Europe’s elite competition might be the collateral damage but they can’t lose faith now.

Rowntree and his coaching team are doing the right thing in committing to a regeneration process. It will be frustrating at times, there will be erratic performances, but in backing youth where possible and practical and in changing the playing philosophy, Munster will reap the rewards down the line. There is no future, or not one that supporters, players or coaches would sign up to, in living in the past.