Peter Jackson gives us his take on what should be a memorable Magners League Grand Final between Munster and Leinster this Saturday.
Munster will be galvanised as never before at Thomond Park on Saturday to put the No. 1 team in Europe in their place – as the No. 2 team in Ireland.
It will take some doing now that Leinster are reunited with the Heineken Cup as worthy reward for having been a cut above everyone else in Europe all season. If they are to round it off by regaining the Magners League trophy in the Grand Final, they will be only the fourth club to have achieved the domestic and European double in the same season.
Toulouse did it at the first attempt in 1996 when the English game was in such a tizz at the onset of professionalism that the RFU couldn’t make up its mind about entering and the inaugural competition went ahead without them. Toulouse, having beaten Cardiff in the final at the old Arms Park, then won the French title against Brive at the Parc des princes.
Leicester did the double twice as simultaneous champions of England and Europe in 2001 and again twelve months later. Nobody has done it since Wasps under Warren Gatland in 2004, although there are many examples of big teams winning one and falling at the final hurdle in the other.
French clubs have made it something of a speciality. Stade Francais lost to Leicester in the Heineken final in 2001 a few weeks before beating Colomiers in the French final. Biarritz lost to Munster at the Millennium Stadium in 2006 before becoming French champions. Toulouse did exactly the same two years later, losing to Munster at Cardiff in one final, then overcoming Clermont at the Stade de France in the other.
Leinster will travel across Ireland armed with a record of marked superiority over their neighbours in recent seasons. Since their annihilation by Munster at Lansdowne Road (30-6) in the Heineken semi-final five years ago, Leinster have won seven of the last eleven matches against Munster, including the European semi at Croke Park when they avenged their thrashing at the same stage of the same tournament in 2006.
Those sequence of results include two of a very one-sided nature. Leinster won 30-0 at the RDS in October 2009 when tries from Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan compounded Munster’s misery over the fate of their veteran prop John Hayes, sent off for stamping on Cian Healy. The previous season Munster cruised home 22-5 with second half tries from Keith Earls and Denis Fogarty on an occasion when Felipe Contepomi missed four kicks at goal for Leinster in contrast to Ronan O’Gara who nailed four between the uprights.
When the Dubliners were last in Limerick on domestic business, as recently as the beginning of last month, O’Gara (who else?) held his nerve to land the last-minute penalty which edged Munster home by the narrowest margin, 24-23. With their two matches during the regular season having drawn crowds of 76,000, the Grand Final will take the aggregate attendance into three figures.
The European season may be done and dusted but the stakes for both provinces could hardly be higher. Paul O’Connell will demand that the real Munster, in the words of their battle hymn, stand up and fight to avoid a fate too dreadful to contemplate.
His team has already been knocked out of Europe twice this season, most recently by Harlequins in the semi-final of the Amlin Cup, a defeat made all the more shocking for having happened in their Limerick citadel. A third knock-out, at the hands of Leinster, would leave Munster with nothing to show for their season despite having won the regular Magners League by a distance.
Leinster, aware of what awaits them, will call for one more mighty collective effort. There will be no resting on the laurels which they won with the come-back of all Cup final come-backs to overwhelm Northampton in Cardiff last week.
“We lost to them the last time and now it’s up to us to redress the balance,” Mike Ross, their tighthead prop, said. “You don’t want your last game of the season to be a loss. We’ve already won the Heineken Cup but we’re greedy, which is a good thing.”
Recent matches between them have been won and lost by a late penalty – O’Gara’s at Thomond Park last month, Jonny Sexton’s at the same venue last season. This one could come down to another duel between the fly halves – Munster’s perennial match-winner against Leinster’s man-of-the-moment.