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Gordon D’Arcy: I do not hate this Munster team – that should worry their supporters

The clarity that Leinster displayed in the Pro 14 Final was down to superior coaching

Munster head coach Johann van Graan and senior coach Stephen Larkham. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

I do not like Munster. This is my politically correct opinion. Always liked the people, love the south west coast, but not the club.

The only reason for that is I played for Leinster.

Having been indoctrinated into the tribal nature of our sport at a young age, I had no difficulties joining the dots: Born and bred in Wexford, went to Clongowes Wood College in Kildare, moved to Dublin when contracted by Leinster straight out of school.

Munster was the enemy. Hate is a very strong word but, back then, in my rugby obsessed world, I hated Munster because I was of Leinster.


That is what a sporting rivalry tends to become. You hate them because you love your own gang.

It was all about harnessing the strongest possible emotions. You envy Munster because you crave what they have. It was never contrived.

When we were unable to live with their pack, the feeling of inadequacy was almost unbearable

Actually, it felt like a GAA rivalry. Like the Wexford hurlers crossing the border into Kilkenny or heading up to Croke Park in 1996. Proximity fuels resentment. As does your neighbours’ success. You can hear their unbridled joy. Six inches of granite separates the smiles and cries. You must sit and listen to them bellowing out ‘There is an Isle’.

Now, imagine half the Leinster supporters buying into the Munster brand. Because they were winning. People you know, from your own area, wearing the red jersey.

Yeah, for a very long time, it was hate.

After fighting them for years, and mostly having the shit kicked out of us, the rivalry drove Leinster into some dark, deathly silent changing rooms. When we were unable to live with their pack, the feeling of inadequacy was almost unbearable.


It took an Australian – well, two of them if we count Rocky Elsom – to change our mentality. We needed to toughen up and perform in the games that really mattered, and not just the odd special day when our downhill skiers would cut loose. Like that 2006 quarter-final in Toulouse (ruined a few weeks later by the semi-final at Lansdowne Road).

That win was not unlike Munster’s recent victory in Clermont. The reaction was awfully like Leinster in the early 2000s, as they only avoided a wooden spoon during the festive interprovincials because of Connacht’s end game mismanagement.

Leinster’s Johnny Sexton roars at Munster’s Ronan O’Gara after Gordon D’Arcy’s try in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park in May 2009. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

When the worm finally turned in 2009, Munster refused to go quietly. They were arguably at the peak of their powers leading up to Leinster overwhelming them at Croke Park. That is why Johnny Sexton roaring in Ronan O'Gara's face became such an iconic image. It symbolised a changing of the guard.

We presumed such events would reoccur periodically, especially when Munster snatched a Celtic League from our grasp in 2011. Being European champions does not protect you from a beating in Thomond Park but, in actual fact, the rivalry was on the wane.

The production of players – one from a relentless schools system, the other from a poorly resourced club scene – has led to a yawning gap. At the moment, for every Gavin Coombes Munster brings to the altar, Leinster has Caelan Doris, Scott Penny and Max Deegan chomping at the bit.

A healthy hatred, born out of love for the crest, as opposed to the hatred and bile Mr Invisible spews all over social media

As Munster nurture a steady stream of hardy souls from west Cork, Leinster weaponises the entire midlands and south east.

Irish rugby in the professional era created something special between the reds and blues but that old rivalry was not visible at the RDS last Saturday. All is not lost but the gap is widening.

That, to my mind, is down to coaching.

I do not hate this Munster team. Not at all, and that should worry their supporters. To be honest, I am quietly rooting for them to be better than their latest inept display because this rivalry, at its worst, generates feelings of hatred between the players and the fans.

A healthy hatred, born out of love for the crest, as opposed to the hatred and bile Mr Invisible spews all over social media.

I trust you understand the difference.

In 2009 the provinces contested a European semi-final at GAA HQ. The intensity and emotion of that day was similar to a Test match. The Munster internationals playing in the RDS were unable to recreate a similar spectacle. They looked jaded.

Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock is tackled by Munster’s CJ Stander during the Guinness Pro 14 Final at the RDS. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA Wire

In the starkest possible contrast, Leinster players denied the green jersey by the same Munster men dominated the exchanges. Rhys Ruddock and Luke McGrath drove their team to a fourth successive league title as much as the Leinster players who had been flogged throughout the Six Nations.

Johann van Graan, in attempting to front up to such a resounding loss, sounded like he had no answers. Coincidentally or not, that is how his team performed: lacking solutions to Leinster under the expert guidance of Stuart Lancaster.

Even with Leinster leading by a single score did anyone sense a snatch and grab Munster victory?

Van Graan couldn’t see it and the suspicion is that the Munster players did not believe it was possible.

The emotional gears a team must go through before a final begins with the head coach. It trickles down to his assistants – who, until now, come with impressive CVs – and into the senior players, as the coming generation try to add something to the established group. Just like we saw 10 years ago from Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander and Simon Zebo.

