When Irish rugby historians search for the biggest shift in the balance of power at provincial level they need look no further than May 2nd, 2009, and the Heineken Cup semi-final between Leinster and Munster. Simple as.
A decade on this month, as the auld enemies meet today in a Guinness Pro14 semi-final all has changed, changed utterly.
This will be their 157th clash since first locking horns in 1879, but the rivalry reached a new peak when they first met at the semi-final stages of the Heineken Cup, at the end of April in 2006, in front of a capacity crowd of 47,800 at Lansdowne Road.
Leinster had actually gone into that first meeting as slight favourites on the back of their thrilling 41-35 quarter-final win on a baking hot day in Toulouse.
Later that same day, Munster had won an arm wrestle with Perpignan by 19-10, but come the semi-final three weeks later, the Red Army invaded Dublin, swathes of red dominating the pockets of blue as Munster won 30-6 en route to their first Heineken Cup triumph when beating Biarrtiz in the final.
Roll on three years and Munster had added a second Cup when beating Toulouse in the 2008 final, so came into the semi-final rematch with Leinster as defending champions and seeking their third trophy in four seasons.
Under the newly promoted Tony McGahan, they had just beaten an Ospreys side featuring seven of the eight players who would subsequently be named in the British and Irish Lions squad for the tour to South Africa in the quarter-finals at Thomond Park by 43-9. It’s doubtful Munster have ever had a more complete performance.
Nine days later, they too would have eight players named in the Lions squad, while Leinster would have four, but thereafter Munster’s luck deserted them. Just three nights later at a sombre Musgrave Park, Tomás O’Leary suffered a broken leg and a dislocated ankle in Munster’s Magners League win over the Scarlets which would rule him out of the tour.
Still, they went into the Croke Park semi-final on a 10-game winning streak, which included completing the double over Leinster with a 22-5 win in Cork four weeks previously, having earlier beaten them 18-0 at the RDS.
By contrast, Leinster had begun their Euro pool campaign well but lost away to Castres and Wasps, only advancing to the last eight with a 12-3 win over Edinburgh at the RDS before beating Harlequins 6-5 in the quarters.
Peter Stringer started in place of O'Leary in Munster's only change from their quarter-final. As for Leinster, a back strain forced Rob Kearney out, with Isa Nacewa shifting to fullback, Shane Horgan coming in on the wing and Johnny Sexton promoted to the bench.
Despite scoring a try in the Castres defeat, Sexton was replaced at half-time and left out of the match-day squad for the final two pool games and the quarter-final, with Michael Cheika preferring Isa Nacewa or Felipe Contepomi at out-half.
Leinster and to a greater extent Munster, especially up front, had been bulk suppliers to Ireland’s Grand Slam, and the attendance of 82,208 was a then world record for a non-Test match.
"It was very different to '06," reflects Jamie Heaslip. "If you recall back to '06, when we ran out on to the pitch [at Lansdowne Road] I would say 70/80 per cent of the crowd was red. Fast forward three years and coming out on to that [Croke Park] field it was 50-50. It was like a chequered flag of blue and red around the whole stadium, with 80-odd thousand people, and I remember thinking: 'Holy s**t, this is mega'. We hadn't gone into the game as favourites but the fan base were out there to support us, unlike in '06, despite that wonder game against Toulouse. That filled me with a lot of pride."
Heaslip still hails the influence of Michael Cheika in creating a squad spirit, built on attritional pre-season training. “He was the first to bring GPS trackers into the northern hemisphere, and started to use data from training and data from games for training. He was also one of the first to start doing set plays at the club.”
David Wallace looks back on that semi-final and admits "something about that week had me uneasy. It felt like you were walking into a trap, you were being set up. Things were going too well for us and Leinster were lying in wait in the long grass, which was very much what happened."
“Leinster had the psychological edge going into the game because they were probably that bit hungrier for it. Not that we weren’t dieing to win the game, but there’s a difference, and they had the hurt of the game in ’06.”
“I remember carrying the first ball and there were three of the guys waiting. There were just no gaps, and you’re just getting smashed back. It just felt that they were making a statement of intent from the off.
Contepomi's early charge at O'Gara set the tone, before the Argentinian's drop goal was cancelled out by the latter's penalty, when Cian Healy was also binned for body checking Ian Dowling. Cue a big break by Rocky Elsom off line-out ball at the tail to put Leinster on the front foot.
When the Toulon-bound Contepomi departed with a twisted knee in what would prove his last game for Leinster, Sexton came on and with his first act landed a penalty to put them 6-3 ahead.
