Peter Bills: Christmas comes early for Irish rugby

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The Independent Online

So how on earth do Santa and his reindeer pals top this weekend of Heineken rugby for Irish men and women? With extreme difficulty, I would suggest.

Those who follow passionately the fortunes of Leinster and Munster got all their Christmas presents six days early, with coruscating victories by the two Irish provinces this weekend. Perhaps Santa had kept his biggest present for Ireland coach Declan Kidney who must be beaming at two such comprehensive wins. Roll on the 2010 Six Nations Championship in the New Year. Munster, in particular, gave Kidney a template on how to defeat French sides.



Irish teams have finished the year as they started it, with some hammering victories of huge importance. What Leinster did in Dublin on Saturday and Munster, in the south of France yesterday, underlined what a stunning year 2009 has been for Irish rugby. The Heineken Cup, the Six Nations Championship and Grand Slam, the scalp of the world champion South Africans – all have been secured in probably the finest 12 month spell Irish rugby has ever known. Now surely, the Irish duo must be equal favourites to land this season's Heineken title.



Munster's display in Catalonia capped the lot. The Christmas story may be as old as mankind but is it any more venerable than the Munster tale? Down the years, at assorted locations on the European rugby landscape, at Toulouse back in season 1999/2000, in Paris against Stade Francais and at Castres the same season (2001/2); at Leicester in 2002/3 and in Dublin in 2005/6 against Leinster, Munster have won some momentous victories.



But four tries to one, a 37-14 annihilation of French champions Perpignan in their own back yard? This answered for all time the question as to whether Munster still had it in them to climb the mountains in European rugby.



Perhaps we have been misled, beguiled by Munster's ordinary form in the Magners' League this season. Maybe it is now only the Heineken Cup and Ireland internationals which really raise the competitive juices of these players. Whatever the reason, the evidence was as stark and clear as the deep blue sky above the Aime Giral stadium.



Munster won this game through a quite extraordinary performance by their forwards, especially at the breakdown. David Wallace, Alan Quinlan and Denis Leamy tore to pieces the French pack with the kind of enthusiastic frenzy 5 year-olds demonstrate in opening their Christmas presents.



Perpignan were turned over at the breakdown, time and again. Wallace, especially, was simply immense, going backwards and forwards plus working on the floor. But no back row can excel without a platform established by the five in front of them. Denis Fogerty made Jerry Falnnery's absence seem an irrelevance (there can be no higher praise than that), and Paul O'Connell was phenomenal in every phase. Not far behind him were Donncha O'Callaghan and the others.



True, Perpignan made a complete horlicks of this game. They left two of their best players, Jerome Porical and Nicolas Durand on the bench until it was too late, they had a scrum half in David Mele who missed important goal kicks and needed an hour to move the ball from each breakdown or scrum so that all they could do with such dead possession was kick it away. Call Monsieur Mele 'Super Slow Mo'.



But that takes nothing away from Munster's triumph. In an often messy game, they got in the Frenchmen's faces, as you must do in these parts, and did some tough, dirty work in dark places. It was bold, courageous and wonderful.

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