Opportunity knocks in battle of Irish rugby’s bridesmaids

As Craig Gilroy received the ball on the Thomond Park flank and began his mazy dribble into Heineken Cup history, it seemed like the tectonic plates shifted beneath Irish rugby.

he bright young wing planted a stake in the heart of a Munster dynasty and, while Leinster would ultimately reign supreme at the end of the 2011/’12 campaign, it was a Springbok-laden Ulster side that looked to be their nearest local rivals.

A decade on and it now looks like that was just a tremor beneath the surface.

Gilroy is now a veteran, not involved as the first-teamers go at it at Kingspan Stadium tonight. A generation of players and several coaches have come and gone from both teams without adding anything to the trophy cabinet. The big blue monster remains firmly in the distance.

Since that 2011/’12 quarter-final, 23 titles have been on offer to these teams and 11 teams have toasted United Rugby Championship, Rainbow Cup or Champions Cup success.

As they scrapped for the position, Scarlets, Glasgow, Ospreys and Benetton have climbed the steps.

On the whole, it was a decade of dominance from Leinster in Irish terms and, while they have regrets about their European return, they’ve hovered up URCs along the way.

Ulster haven’t been back to a European showpiece since their 2012 defeat to Leinster, while Munster haven’t reached the final since 2008.

They’ve been beaten finalists three times in the URC, losing to Glasgow, Scarlets and Leinster, while Ulster have got to the top of that particular mountain twice without managing to get over the line against their rivals to the south-east.

Arguably, they’ve come closer to knocking Leinster off their perch. The renovation works at Ravenhill cost them home advantage in the 2012/’13 season and even at the RDS they left the final behind them.

Ruan Pienaar’s injury and Jared Payne’s red card scuppered their 2014 chances and a period of instability followed as a host of their heavy-hitters left and they cycled through coaches before Dan McFarland got them back on track.

They almost knocked defending champions Leinster out of Europe at the Aviva Stadium in the 2018/’19 season, with Jacob Stockdale’s fumble one of modern Irish rugby’s true sliding doors moments.

Munster’s have been to five semi-finals, but each time they got within range of the biggest beasts the target seemed to get further away. Even when they suffered heartache against Toulouse this year, the champions were ruthlessly deposed by their old friends Leinster a week later.

So, while many of their fans may have enjoyed seeing Ronan O’Gara topple Leo Cullen’s men last weekend, there is little real solace to be taken until these teams take the final step.

Tonight could be Johann van Graan’s last match in charge and the South African is Munster’s fourth head coach since they last won a title. McFarland is the eighth man to hold the position since Mark McCall guided them to this title in 2006.

There are signs of life north and south, strong young players who look unburdened by the history of it all and capable of closing the gap but the target they’re chasing continues to move rapidly away and they need to take every opportunity.

Both will wonder if Leinster has been weakened by their Marseille defeat; if this could be their year to finally bridge the gap and have something tangible to celebrate.

With the South Africans now on board in both competitions, it’s only going to get harder, indeed the winner may have to win a Cape Town semi-final to get to the final if the Stormers beat Edinburgh tomorrow.

Before they can think about that, they must win the battle of the bridesmaids in Belfast. Home advantage might just tip it in Ulster’s favour.

Verdict: Ulster

ULSTER – S Moore; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt); Marcus Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Reps: J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, G Milasinovich, K Treadwell, Matty Rea, N Doak, I Madigan, B Moxham

MUNSTER – M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray; J Wycherley, N Scannell, S Archer; J Kleyn, F Wycherley; P O’Mahony (capt), A Kendellen, G Coombes. Reps: D Barron, J Loughman, J Ryan, J Jenkins, T Ahern, C Casey, B Healy, C Cloete

REF – J Peyper (South Africa)

Ulster v Munster,
Live, TG4/Premier Sports, 7.35

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