“I wasn’t worried about Johnny coming on,” says Heaslip. “I’d been in the academy with Johnny and played with him, but talk about a big moment for an individual and the club.
"Then you see how fired up he is in the game with that infamous photo," adds Heaslip, in reference to Sexton screaming at O'Gara after Gordon D'Arcy's 31st-minute try. Again it was a lovely set move off a lineout around half-way, long passes by Chris Whitaker and Sexton the cue for Nacewa to take a lovely line on to O'Driscoll's transfer before giving a sumptuous pass to D'Arcy.
“Then you know you’ve got the marks on them,” says Heaslip, “we forced them to play more, and Kurt McQuilkin had gotten our defensive system into good shape so were backing that as well.”
O’Gara’s penalty made it 11-6 at the break, but Leinster were in a good place.
“At that stage it’s not much of a gap, it’s more how you feel the game had gone up to that point,” says Wallace. “We didn’t play well. We had plenty of ball and territory, but Leinster frustrated us with their defence. Their energy was massive, and you could see the hunger in their eyes as well, and with every big hit they grew in confidence, and we went backwards a bit too.”
Within three minutes of the restart, long passes by Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll and Nacewa, and quick hands by Horgan, released Luke Fitzgerald, and he stepped Paul Warwick to score, Sexton's conversion making it 18-6.
“That was Lukey at his best,” says Heaslip, “and that try summed up the expansive way that Cheika wanted us to play, and we had the players to do it”.
Fittingly, Leinster’s defence had the final decisive say when O’Driscoll picked off O’Gara’s pass and scored from just outside their own 22.
“We’d seen that a couple of times,” reveals Heaslip. “Rog used to like hitting Paulie in the middle of the field and no better guy to read a pass in that kind of channel, than Brian. And I know he often slags Rog for his attempt to chase him. I think all of us knew that was game over.”
“The other thing I always think about is, with about 10 minutes to go, hearing these chants of ‘Cheer-i-o’ and thinking ‘what the hell is that?’ I looked up and there were thousands of Munster fans leaving early.”
“Talking to friends afterwards, it was a serious moment for the fans themselves to be able to stand there and not be called ladyboys anymore, or chokers, or anything like that. They were standing there quite proudly while Munster fans were leaving, the shoe having been on the other foot previously.”
Munster's Lions contingent would be further diminished by Alan Quinlan's suspension for gouging Leo Cullen that day, before Jerry Flannery suffered an elbow injury in training three days prior to the squad's departure to South Africa.
Still, it’s a wonder Leinster weren’t given a better chance. Their starting XV and four of their bench were, or would become, full internationals.
“When you think of that side, at that age and stage in their career as well, it’s hard to know if you’ll get a side like that again,” says Heaslip. “Now hindsight is a great thing, and we can look back on that and think how many were or became Lions. No wonder they had success over the next few years.”
Indeed, their match-day squad contained eight past or future Lions.
“It was pretty much their time, they felt,” admits Wallace. “Drico has often talked about how they’d watched us go to finals and it was definitely a case of a rising tide lifting all boats. For Leinster, it was the start of their journey to where they are now, a massive force in Europe. It was a big watershed day for them.”
Leinster went on to claim their first of three Heineken Cups in a golden four-year period when beating Leicester in Murrayfield three weeks later, before adding a fourth last season, as well as three League titles in what is now the Pro14. Munster’s only trophy since then was the 2011 Magners League when beating Leinster in the final at Thomond Park.
“That was my last game before I got my knee injury,” says Wallace. “That was a great day, and it felt like we were back on a bit of a high again. I wanted to play another year but it wasn’t to be unfortunately.”
For Heaslip, it was a starting point. “One thing I always say about it is, it was like a drug. You got a taste and you were hooked. For me, from then on, I did everything I had to do, to make sure we were able to win, because it was just so addictive.”
In the 14 meetings prior to that 2009 semi-final, Munster had nine wins to Leinster’s five. Since then, Leinster have won 17 of the last 24 clashes.
“That probably resonates with me and Johnny and a few of the older lads now. The new generation probably don’t know what it was like to be embarrassed in Lansdowne Road or go to Thomond and struggle to get a win for years.”
The ripple effects are still being felt going into today’s semi-final.
