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If Munster get nothing else from this season’s Heineken Cup, they are likely to be remembered as the answer to a quiz question: which team played consecutive matches in the same competition on the same ground, the first time as home team, the second as visitors?
A hard-won quarter-final victory over Perpignan at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, earned them Sunday’s all-Irish semi-final clash with Leinster at the same venue.
“Home” is in this case a relative concept. Leinster use the venerable national ground only for the knock-out stages of the Heineken, and have unhappy memories of three defeats in four matches, including semi-finals against Cardiff in 1996 and Perpignan three years ago.
It has been their away form that has caught the eye this season – demolishing Bath at the Recreation Ground in the final pool round to clinch a best runners-up spot in the quarters, then eliminating holders and favourites Toulouse in one of the best matches in the Heineken’s 11-season history. On that form they might even have fancied their chances at Munster’s Thomond Park fortress.
Wherever it happens, this is one of the classic rugby rivalries. This is their first Heineken meeting, but the fixture dates back to 1877. It is capital versus province, centre against periphery, with a strong element of class warfare thrown in.
The cultural difference between the two is epitomised by key events in the formative years of Irish nationhood - the recently commemorated romantic nationalism of Dublin’s Easter Rising of 1916 compared to the harder-edged radicalism of the Limerick Soviet which took over Munster’s rugby hotbed for three weeks in 1919.
Leinster encompasses Ireland’s wealthiest and most populous districts, but in some rugby another respect trail both respects they trail Munster. and Ulster. The latter Both have their shining hours of triumph on which to build both memory and legend: Ulster’s extraordinary Heineken victory of 1999 and. the overthrow of the grand-slam All Blacks in 1978, and their status asUlster drew with the 1935 and 1953 All Blacks as well,. the Heineken’s romantic heroes, pursuing an as-yet unrequited quest that has taken them to the last four six times in seven seasons.
Leinster will reach the final not have long to wait if they can recapture the form shown in Toulouse, but it will be a surprise if they are allowed to. If the glory of Leinster on that day was that they challenged Toulouse at their own expansive game, the glory of Toulouse is that they accept such challenges. Shutting the game down and imposing themselves physically is an option they do not take.
Munster are unlikely to be so disposed, particularly when the absence of centre John Murphy deprives them of the new-found midfield incisiveness displayed in the pool stage. Tough-minded pragmatists, they would be rash to accept a loose, open contest against a Leinster back division featuring Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Shane Horgan, perhaps the most improved three-quarter in Europe.
Leinster’s battle will be to escape the clutches of the Munster pack. They will need Keith Gleeson in the sensational form of Toulouse, and Malcolm O’Kelly stealing more than his share of line-out ball, if they are to perform the necessary outflanking.
Bath, the only surviving past winners, face Biarritz today sat) in San Sebastian, most formidable of Heineken homes from home. They are unlikely to find the Basques, who are desperate to reach the final after consecutive losses in the semi-finals and perhaps the most accomplished all-round team left, as accommodatingly inept as Leicester were in the last round.
Logic says a Munster versus Biarritz final, but it is worth remembering that it also said Bath and Leinster would lose their quarter-finals.
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