DID WE witness the demise of the Leinster rugby empire last weekend? Or was La Rochelle’s win just another example of where rugby is treacherously heading?
Not since Saracens, who managed to do so in both the 2019 Champions Cup final and 2020 quarter-final, have I seen Leinster look like they were competing in a weight division two classifications above where they normally ply their trade.
Last Sunday as the Ronan O’Gara coached La Rochelle side bulldozed their way past a hapless Leinster, it showed again that size does matter and the elite game is now built around brutal defence and a blank cheque book, as much as skill, dexterity and development.
With an estimated operating budget of €25.9 million for this season, La Rochelle have a squad of players from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Fiji, Tonga, Argentina and France. It’s getting pretty close to the stage that without a wealthy backer, European trophies will be out of reach for most clubs from here.
For many a year now, I have bemoaned the influx of Southern hemisphere players coming into our provinces and depriving our homegrown blood of their dreams. Yet after watching Leinster’s shocking implosion last weekend, it’s getting to the stage where I think we should be selecting players on their physical bulk and ability to run over opponents.
And if those players are predominantly located south of the equator, then why don’t we just open the floodgates and let them arrive en masse?
For all those who despise Leinster, the sight of them locked in reverse gear for the majority of the game was one to behold. However, if you consider that Leinster have been the standard-bearers of Irish rugby for the last decade, where does that leave the other three provinces?
In Munster we tend to get completely blinded by our performances in the Guinness Pro 14 League and just because we can beat teams from Wales, Italy and Scotland on a weekly basis, we think that this gives us a divine right to challenge the big boys from France and England.
The same situation manifests for Ireland when we go and compete in a World Cup setting. We have a respectable Six Nations campaign and we think all we have to do is turn up on the day and a few games later we will be parading down O’Connell Street with the William Webb Ellis trophy on an open-top bus.
So as Munster, Connacht, Ulster and now Leinster set their sights on the dizzy heights of competing in the highly acclaimed and world-respected Rainbow Cup, La Rochelle and Stade Toulousain (€36.6 million budget) will be preparing for the European Champions Cup final on the 22nd of this month.
Munster can take some solace from their recent long-awaited win against Leo Cullen’s depleted squad in the opening game of this newly formed competition. While the win was a very welcome monkey off their backs until both sides face each other again on a European stage, the men in red jerseys can’t even start thinking about reclaiming their Irish throne.
Like Leinster last weekend, Munster’s opponents for tonight’s game also saw their European Challenge Cup aspirations evaporate before their very eyes, as a very average Leicester Tigers side took control of their semi-final and completely dominated proceedings in the second half of the game.
Ulster looked sharp for the first 40 minutes, but when Leicester emerged for the second half after making a raft of changes, the English premiership side took control of the game and Ulster just had no answer to their firepower.
I would expect that because both provinces haven’t won anything for a considerable length of time that we will see very strong sides take to the field in Limerick for this game.
You would think that Munster should be the stronger of the two, especially with home advantage. They should easily see off the traveling Ulster men and be targeting a four-try bonus point victory.
The news that RG Snyman will need to undergo the knife again will be a massive blow for Johann van Graan and at this stage, they would be better off completely writing off his services until next season truly begins.
Verdict: Munster to win.