Heineken Cup semi-final
Saturday, May 2nd, 2009
Leinster 25 Munster 6
Scoring sequence: 16 mins Contepomi drop goal 3-0; 18 mins O'Gara pen 3-3; 26 mins Sexton pen 6-3; 31 mins D'Arcy try 11-3; 37 mins O'Gara pen 11-6; (half-time 11-6); 42 mins Fitzgerald try, Sexton con 18-6; 62 mins O'Driscoll try, Sexton con 25-6.
LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa; Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Felipe Contepomi, Chris Whitaker; Cian Healy, Bernard Jackman, Stan Wright; Leo Cullen (capt), Malcolm O'Kelly; Rocky Elsom, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Johnny Sexton for Contepomi (25 mins), Girvan Dempsey for Fitzgerald (59), John Fogarty for Jackman (62), Shane O'Brien for Jennings (74). Not Used: Ronnie McCormack, Devin Toner, Simon Keogh. Sin Binned: Healy (16-26 mins).
MUNSTER: Paul Warwick; Doug Howlett, Keith Earls, Lifeimi Mafi, Ian Dowling; Ronan O'Gara, Peter Stringer; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes; Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell (capt); Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.
Replacements: Barry Murphy for Warwick, Niall Ronan for Leamy (both 66 mins), Tony Buckley for Hayes (68), John Fogarty for Flannery (71), Mike Prendergast for Stringer, Mick O'Driscoll for O'Callaghan (both 74), Denis Hurley for Earls (78).
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU).
5 other key meetings
September 29th, 1996 – Interprovincial, Donnybrook
Leinster 40 Munster 45
To the backdrop of an exodus to England at the start of professionalism, this was the highest scoring fixture in the history of the rivalry, as Munster went on to reclaim the interpro title from Leinster. The lead exchanged hands six times and Leinster, who scored five tries to three, appeared set to win when a 60th-minute penalty by Richie Governey put them 40-38 ahead, but an Eddie Halvey try in the fourth minute of injury time sealed a remarkable win for Munster. "I have never played in a better or more enjoyable interprovincial,” said Munster captain Mick Galwey.
LEINSTER: P McKenna (Old Belvedere): D Coleman (Terenure College), M Ridge (Old Belvedere), K McOuilkln (Lansdowne), D Hickie (St Mary's College); R Governey (Lansdowne), A Rolland (Blackrock College); H Hurley (Moseley), M McDermott (Lansdowne), A McKeen (Lansdowne); S Jameson (St Mary's College), N Francis (Old Belvedere); C Pim (Old Wesley, capt), K Spicer (Oxford University), S Rooney (Lansdowne).
Replacements: P Flavin (Blackrock College) for McKeen (69 mins) G Dempsey (Terenure Coltege) for Coleman (76).
MUNSTER: D Crotty (Garryowen); S McCahill (Sunday's Well), M Lynch (Young Munster), B Walsh (Cork Constitution), B Begley (Old Crescent); K Keane (Garryowen), S McIvor (Garryowen); I Murray (Cork Constitution), T Kingston (Dolphin), N Healey (Shannon); M Galwey (Shannon, capt), L Dinneen (Old Crescent); A Foley (Shannon), B Cronin (Garryowen), E Halvey (Shannon).
Replacement: A Thompson (Shannon) for Begley (39 mins).
December 15th, 2001 – Celtic League final, Lansdowne Road
Leinster 24 Munster 20
The inaugural final was a harbinger of things to come, and an unexpected attendance – rounded off to an estimated 30,000 despite the game being televised live by RTÉ and BBC – witnessed Leinster’s 14-man win after Eric Miller’s first-half sending off. Leinster had only won one of the previous eight meetings, but the game pivoted on a brilliant 66th-minute try. After a Denis Hickie counterattack, Keith Gleeson took Brian O’Meara’s pass, broke the red line and offloaded for Shane Horgan to make ground and give Gordon D’Arcy a run-in before he added a try of his own to seal the win.
LEINSTER: G Dempsey; D Hickie, B O'Driscoll, S Horgan, G D'Arcy; N Spooner, B O'Meara; R Corrigan (capt), S Byrne, P Wallace; L Cullen, M O'Kelly; E Miller, V Costello, K Gleeson.
Replacements: B Casey for Cullen (59 mins). Sent off: Miller (26 mins).
MUNSTER: D Crotty; J O'Neill, J Kelly, R Henderson, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, P Clohessy; M Galwey (capt), P O'Connell; A Quinlan, A Foley, J Williams.
Replacements: M Mullins for Crotty (3-10 mins and 64 mins), D Hegarty for Kelly (26-33), J Holland for Henderson (58), M Cahill for Clohessy (61), M O'Driscoll for O'Connell, C McMahon for Galwey (both 74).
