Munster-Leinster is Europe’s top rivalry – and stakes are rising again
Nothing feeds this encounter more than both teams clamouring for place at the top table
Leinster outhalf Felipe Contepomi celebrates scoring a try against Munster in the Celtic League in 2005. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Time was when Leinster-Munster could claim to be the biggest provincial/club rivalry in the world. It was truly that big. And to underline the point a then world record crowd for a non-Test match of 82,208 spectators turned up for their Heineken Cup semi-final in 2009.
Had Croke Park been any bigger it still would have sold out, such was the feverish build-up to that encounter. Looking back, that can be seen as its zenith; when the two were true Euro superpowers. Leinster’s 25-6 win marked a shift in the balance of power, Leinster dethroning Munster, who had won two of the previous three Heineken Cups, on their way to winning the first of their three cups in five seasons.
Of course, such dominance of European rugby could never last and, along with it, nor could the rivalry reach such a pitch again.
Yet why compare to then? After all, given the rivalry dates back to 1879 and was given a competitive element by the interprovincial championship from 1946 onwards, there have been plenty of relatively fallow periods.
Even after the dawn of professionalism and the turn of the millennium, the sides were squaring off in interpros at Temple Hill, Musgrave Park and Donnybrook, and not long before that at Dooradoyle.
Viewed in that light, it has come a long way, and to put today’s encounter in perspective, the 40,000-plus attendance will still be the biggest at any match in Europe this weekend; bigger than any crowd for a Premiership or Top 14 game.
As with any great rivalry – Barça-Real, Celtic-Rangers, etc – it has grown exponentially with both teams’ successes. Hence, a turning point, of sorts, was the inaugural Celtic League final of the 2001-02 season, when Leinster and Munster progressed to the final in December of that season and an unexpected attendance – so unexpected that it was neatly rounded off to an estimated 30,000 – came to Lansdowne Road to witness the 24-20 win by 14-man Leinster after Eric Miller’s sending off.
Even then the fixture became a somewhat low-key affair again as neither the IRFU, the league, nor the provinces themselves perhaps, knew what a jewel they possessed.
Remarkably, with the interpros being scrapped and the two provinces being drawn in separate groups in the Celtic League the following season, they didn’t meet once in 2002-03. History shows that to be something of a missed opportunity.
And even in 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons, when the clashes took place in Donnybrook and Musgrave Park, crowds hovered around the 5,000-6,000 mark. Very often too, frontline Ireland internationals were wrapped in cotton wool and kept away from the fray, perhaps for fear of the consequences.
Although they would meet again in the semi-finals of the briefly configured Celtic Cup in May of that season, it attracted what can now be seen as a modest Sunday afternoon crowd of 13,500.
However, all changed, changed utterly, in the 2005-06 season. It actually began with their first meeting that season in Musgrave Park. Although a Sunday afternoon game, the Cork venue was crammed to capacity with 17,500, and Munster gave Leinster an even more fearful hiding than the 33-9 scoreline suggests.
Their pack did a serious number on the Leinster forwards, and Munster scored five tries to nil. The home crowd revelled in it. There was also a palpable new edge to the rivalry. The scale of the defeat hurt Leinster profoundly.
Come the rematch that following New Year’s Eve, the RDS was heaving to the brim with a 14,000-plus full house. A brilliantly opportunistic Leinster won a cracking match by 33-25, outscoring a Munster team loaded with stellar names (O’Connell, Leamy, Wallace, Foley, Flannery, Stringer, O’Gara et al) by four tries to one.
Such an indignity hadn’t been heaped upon Munster in years, least of all domestically and by Leinster.
As in the Musgrave Park meeting, Reggie Corrigan was yellow-carded. So too was Felipe Contepomi, whose running feud with Leamy, O’Gara and others was just heating up; indeed after scoring his second try in a 25-point haul he jumped into the Leinster crowd.
There was no cooling down after that, least of all when they progressed to a semi-final meeting in the Heineken Cup less than four months later in that 2005-06 season. Now we were entering the period when familiarity was breeding a little contempt.
Lansdowne Road’s 47,500 capacity didn’t come remotely close to satisfying demand. The Red Army had been on the march since 2000, and on that sunny Sunday they invaded Lansdowne Road like never before. Munster too had been chasing their Holy Grail ever since too, and the thought of Leinster reaching it before them was too grim to contemplate.
O’Gara has subsequently ventured that had they lost that match, it could have finished them.
Somehow though, when seeing that sea of red, you knew there was only going to be one outcome. Munster won pulling away, and this time it was O’Gara’s turn to jump into the red hordes behind the goal after his intercept try sealed a thumping 30-6 win. They went on to win the Heineken Cup, and reclaim it 2008.
Hence, when Leinster beat Munster 21-12 in front of a capacity RDS crowd which had been expanded to 18,500 in April 2008 with six penalties by Contepomi and a drop goal by Johnny Sexton to take a giant stride towards winning the league, it felt a little hollow, coming as it did after their own Heineken Cup pool exit and a week after Munster’s quarter-final win away to Gloucester.
Rubbed their noses
And so, when the two sides progressed to that second Heineken Cup semi-final meeting in 2009, now it was Leinster who could not afford to lose, with Brian O’Driscoll and others since admitting there might have been no way back if Munster had rubbed their noses into the dirt again.
They were outsiders too, as Munster had done a convincing double over them in the league that season.
The then holders Munster had also hammered the Ospreys in the quarter-final to earn a record representation in the Lions, whereas Leinster had beaten Harlequins 6-5 in the infamous Bloodgate quarter-final at the Stoop.
But this time it was Sexton’s turn to roar at O’Gara and O’Driscoll’s to complete a 25-6 win – it was the precursor to their three Heineken Cups in five years.
They would meet again in the league semi-finals the following season, and the league final of 2011, when Munster’s 19-9 win was rendered somewhat hollow by Leinster’s epic comeback win over Northampton in the Heineken Cup final a week beforehand.
That was the sides’ fifth knockout clash in a seven-year period, the kind of engagement that would stoke any rivalry. They have not met since, but they’ve rarely had a bad game, and with its timing today and both sides going well – second and third in the table – it feels like the stakes are rising again.
This derby also went some way to luring Isa Nacewa out of retirement.
“It’s probably one of the biggest things I missed going back to New Zealand: the thought of not being involved in another Leinster-Munster game,” he admits.
“It starts on the Monday and just builds itself. The intensity in training, the added dimension that these guys were in camp together on Monday and then they’ll be ready to get stuck into one another the following day. It’s a beautiful week. So much history and you feel that even in the training.”
It is again the ideal way to fast-track both teams’ preparations for a return to Europe after slow-burning starts to the season, but it’s still a massive one-off game in its own right.
“I want to win when I play Munster,” says Nacewa. “I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to think about anything else but it’s about making sure we improve on our performance from last week.”
That Croke Park rendezvous seems like an awfully long time ago, but Nacewa believes the two can scale those heights again one day.
“Absolutely. Why not? I can’t speak for Munster but we are heading in the direction that we want to. It’s been a great off-season and our current group of players, the camaraderie amongst us is great. We’ve worked on that too and that’s a huge positive.”
For a while, it perhaps became a little too nasty, not least between the respective fans. Key individual rivals have moved on. But it reeks of history and it’s still the biggest show in Europe this weekend.
And it’s back.