A young player cannot add much when he is watching from the stand. The young fellas who got Munster into Saturday’s final were dropped for exhausted-looking internationals and a middle tier of veterans unable to cope with Leinster clarity.

Van Graan’s performance, three-and-half-years into the job, must come under the sternest review.

If Thomas Ahern, Jack Crowley, Ben Healy and Kenyan Knox are not good enough to feature in last weekend's matchday squad it does not bode well for next season. Unless the coach got his selection wrong. There is history in this regard. It still makes no sense to drop Zebo for Alex Wootton before losing to Racing 92 in 2018. Teddy Thomas did not mind one bit.

Repeated strategic failures have to mean that Van Graan is running out of goodwill inside and outside the squad

There is no place to hide for Munster players who go missing against Leinster in Dublin. Nor will there be any reprieve if Antoine Dupont finds his rhythm on Saturday in Limerick.

There is a real sense of Munster needing to do an accurate impression of Ireland against England when Toulouse start sharpening their knives.

It comes back to Van Graan’s ability to be an effective head coach. It always comes back to the person in charge, especially when they have been given all they could possibly desire.

Don’t like the local coaches, fine, have a Lions scrum doctor, a Wallabies attacking genius and choose your own defence coach from South Africa.

Still need more, no problem, cherry pick a Springbok centre and lock. World Cup winners, all yours.

That’s serious financial investment.

This week Munster released a few local lads, including Darren Sweetnam, as another South African lock arrives to fill Billy Holland's slot. Van Graan describes Jason Jenkins – a one-cap Springbok – as cover for CJ Stander's departure because Holland used to cover backrow.

Penny for the thoughts of Ahern, Jack O’Sullivan and Fineen Wycherley?

Elsom was signed by Leinster and Ruan Pienaar by Ulster to instantly make each team better but their eventual replacements were Seán O'Brien and John Cooney. That used to be the rule.

Van Graan cannot – and did not – moan about losing RG Snyman to injury after being bullied by Leinster minus three grand slammers in James Ryan, Garry Ringrose and Dan Leavy.

Who is to blame for failing to get Damien de Allende or Chris Farrell into the contest? The team's power surge made early gainline before Leinster devoured them.

Robbie Henshaw twice carrying into that seam between Stander and the tail gunner at the lineout is down to coaching. On field, day-to-day coaching after a weakness is identified on film.

Repeated strategic failures have to mean that Van Graan is running out of goodwill inside and outside the squad.

Saturday offers instant redemption but, for argument's sake, let's say Munster rediscover a nasty streak at Thomond Park and Stephen Larkham designs an attacking plan, built upon Graham Rowntree's set piece, that provides Joey Carbery with enough oxygen to put Toulouse, Romain Ntamack and Dupont in the hurt locker.

Munster players are not this far off their Leinster counterparts, but they are being set up in such a structured, formulaic way that it is easy to defend

You know this story. You have seen it hundreds of times before. Let’s say Munster stand up and fight, would you not be wondering how come they failed to hit their straps when the chance to win their first trophy in 10 years was on offer?

Maybe they are rope-a-doping their way to Champions Cup glory. Or perhaps Munster under Van Graan are lost in a labyrinth of their own conservatism.

Saturday was the last window, before the four South African franchises arrive, to reward the O’Mahony/Murray era with some medals.

The coaches must shoulder a lot of responsibility. The same head coach that Munster are locked into a contract with until June 2022. Interestingly, Larkham signed a four year deal up to the end of 2022/23.

Rowntree’s scrum was destroyed, Larkham’s offensive ploys went unseen and, as Van Graan noted, they lost the aerial battle.

Munster players are not this far off their Leinster counterparts, but they are being set up in such a structured, formulaic way that it is easy to defend.

It helped that Leinster’s front-up tackling was of the highest quality but you have to stress defences to score a try in a final.

Connacht under Andy Friend and Ulster under Dan McFarland would have identified areas to attack Leinster. They would have used whatever weapons were available to stop Lancaster looking like a coaching savant.

The game is evolving at a rapid pace. Some coaching teams are going with the flow while adding clever elements to an increasingly homogenised attack, but other coaching teams are stuck in the mud. Or stuck in the air.

Leinster picked a side to win the Pro 14 with a view to picking another side to overcome Toulon on Friday. They are set-up to play a certain way. Munster put Coombes at blindside just to get him in the backrow rather than building the pack around him from number eight. Stander was anonymous until Ryan Baird stripped him of the ball.

On one occasion Coombes carried well and they attempted a loop play for Keith Earls off Kevin O'Byrne only to fail to engage Leinster on the front foot. In all my days under good coaches, the lack of intent in this movement would have been pulled up on the training pitch the previous Tuesday, with at least one player lacerated, and we would keep running it until everyone was on the same page.

If the game scenario denied Earls the ball, we would attack where the space did exist.

It begs the question, what were the coaches saying at Munster training before the Pro 14 final? Whatever that message was, it did not register.

The players are being strangled by predictable coaching.