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'Leinster-Munster is huge... it's still the biggest game of the year'

Isa Nacewa and Ronan O’Gara look forward to the return of rugby in Ireland.

Updated Aug 17th 2020, 8:08 PM

UP ON THE wall of his home office back in New Zealand, Isa Nacewa has a photograph of Croke Park on the day in 2009 when he and his Leinster team-mates downed Munster in style in the Heineken Cup semi-finals.

Leinster’s win over the defending European champions is now seen as a turning point in Irish rugby, with the eastern province going on to win that season’s Heineken Cup and another three since.

Speaking on a video call from Auckland, which is back in lockdown after an outbreak of Covid-19 cases, Nacewa explains that he will be up bright and early on Sunday morning local time to tune in for the latest edition of the Leinster v Munster rivalry.

general-view-of-munster-and-leinster-fans-at-croke-park 2009 in Croke Park was a brilliant day for Leinster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“My girls already have their Leinster jerseys ironed and ready,” says ex-Leinster captain Nacewa with a smile. “I’ll be having an early Guinness on Sunday morning. I can’t wait. It’s the game I love the most, the Leinster-Munster match, above all else.

“There’s no better game to have than a Leinster-Munster at the Aviva.”

Over in France, Munster legend Ronan O’Gara will be tuning in too.

The La Rochelle head coach’s own favourite fixture in the rivalry came at Lansdowne Road in 2006, when he was among the try-scorers in a European semi-final win that gave Declan Kidney’s side major momentum heading into the final against Biarritz. Their maiden Heineken Cup crown followed.

“There were plenty of demons in my own head because until you win silverware, you’re not sure if you’re good enough,” recalls O’Gara 

“That [win over Leinster] was a huge game. It caught the attention of everyone in the country and I remember there was massive pressure in the build-up to it.”

Much has been said about the dimming of the rivalry in recent years, with Leinster clearly the dominant force in the Irish game, but Nacewa and O’Gara agree that there is something special about this fixture – even if there won’t any crowd at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday as the Pro14 season resumes after five barren months. 

“It’s huge, it’s the biggest week, no matter what,” says Nacewa. “It’s a different buzz to European weeks, quarter-final, semi-final. No matter what anyone writes about it in the media or any commentary you hear around it, it’s still the biggest game of the year and that’s hands down the beauty of the rivalry, the history around it, the tribal warfare around it.

“It’s a week within the season that you just want to get right, so there is no better game, in my eyes, to come back to rugby. There’s no second chance, no warm-up, it’s been 175 days with no rugby and then whammy, straight into a Munster match at the Aviva. It’s phenomenal from the players’ point of view.”

isa-nacewa Nacewa and O'Gara were speaking for the launch of the Guinness X Bujo Rugby At Home Kits. Source: Isa Nacewa/INPHO

Munster fans will be hoping their new recruits can make a swift impact, with much excitement around the signings of World Cup-winning Springboks Damian de Allende and RG Snyman in particular.

“Munster will probably get huge confidence from the two South Africans coming in,” says O’Gara. “It just makes them a stronger squad. You also have a stronger bench when you have those as starters.

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“I think presence is huge at the top level of sport, a lot of guys maybe who don’t play wouldn’t really understand that but sometimes you don’t have to say anything, you just know by looking into another guy’s eyes that this guy isn’t going to let me down.

“They’ve got an enforcer up front [Snyman] and they’ve got De Allende who was unbelievably impressive in a World Cup. I think at Munster, a world-class 12 can add huge amounts to them.”

O’Gara reckons Munster’s back play will be one of their key focuses for improvement in the coming months but he underlines that the province now have “an awful lot of really, really good players.

“They just needed a little bit of time together and I think they would have got that during post-lockdown to find a little bit of relationships among themselves.”

Meanwhile, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s Leinster haven’t added any new players from outside the province this summer, opting to promote five youngsters from their academy into the senior squad.

“The way Leinster invest in the young guys and give the younger academy guys an opportunity to step up, more often than not they’re stepping up and performing at a really high level, which is now a common trait,” says Nacewa, who keeps in touch with the Leinster coaching staff and senior players.

“I know there was a lot of player-driven contact through that time, leaders like Johnny [Sexton] keeping players engaged, keeping them up to date with everything that’s going on.”

tempers-flare-between-leinster-and-munster-players Munster and Leinster will do battle on Saturday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

While it has to be expected that both sets of players will make errors after such a long break, all bodes well for a memorable resumption of rugby in Ireland on Saturday.

Munster will be hopeful today’s latest round of Covid-19 tests deliver negative results across the board, after a positive result for an academy player last week meant a further six players, including one from the senior squad, had to go into self-isolation.

Leinster, Connacht and Ulster – all of whom were tested today too – will be similarly hopeful of avoiding any Covid-related disruption this week as things finally get going again.

O’Gara adds that Ireland boss Andy Farrell will be watching with as much interest as anyone.

“A lot of the guys in blue probably have the nod over the Munster lads at the minute, with a few exceptions,” says the former out-half.

“If you play well this weekend, you’re very close to featuring in a green jersey – nothing has changed in that in the last 20 years.” 

Isa Nacewa and Ronan O’Gara were speaking as ambassadors for Guinness, who have collaborated with BuJo to create two limited-edition kits, one for Leinster and one for Munster, for the ultimate rugby-at-home experience, the Guinness x Bujo Home Kits. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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