Wraparound: How to restrain a Dragon
13:45, 10 Apr 2012
It's amusing to look back on Leinster being referred to as 'Ladyboys' while Munster have struggled to replace the vintage that won two Heineken Cups, as the Blues have
The more we see them grow, the more amusing we consider the abuse Leinster used to get before making their big break in Europe.
‘Ladyboys’ was how former player Neil Francis so regularly portrayed them. As if playing with creativity and falling short of the best sides in Europe was some sort of sin. In their pre-Heineken Cup-winning days, it was easy to sledge the side in blue, because back then they were the poor relation of Munster. Like criticising Espanyol for not being Barcelona, or Getafe for not being Real Madrid.
Since Leinster have matched the hunger, fight and other prerequisites of unrelenting rugby winners, that creativity has become the difference. When irresistible forces continue to meet, those who can go around the wall when no one can get through will prevail.
Ulster have been an afterthought for the most part over the years, as the dust continues to gather around the 1999 Heineken Cup win. It might be a little premature to reclassify the order of Irish rugby and put the northern lights in the silver medal spot, but the signs are pointing that way.
Denis Hurley took plenty of flak for allowing Craig Gilroy burn him on the outside to score the first try on Sunday and, while the winger would struggle to make it into a lot of top European club sides’ squads, it must be remembered that he was a starter in the 2008 Heineken Cup final win over Toulouse.
But here’s the rub: Munster have struggled to retain the quality of players that won two European titles, while the hunger they showed in that winning era has been matched by others.
Just two of the 2006 final side started against Ulster - and just five of that squad. Only four of the 2008 starters remain, and only seven in total from that final’s squad played on Sunday. While injuries precluded the selections of crucial players such as Doug Howlett and Denis Leamy.
The point being that while Munster have lost this title-winning experience, they have been unable to replace it. Not that the southern province were ever particularly lethal in the back line but there was a clear lack of threat for the most part on Sunday. Much as the case was in the Rabo against Leinster a week previously, albeit with an altered side.
Over at Leinster, they have retained 11 of the matchday 22 from the 2009 Heineken Cup win over Leinster. Shane Horgan only recently retired but, with Isa Nacewa going onto the wing, Rob Kearney is far from a step down. Chris Whitaker has moved on and Eoin Reddan has improved matters at scrum-half.
Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin have relieved Bernard Jackman; Brad Thorn and Devin Toner have taken over from Malcolm O’Kelly and more latterly Nathan Hines; Rocky Elsom left a huge gap that Sean O’Brien has filled. Unlike Munster, a core of quality and top-class talent has been maintained.
Far from a sideways swipe at Munster, it merely points out how they couldn’t afford to lose the likes of Paul Warwick - indeed money matters are at times responsible. The hot-stepping Lifeimi Mafi leaves for Perpignan after this season so there’s another backline place to fill. The likes of Sam Tuitupou have passed through, never looking likely to take Munster up a notch.
Ulster have had the players and after last year’s breakthrough, a quarter-final was no achievement in itself. The signing of Ruan Pienaar has been hugely successful in helping Ulster take the next step, as it was at Thomond Park. He kicked beautifully barring that one effort that could have put his side nine up with minutes to go.
His kicking made you sometimes wonder why Munster took free-kicks instead of penalties at times in the first half. There were a couple of quick taps in scoreable positions and Ronan O’Gara went for the corner when he could have gone for the posts. Yes, Munster were well behind but it can be crucial to get the scoreboard ticking. Get confidence up as quickly as possible.
Cardiff Blues did, but fell away predictably. How do you sum this quarter-final up? Leinster started slowly but the Blues never fully started at all. Unless you count Leigh Halfpenny making it 3-0 worthy of note.
By half-time, it was 27-3 and it felt like the close relative of Bath’s pool stage humiliation all over again. Such has been the way for visitors of Leinster to the Aviva of late. Last year’s epic clashes here with Leicester and Toulouse were of the bone-crunching variety - this was of the lily-livered sort. True, Cardiff biggest weapons - Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts - have been temporarily decommissioned but the Welsh region brought sticks and stone to a gun fight.
There was something of a false start to the game. Leinster were like that actor who fluffed his first line but gave a most believable portrayal - of European kings - from then on. A final scoreline of 34-3 was a hammering - something there has been a number of in the knockouts over the years (below).
The Aviva crowd had little to get them going in first five minutes, as the hosts seemed to settle well. Halfpenny wiped the blood from his nose to split the posts from near the middle of the battleground, and Leinster then lost a lineout before Johnny Sexton slotted over a similar penalty.
That may have been as close as the Blues would get but, even for a time after that, the home side continued to look a mite edgy. Reddan and Jamie Heaslip got in each other’s way to fumble a restart before the scrum-half boxed it out on the full. Ultimately, the traffic was all signalled in one direction thereafter.
Twenty-four points down with the first 40 minutes gone and the clock still ticking, Martyn Williams couldn’t kick the ball into touch quick enough. Dan Parks had seemed to think garryowens were kryptonite to Kearney - far from it, the full-back flying up to collect most that came his way. It seems a peculiar tactic to think Leinster can be unhinged this way. Clermont will surely be smarter.
The only danger caused by Parks’ up and unders was when Kearney’s gum shields went flying as he stretched to field a ball inside his own ’22 on the quarter hour. The Leinster tries were magnificent - each cutting the Blues in different areas of the backline.
There was also a return of a sight from the 2010-11 season as O’Brien made a 50-metre line break in the final quarter. Since he moved to number seven, it’s something we’ve seen very little of from the Tullow tank. After a couple of wind-ups on Saturday night, he got his reward but was let down only by a lack of support.
But Leinster have little to complain about. The game fizzling out in the second half is of little concern. The creativity is there, the attacking potential is always bubbling, which is why they are favourites despite having to go to Clermont Auvergne.
Edinburgh will visit the Aviva to take on Ulster and the Scots got there by avenging a massive defeat to Toulouse in 2003-04 (below). Moulds have been broken by these two semi-finalists to get where they are. The old guards of Munster and Toulouse being those moulds.
Others, such as aside once referred to as ‘Ladyboys’, remain.
What has been the biggest knockout win in Heineken Cup knockout history?
*Scorelines can at times mislead but when there are three converted tries or more in the difference, it’s comprehensive.
2009-10 Toulouse 42-16 Stade Francais
2008-09 Munster 43-9 Ospreys
2007-08 Toulouse 41-17 Cardiff Blues
2006-07 London Wasps 35-13 Leinster
2005-06 Munster 30-6 Leinster
2004-05 Toulouse 37-9 Northampton; Stade Francais 48-8 Newcastle
2003-04 Toulouse 36-10 Edinburgh; London Wasps 34-3 Gloucester
2000-01 Leicester Tigers 41-10 Swansea
1998-99 Stade Francais 71-14 Pontypridd
1997-98 Leicester Tigers 90-19 Glasgow; Toulouse 51-10 Harlequins
1996-97 Brive 35-14 Llanelli; Leicester Tigers 37-11 Toulouse
1995-96 Toulouse 30-3 Swansea RFC
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