Aviva a home from home for Leinster on big derby nights
The yearly clash continues to capture the imagination of the rugby public
Leinster celebrate last season’s Guinness Pro14 final win over Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It has become both an oddity and a jewel in the Leinster calendar. As the rugby sugar daddies and federations alike gaze towards Dublin with a mix of jealousy and fascination, the wonder is how Munster and Leinster engineer this behemoth every year.
It is a 40,000 plus belter, like Love Shack or Sweet Home Alabama coming on the car radio. And it is not even European rugby. It’s the Pro14 League sixth round and it has never been any different since the first match at the Aviva Stadium between the two Irish provinces eight years ago.
The score then was a 13-9 win for Leinster in what was the Magners League and 50,645 people bought tickets to watch. Leinster instantly twigged they had something, a special type of rugby episode and they have never looked back. As much as Halloween or Christmas, Leinster and Munster at Lansdowne Road has become a reliably loud shout-out. Staid rugby capturing the zeitgeist.
A tart compote of bristling rivalries vying for shop window position, players know Joe Schmidt will be watching. And a squadron of international players too, although with the IRFU player welfare restrictions the input of the stars is under question for this week’s match.
Leinster, Munster and Ulster have always attracted fans. Of the five rounds of Pro 14 matches played so far, the Irish provinces are the only clubs pulling in five-figure numbers for their home games. Allowing for a discrepancy between attendance figures and tickets bought (season ticket holders don’t always attend) no team from Wales, Scotland or Italy has, so far, hit the 10,000 mark for their home figures.
Leinster’s regular RDS attendance figures of 13,000-14,000 and peaking at 18,500 at certain times, are the best of the league. Saturday’s figure for Aviva has already hit the 48,000 mark. Still Leinster will not train at all on the Aviva pitch this week.
“No, we do a run-through there,” explains Stuart Lancaster. “To be honest, I wouldn’t even know if the Aviva would be available for us to train in. But, from our point of view, you want to keep anything as normal in the build-up to any game. Even if you were playing in a European final you wouldn’t want to change much. We’ll be very much UCD-based for the start of the week.”
Leinster ‘do’ the Aviva for two good reasons, the gate is lucrative and they are very, very difficult to beat there. In all iterations of the league, Leinster have played nine matches there and won eight. All but one of those have been against Munster, whose one 23-34 win came back in October 2014.
The one league game not played against Munster in the stadium was last season’s Pro14 final against Scarlets, which Leinster won 40-32 as part of their double.
“It is different from playing at the RDS. I wouldn’t say it’s better or there’s any advantage necessarily,” says Lancaster. “It’s difficult for me because I’ve come from the outside in. But the players very much see the Aviva as a stadium they’re comfortable playing in because they’ve done it so many times with Leinster and Ireland.”
The home fans can get giddy knowing chances of losing are low. Their win league record in the Aviva is running at a slam dunk 89 per cent, although the team has lost four times in European matches, the last to Toulon in December 2015. Overall between league and European cup the home side’s winning record is 84 per cent.
“When the Aviva is full, particularly for a passionate interpro derby, it’s an amazing place to play,” adds Lancaster. “It is different and creates that level of excitement. The bus journey in isn’t something we would normally do so little things like that do change the preparation.”
The annual cash-cow has in past seasons returned numbers of over 40,000 fans with the first match played and a game in March 2014 soaring past the 50,000 barrier. The players know it’s different. But years of blinkered focus for Seán O’Brien have ground away all but the task.
“It’s another home game to us,” says the Irish backrow. RDS, Aviva, Aviva, RDS, it doesn’t matter, he says. A slave to the system, his blank-out indifference to the venue is worn like a veteran badge of honour.
“Yeah of course,” he adds proudly. “Back again to the process and what we are about and what we can play. If we are playing out in the carpark, we’d try to do the same thing. It’s not new to us now. It’s like the norm going there. It’s like the norm for most of them [Munster] depending on what team they pick.
“For us nothing really changes.”
Nor for the inflated derbies in the stadium at Lansdowne Road.