Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Turning the corner

In her latest look  at Leinster’s past, Catherine Kavanagh features The Day Everything Changed…

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2nd May 2009

This column has taken as its benchmark a kind of “BC” and “AD” approach to Leinster’s evolution over the past 12 years or so. For “BC”, substitute Before Croke Park. For “AD”, suggest After D Day.

This week deals with D-Day.

The 2009 season gave much to Irish rugby. Our first Grand Slam since 1948. Scenes of wild celebration and unbridled emotion in the Millenium Stadium on the Spring Equinox were a fitting herald to a new kind of season. Winning was an unfamiliar concept to Leinster in the European Cup competition, but suddenly after that heady evening when Stephen Jones (both of them I reckon!) clutched his and we collectively lost ours, things seemed eminently possible. At Easter, the season of redemption and new life, we held our own in Twickenham against a nuggety ‘Quins side with a coach who needed to win at all costs. (see previous week’s column)

We had known since January that we were potentially meeting Munster or the Ospreys. That Easter weekend in South West London we sat cheek by jowl with London-based Munster fans who grinned at us conspiratorially in restaurants and in bars, and talked about booking flights home for “the real Final” to be held in Croke Park on the long bank holiday weekend in May. We got the feeling that the Quins’ and Ospreys fans had been resigned to this fate a long time prior to their quarter finals.

As the weeks went by, the Irish media went into the kind of feverish overload we normally associate with ITV and their coverage of England’s soccer teams. We found ourselves torn between pride in our provinces and the smug pronouncements that ours was indeed “The Real Final”, and that peculiarly Irish mortification that we were shouting about our teams’ achievements. By Friday of that welcome Bank Holiday weekend, we talked of nothing else.

The lead up to the game hadn’t been without its own controversy amongst the Leinster supporters’ network.

A glitch in the Ticketmaster system had provided a chance for season ticket holders to purchase 6 tickets, not their allocated 2. Chaos ensued. Hysteria threatened to take the focus away from the real job of the support base – to represent our team as best we could and support the only way we were able. We felt for Leinster Rugby as it became increasingly obvious they were stretched to breaking point that week. They were as nervous as the rest of us. Credit to them, they managed to smooth it all over.

They had also issued a formal email to its supporter base advising that Leinster tickets were to remain in Leinster hands, “or else”. This included the requirement for anyone with a Leinster ticket to ensure they wore blue on the day. This was seen as an effort to counteract the “Munster effect” which had done us down so effectively in 2006. We raised our eyebrows & wondered how Leinster would enforce this. To their credit, it worked as a ploy. Croke Park turned into a Sky Sports theme park for the afternoon. We begrudgingly accepted once the stadium was full that in fact the patchwork effect of red & blue throughout the ground was an inspired move by the TV paymasters, and by the team at Leinster themselves. We judged that Munster probably hadn’t issued a similar edict to its own .

My memories of Saturday May 2 are vivid & intense. The walk to the ground beneath the banners high above the streets with Rocky Elsom and Brian O’Driscoll’s images promising an epic match. The colours within the stadium. All the old Leinster jerseys out in force, and some new ones. More old than new though. The music that precedes the Sky coverage of Heineken Cup games roaring through the ground. The air literally crackling with the tension. A feeling that we had one chance to get this right or face a future christened as poor relations, as also-rans. Munster had trounced the Ospreys a month prior. Munster had been here before. This was uncomfortably familiar territory for us. A Dublin semi - final on a bright spring afternoon against the Oul Enemy (no, not that one. The real one). The only journalist I remember giving us a fighting chance was a proud Munster man whose job it was to talk a global audience through the game. Michael Corcoran walked a thin line admirably that day. The feeling of indescribable pride that 2 Irish teams could produce a spectacle like this, and a crowd like this. A world record-breaking 82,208 jammed into Croke Park. That record for a club game stood until 2012. Even the Dublin Bay seagulls seemed to want to take in the overhead view. You got the feeling that there were no neutrals in the ground that day.

The match was 25 minutes’ old by the time Felipe had landed us a drop goal and Cian Healy had been sent to the bin ,when the Old Guard made way for the new, and a new era began in Irish rugby. It was an innocuous enough stumble, but enough to see those of us at the Canal End put our hands to our faces. Felipe just wasn’t the type to wind the clock down or seek a water break. There was too much personal and professional pride at stake for him in this game. We knew once we saw him writhing, clearly in pain, that things were serious. He left the pitch, clearly emotional, to the applause and tears of the Leinster crowd who had seen him create, conjure, and fail in front of a snarling Munster pack in many previous matches. He wouldn’t play for Leinster again, and most of us knew it.

