Monday, October 23, 2006

New Questions, Old Answers

It had seemed the archetypal champion's performance, and the archetypal Munster one at that. At 18-9 ahead, the Red Machine's innate savvy looked to be seeing them through to one of those victories that only silverware-validated, battle-hardened teams can achieve. Leicester, as they would be obliged to do in front of a jammed-in, baying Welford Road mob, had put it up to the Heineken Cup holders, but, as Munster eked out a nine point lead in a horrible down pour, we shook our heads and smirked: "Sorry lads, that's Munster for you!"

And then, as if the teeming midlands rain were laced with sulphuric acid, first the Munster line-out, and then the scrum, simply dissolved.

Leicester, now marshalled by a strutting Andy Goode, put Munster into their own half and then into the corners, the champions lineout betraying them repeatedly and the home side's pressure coming in waves as torrential as the deluge from the heavens.

Once encamped deep in Munster territory, the Leicester pack proceeded to obliterate an exhausted Munster scrum. The decimation of a scrum is one of rugby's most shocking sights, a humiliating and seemingly irreversible trauma. The decimation of the Munster scrum on the other hand, is so unusual as to cause more head-scratching puzzlement than pity.

There had been signs from earlier in the match that the Leicester pack had the measure of their vaunted opponents, but the concession of the penalty try and the 10 yards or so yielded at the half-way line by the Munster eight which led to the penalty which put Leicester ahead revealed a vulnerability hitherto unsuspected in the storied pack.

Not alone that, but just as worryingly, the Munster line-out could not have functioned any worse had someone dyed all their jerseys blue and put "Bank of Scotland" on the front. Lineouts are much like Swiss watches: comprising of a complex system of moving parts, and utterly useless if not working correctly. For all its complexity however, the hooker tends to get the bullet when things go wrong and Frankie Sheahan will be viewing the return from injury of Jerry Flannery with some trepidation.

So with Munster's bread and butter seemingly choking them, thankfully that other cornerstone of their reliability, Ronan O'Gara's boot, was as faithful as ever. There was a bit of luck involved in getting the kick at goal, Shane Jennings' dissent rendering it kickable at all. But such was the distance involved that the home support, having earlier seen O'Gara miss from closer range, must have felt safe in preparing some harsh words for the Corkman whose unusual pre-match loquaciousness had placed himself in the spotlight of self-justification.

His kick was astonishing: his left boot planted true in the boggy mire, the contact clean and strong, the ball - sodden and drab - heaving itself through the torrent and inches good. Stuart Barnes in the commentary box articulated the thoughts of every one of the soaking Leicester fans: "Uhngggfh," he barely exhaled.

Leinster offered also a familiar answer to the questions posed them by Gloucester a day earlier at Lansdowne Road. God love Gloucester, but they were daft. The club which offers the closest approximation of the Munster ideals in English rugby eschewed the rumbling pack game so famous in the West Country and, by virture of the presence of effervescent young backs like out-half Ryan Lamb and centres Jack Adams and Anthony Allen, chose to play it the Leinster way instead.

Of course, no-one plays the Leinster way quite like Leinster. Especially when Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and co. are in the swashbuckling mood they were in on Saturday. And so we were treated to a jolly entertaining late autumn evening of running rugby, both sides stretching each other's defences with speed and lovely lines of running and never the remotest doubt over who was going to win.

Perhaps Gloucester felt that they simply did not know how to play any other way. Fine. But the game amounted to little more than a glorified dance-off: each team showing, in turn, their flashiest steps, when everyone knows that Leinster have the best moves. None of which shows if Michael Cheika's team is any closer to conquering their southern rivals' European empire.

****Of course I haven't mentioned Ulster whose great recent form saw them achieve the result of the weekend against Toulouse and suggests that they are as worthy of consideration for the Heineken shake-up as the terrible twosome to their south. However I did not see their game the other day, so if anyone did and wishes to post their opinion on the chances of the Never on a Sunday chaps, please comment below.....


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