By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — The inaugural Celtic League is fast turning into an Irish rugby benefit. The healthy state of the Irish provinces was again demonstrated when Leinster and Munster qualified for the final of a competition for the top professional teams in Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
Once Leinster saw off the challenge of Glasgow with a comprehensive 35-13 victory, an all-Irish decider set for Lansdowne Road this Saturday was a sure thing with Munster getting the better of Ulster by 15-9 in the other semifinal.
Leinster go into the showdown as the marginal favorites on the back of an outstanding recent run of form, and while they weren’t a picture of perfection against Glasgow, the outcome was never in any serious doubt.
A blistering start that yielded tries by internationals Girvan Dempsey and Brian O’Driscoll, allied to some accurate placekicking by out-half Nathan Spooner had Leinster leading at halftime by 18-3.
Any lingering hope of a Glasgow comeback was then killed off when the outstanding Shane Horgan scored Leinster’s third try early in the second half to make it 25-6. And with 20 minutes remaining, wing Denis Hickie added a fourth after Spooner’s inside pass, the closing stages were comfortable for the winners.
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There wasn’t quite the same flourish in the second semifinal at Lansdowne Road, where Munster’s impressive pack made the difference in a full-blooded contest that yielded no tries. It turned into a battle of the kickers, with Ronan O’Gara landing five penalties to David Humphreys’s three. However, the Munster forwards were responsible for the winners’ territorial advantage.
Marshaled brilliantly by the evergreen Mick Galwey, they led 9-3 at the changeover but then had to withstand some feverish Ulster pressure in the second half. With try scoring chances at a premium, Ulster wing Tyrone Howe had the most obvious opportunity of all near the end, but after Ryan Constable had pierced the Munster defense, Howe failed to hold the vital pass.
Not so long ago, Ireland and its provinces were near the bottom of European rugby’s food chain. When Leinster and Munster go head to head on Saturday, it won’t be cliched to reflect on how quickly times have changed.