The more things change, the more they stay the same in Irish provincial rugby judging by Friday night’s evidence in Dublin. Covid-era rugby at the Aviva wasn’t a barrel of laughs. Gone were the usual trappings of a major sport event: the fans, the lashings of pints, the nibbles, the colourful cacophony of noise usually present for these Leinster vs Munster Guinness PRO14 derbies.
Instead, there was sterility. Temperature checking, social distancing, mask-wearing in a forlorn stadium with 50,000 empty seats. Then the post-game kicker arrived, the coaches delivering their thoughts via a hazy Microsoft Teams connection from a basement room five floors beneath the media box.
It was all weirdly different, yet the reason for being there was all weirdly familiar, Leinster doing to Munster what they have long been doing now in the Irish capital – giving them the short shrift and shunting them back down the M7 with nothing more than the feeling of despair.
Getting mugged in Dublin is nothing new. Friday night was the 15th time in 16 visits since 2009 that Munster had fallen to Leinster and you have to wonder about the accountability. Where has the straight-talking, the look yourself in the mirror type of candid reflection gone?
No sooner had the grounds people appeared on the PRO14 pitch to begin its conversion into a football pitch for an international game on Sunday was CJ Stander below in the stadium bowels delivering the hard to swallow Munster message that “we are in a very good spot – this group can push hard next season”.
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) September 4, 2020
Push hard where exactly? The sobering reality of this ugly PRO14 semi-final spectacle was how it brought confirmation of how Munster are stuck in a time loop that just repeats over and over.
There is no real evidence of growth in the three years Johann van Grann has been at the helm. Leinster won this without ever needing to zip through the gears, rendering recent analysis that Munster have somehow adapted their game plan as blarney.
With it, an amusing Twitter account soon popped up on the timeline, MurraysBoxKick tweeting: “989 vertical metres tonight. Pretty happy with that.” It was part of the overall consensus that Munster had punted away too much possession, a monotonous tactic when you have an attack coach of the calibre of Stephen Larkham on your roster these past twelve months.
Truth be told, though, Munster didn’t definitively lose this in the skies – their tally of 36 kicks from the hand was only three more than Leinster’s 33. Instead, where they gave a very poor second best was in the hard yards traffic, their pack – the eight starters and the bench cavalry – making a paltry ten metres from 27 carries.
Contrast that with Leinster’s 45 metres from 48 carries. In an ugly game of inches, this made all the difference, and the Munster negligence was encapsulated in the final act, replacement hooker Kevin O’Byrne aimlessly grubber kicking into touch rather than carrying and trying to create. That one moment summed up the van Grann era – dull, insipid, uninspired and no closer to getting over the repeated semi-final hump.
Whereas van Grann has now lost five of these last-four fixtures (three in the league, two in Europe), Leinster remain the beacon on how to learn from your mishaps. It was 2017 when they crashed and burned in the European and league last-four, suckered by Clermont and Scarlets.
Since then? All five semi-final fixtures have been clinically won. Like Ronseal, one of the PRO14’s subsidiary sponsors, they do exactly what they say on their tin – hang tough, deliver results. They know their game.
“Pretty ugly stuff, ugly contest, but we’re through,” chirped Leo Cullen in Friday’s aftermath. Spot on. Now for next Saturday’s final back at the Aviva.
"Poor little Edinburgh with their tiny fanbase, meagre war chest, bleak track record and callow group of players… Cockerill, as they say, is at it with this stuff"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 4, 2020
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now