With another win for Leinster against their fiercest rivals, Munster, Gordon O’Callaghan analyses the recent development of the two teams
Professional sporting teams often talk about cycles of success where a combination of factors can result in teams dominating the sporting landscape, often appearing at times unbeatable, exuding an air of permanent success.
Munster Rugby went through such a phase, starting in 2002/2003 with their maiden Celtic League (Rabo Direct Pro 12) title and ending with their defeat in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup to Leinster in 2009.
In that time Munster amassed two league titles and two Heineken Cups, as well as appearing in two Heineken Cup finals, in comparison to Leinster’s one league success. They provided the core of the Irish team, developing players like Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan, David Wallace, Alan Quinlan, Marcus Horan, John Hayes and Jerry Flannery to name but a few.
Declan Kidney was the most successful club manager of the time and he instilled a mentality of winning into the Munster dressing room, turning Thomond Park into the most dreaded of European venues. The Munster brand symbolised strength, power, determination, and most of all, success.
Fast forward to 2011, and the cycle has ended. Ingloriously dumped out of the Heineken Cup last year in the group stages, the mantle has well and truly passed to Leinster.
First under Michael Cheika and then under Joe Schmidt, Leinster Rugby has embarked upon a complete transformation. Leinster have shedded the image of pretty boys and nearly men. Hard grit displayed by the likes of Leo Cullen, Jamie Healslip, Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings, Cian Healy and Mike Ross has been infused with the traditional flair of their back line.
The key to Leinster’s success and their continued upward trajectory, in comparison to Munster’s malaise, is made up of three elements; player development, player recruitment, and a new ethos.
In 2009, when Leinster won their first Heineken Cup (in their first final) they did so on the back of experience with the likes of O’Driscoll, Cullen, Horgan, Jackman, D’Arcy, Rocky Elsom and Chris Whitaker.
By 2011, although the core of Cullen, O’Driscoll and D’Arcy remained, the next generation of Sexton, O’Brien and Healy had ensured the team had evolved.
The evolution process at Leinster has not stopped either: Cheika gave way to Schmidt and the rise of Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Fergus McFadden, Eoin O’Malley, Devin Toner, Andrew Conway and Ian Madigan means that there is continuous pressure on the senior side for places.
In comparison, Munster have faltered in their player development cycle, failing to prepare for the eventual demise of the ‘golden generation’ as well as a failure of underage coaching (the most recent Ireland U-20 squad had just one Munster player in the 22). Conservative squad selection and an inability to develop talent has left Munster in a vulnerable position.
Where talent had emerged, such as with Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo, Danny Barnes and Ian Nagle, they have failed to be given enough game time in order to develop their skills.
Looking at appearances between comparable players at Leinster and Munster, the differences are stark. O’Mahony, who is six months younger then Dominic Ryan, has only played for his province nineteen times, while Ryan has amassed thirty-one caps and five tries.
Ian Nagle, who was named man of the match against Australia last yea,r has only played for his province thirteen times while Rhys Ruddock, two years his junior, has represented Leinster twenty-eight times in a very competitive back-row, captained his province and been capped at international level.
At the recent Leinster v Munster game at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster fielded eleven academy players in the starting fifteen, two Irish qualified players that they brought in, and two foreign players.
Meanwhile Munster fielded nine academy players, only one of whom has graduated recently, while they had one Irish qualified purchase, and five foreign players.
Munster purchases have lacked in terms of their impact on the domestic game. Jean De Villiers and Sam Tuitupou have not had the same impact as that of Leinster’s Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa and Felipe Contepomi. Only Doug Howlett has made a lasting impression on the development and success of Munster.
Joe Schmidt inherited a winning squad and made them better, the sign of an excellent coach. Wise recruitment in the form of Isaac Boss, Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan was complemented by the fact that Schmidt improved the technical abilities of the players already under his tutelage. Leinster’s ethos under Schmidt has been of improvement, development, and most of all, winning.
Cycles of success are, by definition, cyclical. Leinster’s current dominance of provincial rugby will not last forever. Whether it will be Munster who take the mantle from Leinster once again is up for debate; the present reality is that Leinster appear to be building for the future while Munster are living in the past.
For the moment, the future of Irish rugby is well and truly blue.