Leinster vs Munster 2009: When The Provincial Power Shift Began
We hark back to 2009, when Leinster's ascendency began at Munster's expense.
Enjoy Wednesday’s read, harking back to the 2009 Heineken Cup where the power shift between Leinster and Munster seemingly began as the former hammered the latter, and went on to capture their first European title.
Friday’s article will look ahead to Leinster’s upcoming final against La Rochelle as the Irish side search for their fifth star.
Leinster march into Marseille with a fifth European star in reach. They face a difficult task. Ronan O’Gara, who will be the focal point of many a media angle pitting him against his old rivals Leinster, and his former fly-half foe Jonathan Sexton, plans to stop them. His La Rochelle side are equipped with a monstrous pack and a rugby mantra of ‘Keep Ball Alive’, that espouses quick ball and plenty of offloading.
Victory for Leinster would not only allow their tailors to stitch a fifth star into their garments, but might require their caretakers at the RDS Arena to build another shelf for yet another trophy. For it would represent their 11th since their maiden Heineken Cup in 2009. A triumph in the URC is on the cards too. It would not be such a bold prediction to forecast this ruthlessly clinical Leinster side do the double.
A communal factor of sporting dynasties is that, its difficult, seemingly impossible, to envision their stretch of supremacy ever ending. It seems unfeasible to think that the authority Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City currently have over the Premier League will ever end. But it once seemed out of the question that Manchester United’s superiority might ever end. Yet it did. Kingdoms rise and they eventually fall. One day Leinster’s will fall. But that day is evidently far away.
Their rise; their decade of dominance, sprouted all those years ago with their 2009 European title. A title which precipitated Leinster’s ascendency, and set in motion Munster’s descent.
After their 2008 Heineken Cup triumph, few Munster supporters would have believed you if you told them that the province would claim just two trophies - the 2009 and 2011 Magner’s League - in the following 13 years.
Perhaps, even fewer Leinster supporters would have believed you if you told them their side would go on to claim 10 major trophies in that same timeframe.
The first of those 10 pieces of silverware to sit on the RDS’ shelves, besides their 2008 Magners League trophy which came prior to Munster’s 2008 triumph, was Leinster’s maiden European title, after a 19-16 victory over English powerhouse Leicester Tigers.
It was Johnny Sexton’s penalty, around 10 metres in from the left touchline, in the 70th minute that proved decisive for Leinster on that day at Murrayfield. Sexton was soon to begin his reign as Ireland’s premier fly-half - as Leinster were about to begin a reign of their own.
The real turning of the tide, however, didn’t arrive as Leo Cullen and Chris Whitaker jointly lifted the Heineken Cup. Rather, the blue wave hit European shores a few weeks earlier, when Leinster hammered reigning champions Munster into submission in the semi-final at Croke Park. A result which signalled a shift in power between the two provinces.
It is perhaps easy to look back now, especially knowing Leinster as the formidable side we do today, and think that their victory over their red-clad rivals was unsurprising. That despite Munster’s status as European kings at the time, should it be so startling that a side with names such as Brian O’Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D’Arcy, Isa Nacewa, Rocky Elsom, and Felipe Contepomi best their provincial adversary so wholly?
But it was surprising. It was a shock. Few gave Leinster a chance as their steely resolve proved too much for Munster in a Croke Park almost filled to capacity with 82,208 people - a then world record attendance for a club rugby match.
Before, many questioned if Leinster could handle the intense Munster pack. Filled to the brim with experienced title winners fresh off a Grand Slam, and many with Lions tickets to South Africa already booked. The likes of Paul O’Connell, Jerry Flannery, Alan Quinlan, and Donncha O'Callaghan would surely be too much. Especially as a near-identical pack handily beat Leinster just three weeks prior. Not to mention their match at the RDS earlier in the season, where Munster restricted Leinster so greatly they kept their eastern rivals scoreless.
Behind a fearsome pack was a premier halfback pairing of Peter Stringer and O’Gara, with Lifeimi Mafi further outside them. With Keith Earls and one of the most prolific try scorers of his generation Doug Howlett in tow, Munster were rightly favourites to beat a team they had already bested twice that season, and head to yet another final.
A magnificent stage was set at Croke Park. The atmosphere was filled with memories of the 2006 semi-final, where under a bright blue Dublin sky, Munster vanquished Leinster 30-6 to settle Ireland’s domestic dispute on route to a finals victory over Biarritz. No such result would occur this time.
An injury to Contepomi threatened to sabotage Leinster’s win, but Sexton entered the fray as his replacement, immediately kicking a penalty and giving a superbly assured performance. Any suggestion of Leinster being swept aside was suddenly dispelled in the 31st minute as D’Arcy skipped past Earls slid over the Croke Park turf to score his side’s opening try. Their vigour only intensified as Luke Fitzgerald finished off a counter-attack early in the second half.
For Munster this was a taste of their own medicine. Their determined and disciplined opponents drove them to delirium. O’Gara’s threads began to unravel as inaccurate passes and kicks crept into his game.
His desperation reached a crescendo as he threw a pass to O’Connell in Leinster’s 22, only for the brilliant O’Driscoll to intercept and race away untouched to score.
O’Driscoll and his Leinstermen, no doubt tortured by that fixture three years prior, had put their demons to bed. It was humbling for Munster, who hadn’t experienced such a loss to their rivals with so much on the line before.
And so, a new Leinster rose. They travelled to Murrayfield and captured their first European title, one of four that would soon come. Their fifth may just arrive this weekend.
Munster began a descent into inferiority in comparison. They may still be Ireland’s second best side, reaching domestic and European semi-finals regularly, but the gap between the two seems to widen each year. The train from Limerick was derailed and it has never quite got back on track.