For so long, the bi-annual meetings of Leinster and Munster in the various iterations of the Celtic League have been a kind of a temperature reading of the balance of power at provincial level.
That balance has become lopsided over the last half-decade or more though, to the extent that few expect Saturday’s clash at Aviva Stadium (5.15pm) to result in anything other than a home victory.
You’ll have heard the radio ads that talk up the clash of the old rivals – if the rope in the tug-of-war was taut, there would scarcely be a need for such promotion as the tickets would walk out the door by themselves.
The word is that sales are around the mid-20,000s and it was amusing earlier this week to read a prominent rugby columnist lay the blame for that at Munster’s door.
In a cost-of-living crisis, away trips are definitely classed under the ‘luxury’ rather than ‘necessity’ heading, especially when the expectation is of defeat against what is currently a superior side.
Munster did at least pick up a second win in five games last weekend with a home victory against South African side the Bulls but Leinster have five wins from five and it would be quite a shock if that didn’t become six from six.
In recent times, the Munster legend was forged from challenging for domestic and European honours and to be in a position now where it looks like simply qualifying for the Champions Cup would represent a successful season is an unfamiliar feeling.
But, every now and then, teams in all codes need a reset and such rebuilds don’t happen overnight.
There are plenty of Arsenal fans who have had to endure tough times in the period since Arsène Wenger left in 2018, but finally they are seeing green shoots as the Gunners sit top of the Premier League, four points ahead of a Manchester City side that are still expected to ease their way to a third title in a row.
While new Munster coach Graham Rowntree has experienced a tough start to life in his role, it’s worth remembering that, in 2010, Joe Schmidt lost three of his first four games in charge of Leinster.
The saying that success has many parents whereas failure is an orphan was firmly underlined by the Republic of Ireland women’s team qualifying for next year’s World Cup.
Let’s not forget that, five-and-a-half years ago, the team were forced into a situation where they had to hold a press conference to highlight the paucity of conditions faced by them, including the fact that players weren’t even allowed to keep their official FAI tracksuits.
At the same time as this was happening, the association was footing the bill for a lavish birthday for its chief executive, who was already on a handsome wage, one of the best-paid football administrators in Europe.
If we are to take it as read that the need to highlight the team’s plight came after they had no joy from keeping their misgivings in-house, it has to go down as a huge failure by those in charge, a relic of the attitude that female sportspeople were second-class citizens.
Thankfully, that proved to be a turning point and the appointment of Vera Pauw was a key step in leading the team to where they are now. It’s amusing now to read news articles from 2019, when she was announced as the new boss, and to see comments from readers along the lines of why an import was necessary and questioning her past record.
Sometimes, a fresh outside perspective is exactly what’s needed and Pauw was able to provide that while at the same time generating a buy-in from all stakeholders that patience and hard work were the key ingredients in slowly getting things back on track again.
The qualifying campaign for Euro 2022 (Euro 2021 as it was meant to be at the outset) brought some encouraging results but it ended with three straight defeats, meaning that Ireland finished third behind Germany and Ukraine, when one win would have given them second place and a play-off spot.
That was obviously disappointing but there was a strong response for the World Cup qualifying, even allowing for a home loss to Sweden in the opening match. The 1-1 in the return fixture in Gothenburg in April showed that Ireland were developing a steely resolve and that was on show all the way to Hampden Park last week.
This weekend, the GAA is holding a national ‘Respect the Referee Day’.
It’s something we’ve mentioned here over the past while and it scarcely needs repeating that the necessity for such a thing means that there is currently a big failing within the association. Respect for officials should be near the top of the list of non-negotiables when anybody starts out playing sport, but as GAA president Larry McCarthy acknowledges, this involves trying to change a deeply ingrained behaviour.
“It is extremely difficult and it’s a long, slow process of changing culture,” he says, “it’s not going to be instantaneous.
“Supporting the referee, disciplinary processes, putting out the messages we’re going to be putting out next week are all part and parcel of it. But this is only a once-off. This is the start. We have to keep going and do it.”
That last sentence and the degree to which it is upheld is ultimately what will decide the success of the initiative. While a one-off event might result in a brief improvement, the key is that the change remains ongoing and that, in six or 12 months’ time, we can say that things are moving in the right direction.