Winning in the European Cup in France is extremely rare, but winning in Toulouse is unheard of. Toulouse is the crucible of the game in the Southwest of the country, a warm, welcoming city to visit, but a frightening place to play rugby.
And when Leinster made the journey last weekend for a quarter-final match, their 6,000 or so supporters travelled much more in hope than anything else. Toulouse were the reigning champions of Europe, a side packed full of French international players, a side which invariably performed with a lethal combination of confidence and arrogance in its own backyard.
If, in fairness, it wasn’t a match-up of David and Goliath proportions, there was not a shred of doubt in the stadium as to the identity of the underdogs and the overwhelming favorites. But when the deafening noise had subsided, when the sun had began to slip behind the main stand, and when so many overjoyed and shell-shocked people were trying to absorb what they had just witnessed, there was only one team left standing.
On an extraordinary scoreline of 41-35, Leinster had just out-Touloused Toulouse with a performance of a lifetime. Playing with the sort of verve and ambition usually associated with their more vaunted opponents, Leinster confounded all expectation as they stormed into a 41-21 lead before the French picked off a couple of consolation tries in injury time.
What a game. To run up 41 points against Toulouse was something special in itself, but it was more the way Leinster went about their business. This was a team which had the European Cup in the palm of its hand in 2003 only to implode in a dismal semi-final at Lansdowne Road; this was a team which had routinely underachieved and which in terms of European success, had been virtually written off.
But if last Saturday was only a quarter-final and no name was inscribed on the trophy, there was redemption for many of the Leinster players. And no sooner had the dust settled on their magnificent triumph, than it emerged that they would be meeting their arch-rivals Munster in the semi-final.
If rugby in Ireland is to continue its popular rise, then this showdown at Lansdowne Road on Sunday fortnight, will surely be a catalyst. A pity the meeting can’t be the final itself – the draw for the last four had seen to that – but no matter because at least now Ireland is guaranteed one team in next month’s decider to face either Biarritz of France, or England’s Bath.
In a manner which contrasted so starkly with Leinster’s exuberance, Munster were workmanlike at best as they saw off the challenge of another French club, Perpignan, by 19-10 in Dublin. On a superficial level, the two results have given Leinster an edge, but both teams know only too well that when it comes to sporting civil war, all bets are off.
You could go the glib route and match Leinster’s brain against Munster’s brawn, but then you would only be scratching at the surface of what promises to be one of the great occasions of the year. It’s true that Leinster have the sort of pace and skill behind the scrum epitomised by Brian O’Driscoll that Munster lack, and it’s true that Munster’s forwards have more menace about them, but this collision is just too hard to call.
There are already contests within contests to savour with Munster and Ireland’s Ronan O’Gara going head to head with Leinster’s gifted Argentina international Felipe Contepomi who was positively brilliant against Toulouse. The majestic Paul O’Connell will be up against Malcolm O’Kelly, David Wallace takes on Keith Gleeson, while the veteran Anthony Foley will be tested to the full by the young pretender Jamie Heaslip.
While Munster have more of a tradition in the European Cup, losing twice in the final and invariably reaching the business end of the tournament every season, Leinster have been much less consistent. But if Munster’s famous win over Toulouse in Bordeaux back in 2000 succeed in galvanising the province’s travelling support, what Leinster achieved last weekend might just do the same for them.
In the past, as Munster beat a memorable path through European rugby – Irish by birth, Munster by the grace of God – the Leinster fans tended to vote with their feet. In fact, so fickle was the support that many in the Dublin area defected and went on the road with Munster. So, if the confrontation on the pitch won’t be enough, there will also be a clash of culture in the stands and on the terraces as Munster’s passionate die-hards attempt to drown out Leinster’s arrivistes.
For the record, Leinster’s superb quartet of tries in Toulouse came from O’Driscoll, their New Zealand import Cameron Jowitt, Denis Hickie and Shane Horgan, while the brilliant Contepomi kicked 21 points. There were no such flourishes from Munster, for whom O’Connell was once again inspirational, but they did enough to secure their place in the last four.
Now, the build up to the Battle of Ireland starts. Already, there have been half-hearted calls for the GAA to open up Croke Park to rugby earlier than planned. Certainly, Lansdowne Road’s capacity of 49,000 won’t go anywhere near satisfying demand, however, there is no way that the GAA will alter its schedule of allowing two Six Nations games to be played next year.
There will be no silverware on the table for this game, but it will be all about precious domestic bragging rights. It has already been dubbed the brother of all confrontations.
Anyone got a ticket?
GPA fire warning shot
Not a cup won, not a national inter-county final decided, and the elite players are at loggerheads with the GAA. So much so that this weekend’s round of National League fixtures will be disrupted as the players have decided to delay the start of every game by 15 minutes.
On the one hand, you could say that such a tactic will not have Croke Park’s head honchos quivering in their boots, and that the players’ representative body, the GPA, appears to be a toothless enough organisation, but then on the other, you could see this gesture as the precursor of an all-out strike.
What it is for sure, is a warning shot. The players are clearly fed up at the way they are being treated by the authorities. At a recent meeting with sports minister, John O’Donoghue, to discuss the issue of grants to players, no one from the GAA turned up. The GPA wanted to know why, and they were told that the incoming president, Nicky Brennan, would sit down with them in May.
Not good enough, said the players, who threatened strike action before holding an egm last Saturday. You just want money, said the GAA whose director general, Liam Mulvihill, has rubbished any suggestion that professional or semi-professional Gaelic games could be sustainable. It’s not about money, responded the GPA, it’s about players’ welfare.
The perception of many inter-county players is that the GAA still sees the games as a mere hobby. Yet, as the Cork hurlers and footballers demonstrated a few years ago when they took on and defeated the Cork county board over the way they were being treated, the only difference between top GAA players and soccer players in Ireland is that one group is paid and the other isn’t.
Leading inter-county players now prepare in a highly professional manner and the demands placed on their time impacts on their jobs. They put bums on seats, their talents generate massive revenues for the GAA, and yet they do get enough respect for their efforts from the association’s top brass.
Following the egm, DJ Carey said that the players agreed that there was a feeling of no respect from the GAA. In fact, what is bizarre as the stakes in this Mexican stand-off become higher, the GAA doesn’t even officially recognise the GPA.
“I think it’s wrong to classify what we do as a hobby,” wrote the Cork hurling goalkeeper and GPA main mover Donal Og Cusack. “What other hobby includes sponsorship, huge gate receipts and random drug testing? And our love for the games does not change the fact that many of the GAA’s most dedicated players know and believe that they are getting a raw deal from the association.”
Some of the GAA’s most influential officials might want to bury their heads in the sand and hope that the GPA disappears, but after the egm at which the mood was varyingly described as “angry” and “militant”, the players are unlikely to relent until their demands for a better deal are met.
They insist they don’t want pay for play, just compensation for all the time they give up. They deserve it.