Monday, April 02, 2007

Munster Will Be Back; Leinster Need More Than Backs

In the end, you know what the strangest thing was? Watching the two Irish sides playing out the dying minutes beaten; scrabbling for consolatory scores as if trying to put a better look on the thing. No last minute heartbreak, no death-throe excitement, no miracle magic. Just two well beaten teams, going through those motions that every such team does.

That was one strange thing. Another was the feeling, for once, of being extras in someone else's movie. Where once Munster's story was the compelling narrative, on Friday Stradey Park was the backdrop to Llanelli's epic tale. Where Leinster's tragi-comedy was once again re-run, Wasps' heroic bandits held the greater dramatic interest.

Watching the scenes at the various quarter-finals throughout the weekend, one must hope again that the problems which imperil this tournament can be somehow resolved (even though the fear remains that the organisational differences throughout the different nations make the current disagreements in England and France inevitable).

In all four grounds that hosted quarter-finals, the charged atmosphere of collective desire that we've seen so often steaming from the Thomond terraces was replicated. It was almost as if, with that transfixing yarn of Munster's quest at an end, there was space to see that same base passion elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, Stradey Park's comparison with its Friday night visitors' famous home was an obvious one: the tight, heaving ground, the baying local hordes, right down to the sight of an stoppable red force at work. Munster will have understood what happened to them, then.

Sure, the limitations of Munster's attack, the absence of Paul O'Connell and Shaun Payne, O'Gara in a funk - these things can be talked about. But men in the mood that Alix Popham, Dafydd James, Stephen Jones and Regan King were never going to be denied on Friday. Munster will accept that, and will return again.

Leinster's horrible performance against Wasps is less easy to put down to forces of nature. The result was a triumph for Shaun Edwards and his blitz defence, and director of rugby Ian McGeechan will place it alongside Scotland's Grand Slam-sealing win over England in 1990 and the 1997 Lions campaign in his hefty portfolio of success.

Leinster were outdone in tactics and in spirit. The Wasps defence, teetering constantly on offside and staring into the whites of the Leinster backs' eyes, drew no convincing response from the supposed magicians for European rugby. It was almost as if Leinster refused to lower themselves to devising a counteraction to Wasps' tactic, relying on the purity of their method to conquer all.

Brian O'Driscoll's absence, however, is one that no team built around him can carry, as was proven for the second time this year. Let's hope it's not a lesson we must accept threefold come the autumn. Not only did O'Driscoll's loss allow Wasps to focus totally on strangling Leinster at the 10 and 12 axis, but also, O'Driscoll's powerful rucking was desperately missed at the breakdown, where the English side - Tom Rees' star continues in the ascendant - turned ball over with ease.

By the time Leinster began to pass up tackles like bloated diners dismissing the dessert trolley, the pall of defeat had already descended. That Leinster were outscored 22-3 while a man up illustrates the crumbling of belief that affected the Irish side. It doesn't even do to harp on about Leinster being let down by their forwards, as Stephen Keogh, Trevor Hogan and Bernard Jackman were probably their most impressive performers.

No, Leinster were beaten everywhere: on the bench, on the field, in their heads and in their hearts.

For all their brilliance, they seem further away than ever.

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