Quality of seminal Leinster-Munster semi-final clash still a cause of wonder
Nine of Ireland’s 10 most capped players ever were in the starting line-ups at a packed Croke Park
Leinster’s Isa Nacewa gets past Ronan O’Gara Doug Howlett and Keith Earls of Munster during the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
In the absence of all live sport, supporters of whatever hue have had no choice but to selectively choose from television’s various trips down memory lane. When it comes to rugby, Leinster fans appear to have been better served than their Munster counterparts of late.
A few weeks ago Virgin Media employed Matt Williams to revisit the inaugural 2001 Celtic League final when Leinster, under his watch, beat Munster at the old Lansdowne Road. Last week, BT Sport used Brian O’Driscoll as co-commentator for a rerun of epic 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final in which he starred. This was, fittingly for the times we live in, a tad surreal.
The biggest turning point in the history of their rivalry and arguably of Irish rugby, watching it again, Leinster’s 25-6 win felt no less seminal. It also still feels like a peak of sorts.
For starters, that semi-final was played in front of a then world record for a club game of 82,208 at Croke Park. Coming just six weeks after Ireland had completed a first Grand Slam in 61 years, it felt like Irish rugby had become the epicentre of the sport globally.
Watching it again, most of all though, you’re struck by the sheer quality on display. A dozen of the starting team which had completed that Grand Slam by beating Wales in the Millennium Stadium six weeks previously lined up for the kick-off (it would have been 13 but for Tomás O’Leary being ruled out with a broken ankle).
Incredibly, nine of Ireland’s 10 most capped players of all time were in the respective starting line-ups, namely: Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, John Hayes, Peter Stringer, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Donnacha O’Callaghan.
Furthermore, of the 31 Irish internationals who featured in that match (yes, 31!), 13 had played for, or would go on to play for, the British and Irish Lions.
By rights, even that astonishing figure for an Irish interpro should have been even higher. Not only did Munster enter that game as reigning champions after winning their second Heineken Cup in three years, they had filleted a Lions’ strewn Ospreys 43-9 in the quarter-finals with one of their best performances of all time and nine days later had seen nine of their players selected in the 37-man Lions squad to tour South Africa.
As it transpired, in addition to losing O’Leary and subsequently Jerry Flannery before the tour due to injury, Alan Quinlan would be suspended for 12 weeks after his hands came into contact with the eye area of Leo Cullen – something he has always maintained was unintentional.
In any event, the other six did travel to South Africa that summer, as did the five Leinster players selected in that Lions squad, in addition to Malcolm O’Kelly and Shane Horgan, who had toured previously, as well as Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Johnny Sexton.
Indeed, although Munster went into that game as warm favourites to reach their fifth final and had completed a convincing Magners League double over their old rivals in Thomond Park four weeks beforehand, that was some Leinster squad.
Aside from all the stellar names that started, Sexton, Girvan Dempsey, Devin Toner and O’Brien were all brought on off the bench that day, and Rob Kearney who had been ruled out of the semi-final when hospitalised with the mumps, would return for the final.
That said, although he would be a Lions Test starter just a few months later, Kearney was kept out of the team by Isa Nacewa, and therein lies the other striking aspect of that semi-final, perhaps the most striking of all – the sheer quality of the overseas’ signings.
This was particularly instrumental in Leinster usurping Munster, as the province’s professional game board approved the acquisition of Nacewa, Rocky Elsom and CJ van der Linde before the start of that 2008-09 season.
Nacewa – explosive, elusive, big tackling, versatile, indestructible, standard setter and a goal kicker – was assuredly the best foreign signing by any of the provinces. He would go on to play 186 times in two highly decorated spells with Leinster, in which he was an integral part of all four Heineken Cup triumphs and scored 711 points.
But for Nacewa’s early try-saving tackle on Keith Earls after Lifeimi Mafi and Earls had splintered the famed Gordon D’Arcy-O’Driscoll midfield, and Elsom’s follow up tackle on Ian Dowling, when never onside, that semi-final might have played out differently.
Elsom was a one-season wonder, but what a wonder. The 75-times capped Wallabies flanker completed 19 of his 21 starts that season, playing every minute of their Heineken Cup triumph.
Felipe Contepomi had set the tone with his bull-like charges at the Munster halves and a snappily-taken drop goal before the semi-final would prove a brief farewell game in six celebrated seasons at Leinster for Argentina’s second most prolific and second most capped player of all time.
The ex-Wallabies scrumhalf Chris Whitaker was completing his third season with Leinster and was another ever-present that season. His status in the Leinster squad was such that he jointly lifted the trophy three weeks later in what his final game. So too was Stan Wright, the versatile Cook Islands prop who ultimately turned out to be a more durable signing than Van der Linde.
As for Munster, aside from the dynamic Mafi, who was one of Munster’s best performers that day and became known as Larry Murphy after six fine seasons with the province, they also had Paul Warwick and Howlett.
All had been key figures in their 2008 triumph, with Warwick scoring over 900 points in three seasons with Connacht and four with Munster, while Howlett had five seasons with the club. His haul of 49 Test tries remains a record for the All Blacks.
The provinces dined at the top table then in every sense, not least in acquiring high-end foreign talent. That doesn’t quite apply to the same extent now.
In addition to that rich array of talent on the pitch, the referee was Nigel Owens in his pomp.
Yes, whatever the future may hold, it’s hard to believe we’ll ever see the like of it again.