Sinbinned: Prendergast (26-36 mins).
April 23rd, 2006 – Heineken Cup semi-final, Lansdowne Road
Munster 30 Leinster 6
This first European meeting elevated the rivalry to a new level. Leinster, who had scored 32 tries en route to the last four, were slight favourites, but red was the dominant colour in the stands. The Munster pack set the tone with a ninth-minute Denis Leamy try off a rolling maul after a superb one-handed take by man-of-the-match Paul O'Connell. Ronan O'Gara never missed a beat or a kick, and scaled the hoardings after clinching the win with his 77th-minute try before Trevor Halstead completed a handsome win when intercepting Guy Easterby's to score untouched from inside halfway.
LEINSTER: G Dempsey; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Hickie; F Contepomi, G Easterby; R Corrigan, B Blaney, W Green; B Williams, M O'Kelly; C Jowitt, K Gleeson, J Heaslip.
Replacements: E Miller for Jowitt (57 mins), R McCormack for Corrigan (69 mins). Not used: D Blaney, N Ronan, B O'Riordan, K Lewis, R Kearney.
MUNSTER: S Payne; A Horgan, J Kelly, T Halstead, I Dowling; R O'Gara, P Stringer; F Pucciariello, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley (capt).
Replacements: R Henderson for Kelly (14 mins), T O'Leary for Henderson (66 mins), F Roche for Foley (74 mins). Not used: D Fogarty, M O'Driscoll, S Keogh, J Manning. Sinbinned: Pucciariello (73 mins).
May 28th, 2011 – Magners League final, Thomond Park
Munster 19 Leinster 9
Coming just a week after the Johnny Sexton-inspired, Houdini-esque escape in the Heineken Cup final against Northampton, this was always going to be a difficult for Leinster against old foes desperate to deny them the double in front of a full Thomond Park. Munster brought manic intensity to their defence in keeping Leinster tryless, while Doug Howlett's 12th-minute try was Munster's first in seven meetings. Keith Earls added another in the 66th minute from O'Gara's crosskick, before their scrum dominance yielded a 79th-minute penalty try which O'Gara converted. Cue raucous celebrations.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray; M Horan, D Varley, J Hayes; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan.
Replacements: W du Preez for Horan (53 mins), M Sherry for Varley (59), D Leamy for O'Callaghan (67), P Warwick for Jones (76). Not used: S Archer, N Ronan, P Stringer, J Murphy.
LEINSTER: I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip.
Replacements: C Healy for van der Meuwe, K McLaughlin for O'Brien (both 59 mins), A Dundon for Jennings, S Wright for Ross (both 71), P O'Donohoe for Reddan (77). Not used: D Toner, I Madigan, E O'Malley.
May 19th 2018 – Pro14 semi-final, RDS
Leinster 16 Munster 15
Leinster made six changes from the side that beat Racing a week previously and one of them, the inspired James Lowe, brilliantly set up a try for Jack Conan to gain a 10-3 interval lead, at which point Isa Nacewa departed on his RDS farewell. Munster weren't helped by a yellow card for Jean Kleyn for a dangerous clear-out when laying siege on the Leinster lineout, although the departing SImon Zebo did set up Keith Earls for a try to make it 13-8. Ross Byrne made it 16-8 with a scrum penalty before Gerbrandt Grobler's try from Conor Murray's quick tap set up a pulsating finish.
LEINSTER: J Carbery; J Larmour, G Ringrose, I Nacewa (capt), J Lowe; R Byrne, L McGrath; J McGrath, S Cronin, T Furlong; D Toner, J Ryan; R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Conan.
Replacements: B Daly for Byrne (37-40 mins), R O'Loughlin for Nacewa (half-time), C Healy for J McGrath (47), J Tracy for Cronin, A Porter for Furlong (both 56), S Fardy for Ruddock (63), N McCarthy for L McGrath (78), M Deegan for Murphy (79).
MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell, K Earls; JJ Hanrahan, C Murray; J Cronin, R Marshall, J Ryan; J Kleyn, B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt), J O'Donoghue, CJ Stander.
Replacements: R Copeland for O'Donoghue (11 mins), I Keatley for Hanrahan (half-time), G Grobler for Holland (51), D Kilcoyne for Cronin (54), N Scannell for Marshall (59), D Sweetnam for Arnold (63), C Parker for Ryan (74).