The first job of the replacement outhalf was to land a tricky penalty in front of his terrified supporters. Munster sat back and waited. The old dogs versus the new blood. The now familiar Sexton ritual of look-up-look-down-look-up –and- walk seemed to tick on forever. Few of us were breathing normally by the time he landed a powerful thump to send the ball sweetly between the posts. Our cheers were as much for ourselves as for our new youngster. Thank God, thank God. You’d cruelly taken the Good Doctor and replaced him with what we were sure ROG would deem the devil incarnate by the end of the match. Suddenly things seemed like they were going our way.

A dynamic lineout where Leo Cullen paid back in full all those detractors who’d said he was a poor man’s Donncha O’Callaghan. An Australian called Rocky who played like a man possessed. A set of outhalf to centre to centre which looked like they were demonstrating at an exhibition game, and suddenly Gordon D’arcy was screaming towards the Canal End with the Munster defence in tatters.

Half time and we were sitting on 11-6. ROG had taken 2 penalties in the first half, and we knew how he’d swung matches for Munster and Ireland before. None of us could quite believe that we were ahead, but we were too nervous to settle.

It was only on Minute 44 that we started believing that this was our day. Just after half time, with the thirsty barely back in their seats, Luke Fitzgerald sprang from left to right and wrong footed Paul Warwick to effectively nail Munster fans to the floor. A kind of heady disbelieving laughter overtook us. Johnny did his thing and we were suddenly gibbering about being out of sight. A tense and emotional 15 minutes followed. Could we do it? We knew they could, but how about us? Did our team with its callow young outhalf possess the discipline and leadership needed to see off a twice-previous Cup winning side?

Those questions were definitively, categorically answered by Brian O’Driscoll. Fitting, really. As the game drew into its final quarter, a last gasp “Hail Mary” of a pass from ROG to Paul O’Connell was plucked from the evening sky by Brian in a moment of serene grace, and almost in slow motion he was out of sight. He ran the length of the famous pitch with the entire stadium on its collective feet. We reckoned that even the blow-ins in the posh seats were screaming at that one. One of the abiding moments for those of us who watched and rewatched the Sky Sports coverage in the days and weeks after, was the sudden roar of Miles Harrison which stayed with us. “And Striding away Now! Brian O’Driscoll!”It still gives the shivers.

Munster didn’t score again that day. Our fate was sealed. We knew that we had the measure of Cardiff or Leicester. Whichever of those two took the spoils in the match on Sunday the third didn’t intimidate us. We knew that day, that 2009 was our year. The year of the Grand Slam and the year of our first Heineken Cup. It was humbling to see the aftermath of the game played out in so many meetings with friends in the streets and bars of the city that evening. Munster fans were grace and class personified. They were gentle in their assessment of their own players. They could afford to be. They’d won it twice already, we reminded them. An old friend of mine grasped my hand and said “ a lot of old scores were settled out there today”. That seemed a fitting epitaph.

Post script

We would all be reunited in red a month later in a dusty field in Gauteng province for the Lions Tour decider on June 27. It’s worth remembering that Alan Quinlan destroyed his Lions Tour, and quite possibly ours too, on May 2. Not everything turned out sweetly in 2009. Quinnie now plies his trade and flies the flag admirably for the country on Sky Sports during the Heineken Cup weekends. He keeps the panel honest.

Luke retained his dignity in the face of some abhorrent play by Schalk Burger in South Africa that summer, and is making his way back following a nightmare few years.

ROG now teaches Johnny how to kick in Paris. Who teaches whom, we wonder. Apparently they are mates. We laugh about that one. We’re pretty sure they do too.

Felipe took his young family to France, and thence to Argentina. An honorary Irishman if ever there was one, he deserved his medal and his moment with the team on the podium in Edinburgh a few weeks later. He retired from international rugby just a few weeks ago and received a guard of honour from the Wallabies as he left the pitch.

The old rivalry continues, and so it should. It’s deep and it’s abiding, but the “bite” that threatened to sour the fixture for a while has gone. The mutual respect from that day permeated more than just the players. Long may it continue.

Previously in this series…

1 - All Things Early Leinster (pt 1)

2 - All Things Early Leinster (pt 2)

3 - Bath v Leinster 2005

4 - Lansdowne Road April 23, 2006

5 - “the toughest match I ever played”

Catherine [@KavanaghCK] is a Dubliner with a strong sense of outrage and blind loyalty to all things Blue. She attributes these faults sorry qualities to her role as the instigator of the Leinster Supporters' movement. Serious Family involvement in Irish Rugby over the generations and being the son her father never had, has left her with Oval-Ball dementia. This is an incurable condition.

When Catherine isn't at the RDS supporting Leinster she works in London & enjoys visits to Rosslyn Park RFC where she is a non-playing member. These afternoons remind her of the amateur days, when the beer was cheap & the talk was cheaper.

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