O’Gara’s score sealed his team’s emphatic victory 30-6 over Leinster in last Sunday’s epic European Cup semi-final. “When I realised I’d scored the try, all I could see was a sea of red in front of me and that gave me an incredible buzz,” he said later. So simply touching the ball down wasn’t an option as the out-half hurdled the advertising hording to be engulfed by his own.
That human connection spoke volumes about the differences between the two provinces. O’Gara would have found it unbearably hard to walk the streets of Cork, just like the talismanic Paul O’Connell would have been uncomfortable in his native Limerick, if Munster had returned home beaten men.
By contrast, if Shane Horgan or Denis Hickie had gone for a stroll down Grafton Street the day after the game, not too many people would have known who they were.
Leinster are only learning that unconditional support takes a long time to earn. The ticket allocation was supposed to be split down the middle, but it wasn’t just the South terrace into which O’Gara took his celebratory plunge that was bedecked in red, it appeared as if the Munster jerseys outnumbered their counterparts by as much as three to one.
The reality is that Leinster are beginning to tap into a fan-base in the more cosmopolitan, and much less fanatic, capital city, whereas Munster have already established a tradition that goes back further than the 1978 win over New Zealand, and which has been cemented by the team’s bittersweet 10-year search for European Cup glory.
The dominance in terms of color and sound off the pitch was reflected by Munster’s overwhelming superiority on it. Leinster never managed to replicate the heroics of their win in Toulouse, and if O’Gara’s try and another by Trevor Halstead in the dying minutes inflated the final scoreline, there was absolutely no doubt which team deserved its moment in the sun.
It wasn’t that Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Horgan or Hickie failed to perform – in fact Hickie delivered by far his best performance following his return from injury – it was just that for the most part they were rendered anonymous by the unyielding power and precision of Munster’s game.
O’Connell was immense once again, Anthony Foley turned the clock back with a magnificent display before he was substituted, while Denis Leamy exhibited the sort of physical intent that the losers appeared to lack. Leinster’s progressive Australian coach Michael Cheika admitted beforehand that he didn’t know too much about the rivalry between the two provinces, and a couple of his players also seemed to swamped by the intensity of the occasion.
The two New Zealand forwards, Bryce Williams and Cameron Jowitt, were way off the pace as the Munster line-out and scrum took control. Leinster’s struggle for possession meant that O’Driscoll was never able to weave his magic as he was closed down every time by a raft of red jerseys.
However, the contrasting fortunes of the excellent O’Gara and his opposite number, Felipe Contepomi, reflected the moods of the two teams. In the build-up to the contest, Contepomi had been correctly talked up as the form playmaker in European rugby. He has provided the spark and the imagination that have lit up Leinster’s season, and he was the catalyst for the marvellous performance in Toulouse.
O’Gara meanwhile watched as the bouquets were thrown in one direction only, and vowed to make his point. “Yeah, I’d heard a lot about him in the lead-up, so I was keen to show what I was made of,” he said. Admittedly riding a wave of forward supremacy and an almost constant stream of good ball, O’Gara controlled the game as Contepomi dug a hole for himself, and kept digging.
O’Gara kicked sublimely, and then coasted through for his conclusive try, while it seemed that everything that Contepomi turned his foot or hand to went wrong. “If you want to blame me, that’s okay. I take responsibility for what I did wrong,” said the Argentinian disarmingly.
As Munster celebrated, thoughts quickly turned to the final against French champions Biarritz in Cardiff on May 20. Biarritz might not have quite the same threat as Leinster behind the scrum, but they will certainly be Munster’s equal in terms of brawn.
In clearing the emotional hurdle that Leinster presented, the next hurdle is more psychological. Munster have already lost two European Cup finals in the pursuit of their Holy Grail, and as they have raised the competition to a new level with the consistency of their play and the loyalty of their support, every neutral will be wishing them well.
“But the final is no one’s destiny,” warned O’Connell. “It’s the best team on the day in the final. That’s it. It’s about producing the goods and a little luck maybe.”
Munster didn’t need any luck in what was a momentous day for Irish rugby. They might need some in the decider, and few people outside of Biarritz could say they don’t deserve it.
Officials make big
The competition between different sports for hearts and minds is as it should be, but sometimes competition comes before commonsense. The Munster-Leinster showdown was never going to be just the preserve of rugby followers. This was a match, an occasion, a contest, that anyone who had half an interest in sports was going to be keen to watch. But try telling that to the GAA.
The rugby finished just before 5:00 p.m. last Sunday afternoon, and the association decided in its wisdom to schedule the two National Hurling League semi-finals between Kilkenny and Tipperary and Limerick and Clare for the same time as the Munster-Leinster clash.
Not that it seemed to matter that most of the hurlers and the respective managements might have wanted to watch the rugby, so both semi-finals were played out in front of a largely empty Semple Stadium.
But the decision to start the National Football League final in Limerick between Kerry and Galway at 5:30 was crass in the extreme. Remember this was a national senior final, second only in importance to the All Ireland final, and it was scheduled for a Sunday evening.
For starters it was idiotic, as evidenced by the 7,600 brave souls who paid for the privilege, but it was also an insult to some of the country’s best footballers who deserved a more vibrant occasion for their national final.
Then to rub salt in their wounds, the players from both counties had to wait an additional quarter of an hour before they took the pitch as the under 21 teams of Cork and Laois went into extra-time.
Over 40,000 spectators were at Croke Park last year for the Division One and Division Two league finals, and what was so wrong with putting on both games at the GAA headquarters last Saturday? Why was Croke Park, in which so many members of the association have invested so much time and money, lying idle on a league final weekend?
The Division Two decider between Louth and Donegal which finished in a thrilling 3-8 to 0-17 stalemate drew a decent attendance of 12,000, but the players, like their counterparts in Kerry and Galway, should have been given the opportunity to perform at Croke Park.
It was a weekend in which the incoming president, Nickey Brennan, reiterated the GAA’s position that there would be no pay-for-play, and that the association’s amateur ethos would prevail. After the fixtures’ fiasco, you might substitute amateurish for amateur.
McIlroy, 16, is candidate
for golf superstardom
There might be some frustration on the professional front regarding the lack of young players currently challenging for major championships. Sergio Garcia, most prominently, as well as the likes of Adam Scott, Charles Howell and the promising Irish player Graeme McDowell have proven themselves as tournament winners in their 20s, but when it comes to the majors they have been found wanting.
Apart from the incomparable Tiger Woods, no player in his 20s has won either the Masters or the PGA Championship in the last 10 years, while in the same period, Ernie Els is the only player to have won the U.S. Open.
However, the difficult transition from winner to major winner is something that one young Irish amateur could be facing sooner rather than later. Rory McIlroy only turns 17 next month, and yet, he is already regarded as one of best finest young talents in Europe.
McIlroy, who hails from Holywood in County Down, retained his West of Ireland title just a couple of weeks ago, already holds the Irish Close title, and is targeting the British Amateur championship and next year’s Walker Cup matches against the USA before he turns professional.
Darren Clarke has suggested that the teenager is good enough to turn pro right now, and while it might be the kiss of death to earmark McIlroy as the next great hope of Irish golf, he appears to be something special.
Rory McIlory – remember the name.