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Dublin: 15 °C Saturday 17 August, 2019
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It's Leinster v Munster again, but where does the rivalry rank?

This derby has evolved into one of the great sporting rivalries in Irish sport in recent years. And we’ll do it again this weekend.

Image: inpho via setanta

Reproduced with permission from Setanta Sports

THE SIX NATIONS ended nearly two weeks ago and there has been a round of Rabo Direct fixtures since then but it feels distinctly like the provincial season is getting back under way in earnest this weekend.

This is because of one fixture: Munster versus Leinster in Thomond Park.

Since the advent of professional rugby in Ireland, this derby has evolved into one of the great sporting rivalries in Irish sport and beyond. Of course there are more high profile derbies that exist but Munster v Leinster evokes such passion and emotion that it has every right to take its place among the best, certainly in an Irish context.

There is of course patriotism for the national team as displayed in the Six Nations, but this is different. This is tribal. As is natural in many respects, more passion emerges when there is a sense of community involved, a sense of belonging.

This is your hometown team, after all.

I would go as far to suggest that there is a sense of loyalty to Leinster and Munster from their supporters that doesn’t quite exist in respect to the national side. Irish people will always support the Irish rugby team but that is not quite the point. You look at Ireland’s Six Nations performances; fans are incredibly quick to slam their displays and call for change. I know as I was one of them.

This type of reaction does not exist at provincial level to the same extent, where there is a sense of protectiveness for their team. Criticism from outside will often be met with a stern retort, followed by chapter and verse on who is playing well and intricacies on how the coach is embedded in the community.

Although not exactly a balanced view, this is not necessarily a bad thing as it is this type of blind faith and engrained loyalty that makes sport and indeed rivalries so special. When Munster and Leinster collide, the noise, colour and raw passion are something to behold. Both sets of players and fans alike genuinely crave that win, badly. No matter how much players and coaches play it down, there is clearly an edge to the fixture and an unmatched desire to emerge victorious.

Tell-tale signs

Meetings between the two sides are littered with moments that support this. You think back to Jonny Sexton’s splurge of emotion in front of Ronan O’Gara in the Heineken Cup semi final in 2009 or indeed the latter’s celebration when he crossed the line in the 2006 semi final of the same competition.

Rabo Direct meetings between these two sides are consistently enthralling but Heineken Cup meetings are simply epic, with the crowd playing an enormous part. The electricity in their two Heineken Cup clashes to date could match most derbies out there.

Of course, individual battles and side plots add to the spice with the ongoing battle between Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton in recent years the pick of the bunch. Previous to this, we had Felipe Contemponi’s ongoing aggravation with the entire Munster team. Moments like David Knox’s exiting tirade from Leinster, although untimely and misguided, only add fuel to the fire.

Let us remind ourselves:

“Munster’s record is fantastic but you can’t tell me they play anything but 10-man rugby. Unfortunately, players can’t just switch on style play when they get into the international arena.

“Munster get 30 points on the board by grinding away and when the other team is shot, they try and throw the ball around a bit. Then people say, what a great team. It’s rubbish.

“If Doug Howlett had played for Leinster this season, he would have ended up scoring 30 tries. He’s scored about three or four for Munster. He’s seen as the greatest buy of the year but how often has he touched the ball? They have no idea how to use him.”

Munster training at Fota Island yesterday. INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Although Knox should have kept his thoughts to himself, he did bring to light another factor that makes this rivalry so brilliant; it is a collision of cultures. These two teams could not be more different. Traditionally Munster has stood for honesty, effective rugby and a will to win that endeared them to fans all over the world.

Leinster, on the other hand, represented free-flowing rugby, entertainment and a soft underbelly. These values have been blurred as the two teams have evolved, with Leinster developing a real hard edge and Munster more than capable of playing rugby, but their core styles remain very different.

This derby has only really hit the heights in recent years as rugby has become more popular in this country but can it now take its place beside the likes of Cork v Kerry or Dublin v Meath?

It can in my book.

What about farther afield? I am not exactly going to liken it to El Classico but in rugby terms, you would find it difficult to find another club game in the world that arouses passion like Leinster v Munster.

Roll on Saturday.

Twitter: @TomFoxy

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Tom Fox

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