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Action Replay: when Leinster emerged from the crimson shadow

This week’s retrospective looks back at a landmark moment in the recent history of Leinster Rugby – victory over Munster in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final.

Leinster's Chris Whitaker and Felipe Contepomi tackle David Wallace of Munster.
Leinster's Chris Whitaker and Felipe Contepomi tackle David Wallace of Munster.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

AS LEINSTER PREPARE for Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against defending champions Toulouse, distant observers and part-time followers of rugby may find themselves reflecting on the recent trajectory of the sport in the province.

So long in the shadow of their southerly neighbours – in terms of success on the European stage at least – one could unfairly assume that rugby in Leinster hardly existed prior to 2 May 2009.

Comparatively negligible crowds in the RDS stands, the low profile of what was then the Celtic League, and a spate of hit-and-miss performances in the Heineken Cup meant that the Blues were often dismissed as the try-hard ugly sister as Ireland attempted to professionalise the game at provincial level.

The problem with such a simplistic reading of history is that it tends to overlook the growth and evolution of the province’s fortunes, particularly over the last five years. Out of the heartbreak of successive final-day disappointments in the Magners League in 2006 and 2007 came the joy of 2008 and the glorious slaying of the Newport Gwent Dragons.

During that time, Europe hadn’t been a particularly happy hunting for Michael Cheika’s men. Yet the signs of promise remained, even as they suffered the ignominy of being unceremoniously dumped out of the competition at the semi-final stage in 2006 while Munster pranced to a first continental crown.

By the early summer of 2009, the landscape of Irish rugby had changed completely. In the post-Grand Slam era, Leinster had established themselves as worthy challenger to Munster’s presumed supremacy. Yet, until they could claim a scalp on the biggest stage of all, questions and doubts would always linger.

The day itself was a testament to the explosive growth in the sport’s popularity with over 80,000 pairs of expectant eyes packed into the Croke Park stands. That the match itself should be preceded by a minute’s silence in honour of one of Ireland’s finest ever players, Karl Mullen, was perfect.

And then it was time for Leinster – the underdogs by default – to demand the unequivocal respect of all of Europe.

Ruthless in their efficiency, unflinching in the tackle and relentless at the breakdown, they made one of European rugby’s greats look rather ordinary that day.

This was their opportunity and they were not about to let it slip.

With over a quarter of the game still remaining, they had ended the game as a contest, their talismanic centre streaking down the pitch to score a try which reminded their opponents – present and future – that Irish rugby was not, and would never be, a one-horse town.

As if that wasn’t enough, the following afternoon’s second semi-final was historic in its own right.

The Cardiff Blues and the Leicester Tigers were inseparable as they duked it out to join Leinster in the Murrayfield final. With the game ending in a 26-26 tie after extra-time, there was only way to decide their fates – penalties, a first in the modern era.

Those goalposts seem a whole lot narrower when there’s a place in the European Cup final at stake.

This week in sports history

Read more of the Action Replay series here >

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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