Gordon D’Arcy: Return of Ireland players tips balance towards Leinster
Fixture against Munster will always be the one that matters most to Leinster players
Gordon D’Arcy celebrates a try against Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final. “It was as seamless a performance as Leinster have ever produced.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Especially this one at this time of year.
Munster roadblocks are evident throughout my career. After getting through them, particularly surviving an awfully wet night at Musgrave Park in November 2007, the Leinster collective could finally believe anything was possible.
The fixture grew into a national sporting event, which morphed into a Northern Hemisphere spectacle, with the blue and red waves of euphoria and misery rearing their head at GAA headquarters in 2009 (thankfully, unlike 2006 at Lansdowne Road, as much blue as there was red).
Those two European semi-finals remain the high water mark in our shared history but this game continues to mean so much to the supporters and participants. It always has, and always will.
You really have to be in a losing changing room to understand what I mean. They get it, we do too.
My first Munster derby, in November 1999, remains one of the most embarrassing moments in my career. At Donnybrook, of all the places, I gifted them a try after being side-stepped by a hooker. Now, the hooker was Keith Wood but I was exposed as a fullback who clearly didn’t understand how to defend a one on one in open space.
From that moment on I always corralled the attacker into the decision I wanted him to make. You show them a touchline; give them no options so if they beat you at least it is hard-earned.
I was still very raw having come straight into the Leinster senior squad from Clongowes Wood College. There is no way that would happen now as the academies are doing their jobs. If a modern version of me would have been physically able for the leap as a fullback coming out of school I wouldn’t be taking Rob Kearney’s position. Not that it came easy back then either. Only one time did I get the No 15 jersey off Girvan Dempsey on form. So I was turned into a winger.
Nowadays I would have to bide my time and be whiter than white from day one. Back then I banked on natural ability before eventually transforming into a serious professional by the time I was 22.
That’s a lot of leverage and faith to be shown in any player. That wouldn’t be acceptable nowadays. It was a different time. The more sociable amateur ways still held sway and I’m glad to be one of the last players to skirt that now extinct line.
A month previously I thought this pro lark was easy. At the Sportsground, of all places, I gathered a bomb beneath our posts and took off – 95 metres later I was touching down under the Connacht crossbar. We won 53-8 and I presumed that’s what would happen whenever we went to Galway. We lost 22-20 the next season and many more horrendous days in western gales followed.
So much has changed for Connacht since but last Saturday showed us that the Galway wind will always have a severe impact on a game of rugby. Same old slugfest as well but what they are achieving under Pat Lam, their style of playing, is what Munster sought and ultimately failed to do on Rob Penney’s watch.
The difference is Connacht are developing the skill set to try to play the New Zealand way – that’s a simplified catch-all way to describe a team identifying space via the basic functions of catching, passing and running at weak shoulders.
We’ll never know what Penney and Simon Mannix could have achieved if afforded more time. Perhaps it was easier for Lam to get Connacht playing like this as there wasn’t an embedded philosophy at the Sportsground while Munster so obviously did have a specific style (and it was so at odds with Penney’s Canterbury ideology). Lam came from a long career in Auckland, via Northampton, with a clear way to play the game.
That’s why Saturday night is so important as well as being the latest chapter is an absorbing story.
The 2009 semi-final looked like a major turning point but not many will remember the previous September when they nil-ed us at the RDS (18-0). That result proved an aberration despite the previous decade of painful Munster defeats. The worm had already turned on November 30th, 2007 at Musgrave Park when we won 10-3 in front of 8,300 punters. Last time we won down there was 1998 and we had to go back to 1985 for a victory in Cork.
I remember our entire pack playing out of their skin, including younger versions of Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy, but it was Keith Gleeson coming off the bench who changed the game. David Wallace is one of the best opensides I have ever played with and Shane Jennings was already having an impact but Keith was phenomenal that night. It was a dirty day, made for the groundhog and that’s exactly what Gleeson was. He probably would have become a Wallaby seven if not for Phil Waugh and George Smith.
Gleeson had about five or six turnovers in just 20 minutes when tackling every ball carrier around the ankles and then immediately latching onto the ball (old rules!). The Munster forwards duly went about shoeing the life out of him but Keith refused to budge.
Munster were still on their upward trajectory towards a second European title while we had stagnated in Michael Cheika’s third season in charge. On this horrible wet, mucky night the full-time whistle brought a shift in our mentality. We wanted to believe so much and now we could.
An increasingly angry Cheika was temporarily sated as this halted any idea of us failing to fulfil our true potential. That could be how Munster feel on the way home this weekend.
The Leinster versus Munster game has always mattered more than any other game, for either side.
A year later we went back down, to Limerick this time (26,043 souls baying for blue blood), and got thumped 22-5. We were glad for it a month later in Croke Park (with an attendance leap to 82,208). This was a once in a lifetime experience and as seamless a performance as Leinster have ever produced.
Felipe hitting Rog early on, Felipe going off after 25 minutes yet Johnny coming on and immediately kicking a massive penalty into the Canal End. Next came a move designed for that day. The attack off first phase lineout ball saw Brian put Isa Nacewa through a hole and instead of being the decoy runner I drifted into the wide channel to take a great pass from Isa and escape Keith Earls for a try.
Everything worked that day. I saw Brian reading Rog’s pass for the intercept try before anyone else and knew there was a lot of space for me to fill if he missed it. As he sprinted away all I felt was relief. Everything was on the line. That 25-6 lead could so easily have been 18-13 with 20 minutes to play. That’s one of those fine margins upon which history is written.
As the season has progressed this Munster visit to Dublin has taken on greater and greater importance. After the latest Sportsground defeat it goes up another notch. Leinster can all but secure a home semi-final while Munster could fall out of contention. Presuming Ulster, Glasgow and Edinburgh (the Scottish teams are playing the Italians) will all win then Munster’s season could be mortally wounded if they lose on Saturday night.
There is also December 27th, when Leinster won 24-7 in Thomond Park, to factor into the Munster mindset. They won’t have forgotten. Still, the return of Leinster’s Ireland players – especially looking at the sensational form of Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Jack McGrath – makes it hard to see past a home victory. Same goes for the match up in Belfast with Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne presumably returning.
I’ve never been to see Leinster versus Munster at the Aviva Stadium.
Even shelving the enormous Pro 12 stakes, from the outside peering in this Saturday night, walking down Lansdowne Road will feel like it matters as much as it ever has.