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Saturday 3 December 2016

Cullen shows fire over rivalry

Leinster coach defends derby, claiming it would be struggle to find a fixture in world with such intensity

Leo Cullen believes the Leinster-Munster rivalry is the most intense in the world
Leo Cullen believes the Leinster-Munster rivalry is the most intense in the world

The importance of a fixture is generally reflected in the passion Leo Cullen shows in his last press conference before game day.

For the most part, the poker-face is in full effect for the media until there comes an occasion, or a comment from a former team-mate, for which it is worth losing it.

Leinster versus Munster still matters to some.

Gordon D'Arcy's claim that this most bloody-minded battle of old has lost its intensity was met with a stinging rebuke.

"I think Darce has a very blurred view of the past," said Cullen.

"If you look back to Leinster versus Munster when there was, what, 200 or 300 people at an inter-provincial game (in the late 1990s).

"Leinster played against Munster at the RDS, not that long ago, five years, and there were a hell of a lot less than 40,000 people at the game."

It is stunning to witness how even great warriors of recent years can quickly discount what it is like to play from inside the bubble of parochial rivalry.

There is a difference between intensity with high-grade rugby and intensity without it.

That has been the main difference between, say, the Heineken Cup semi-finals of 2006 and 2009 and the annual Aviva spectacles of 2014 and 2015.

They have lacked the drama and the meaning that comes from a rivalry intensified through ten years when first one, then the other were the European high kings.

These are new times, new teams, struggling to adapt to a fast-changing landscape where the local hero is giving way to the hired-hand elsewhere.

It is the sad reality of professional sport. It is easier and quicker to buy it rather than build it.

Just because Leinster and Munster haven't looked as good doesn't mean it hasn't meant as much to those who matter most.

"Ask any of the players, does it mean any less to them now," suggested Cullen.

"I think you'll see the intensity the players will bring, what it actually means to them."

The Leinster coach is weary of all the negativity around Irish rugby.

The man has a point. The provinces hold first, second and third places in the PRO12 League.

The Champions Cup hasn't even started and there have been gloomy forecasts about how the Irish will struggle against the French and English clubs.

First things first, Leinster trail Munster by one point, Ulster by two, as they look to build on four wins from five, the same return as their greatest rivals.

"I think it should be a celebration of the PRO12," shared Cullen.

"This is two teams going at it in front of 40,000 people who are turning up to watch the game, and two teams for whom it means a hell of a lot.

"It means a hell a lot more than the four or five points that are on offer.

"So yeah, it is a bit special. I think it is a good advert for the league."

He still wasn't finished. There were more shots in his arsenal.

"In many ways, it feels like we're trying to justify this fixture.

"It is a great rivalry, because if you went around the world, any rugby environment around the world, and then try to explain this fixture.

"To say this fixture is diminished is really unfair, because I would struggle to find a fixture anywhere else in the world that has this sense of rivalry.

"I think we need to celebrate it rather than try and say it's not the way it once was.

"Say, provincial rivalries in New Zealand, do you think any of their games are as good as this, in terms of 40,000 people coming through the turnstiles?"

"I'm trying to think of South Africa or Australia, you'd struggle to get a comparison."

This is the plea of a man working in a world where sometimes coming first in the second-most important competition isn't even good enough.

The main strides Leinster have made this season are in attack where their shape and structure look far better.

Munster have been more impressive in defence.

One will have to give way.

Leinster: R Kearney; R O'Loughlin, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong, D Toner, I Nagle, R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip.

Munster: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, K Earls, R Scannell, R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan, D Ryan, B Holland, P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander.

Verdict: Leinster.

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