De Bello Hibernico | Munster versus Leinster, the Punic Wars of Modern Irish Sport

“It is right to learn, even from the enemy”

– Ovid

They say the old wars are over but they’re not, they’ve just taken on a different form.

Munster versus Leinster. Fewer words in all of sport conjure up as gladiatorial a saga as those three. A decade ago and more, these matches were the stuff of legend, the blistering showpieces of Irish rugby. The last few years, though? The old kings have stepped down or faded away and the spectacle has suffered in the interregnum, as we wait for a new generation to forge their own crowns. To pass the time while we wait, let’s look to the ancient world for a similar story, about the bloody clash of two empires.

Much like Munster in rugby’s professional era, Carthage was a city with big plans punching well above its weight. Munster originally had a reputation as plucky underdogs but that eventually evolved into pure grit. They would routinely be frothing at the mouth for big European matches wherein they fought like junkyard dogs; any opposition player with a finger on the wrong side of a ruck was liable to have it bitten off. Similarly, Carthage, through maritime and commercial ingenuity, dominated the western Mediterranean from about the 5th to 3rd centuries BC.

Exactly how an Irish provincial team rose from relative obscurity to establish a decade-long romance with the lady that is European rugby will be the subject of debate and anecdote for years to come. While the French and English teams had unparalleled funds and talent to draw on, Munster had some fire deep within which kept their blood boiling red with passion. A huge measure of this tenacity was born from their eternal rivalry with Leinster, Munster’s antithesis.

For all their enmity, Rome and Carthage were not so vastly different from one another; both were empires in their infancy, each trying to strangle the other in the crib. I find reading about their wars and battles as fascinating as the Munster-Leinster derbies of yesteryear, which were among the most eagerly anticipated clashes of the season. Now, while Hannibal’s father did truly despise Rome, the comparison falters here because I doubt that Ronan O’Gara’s father ever took him to a temple to swear a blood oath of eternal hatred towards Leinster, but you never know.

Cannae – Munster 30-6 Leinster – Heineken Cup semi-final 2006

Cannae Punic Wars -
The Battle of Cannae

Without a doubt Hannibal’s finest moment, and indeed something which is studied even today in the world’s military academies, was the battle of Cannae. I won’t go into the minutiae of the battle here, but suffice it to say that the Carthaginians and their allies annihilated a Roman army twice their size, through sheer cunning and courageous execution.

One detail that does bear mentioning, however, is that once Hannibal’s superior cavalry had driven off their Roman counterparts on the flanks, they circled around to the rear and proceeded to systematically target Roman centurions and other officers. This was a very deliberate and ruthless tactic designed to leave the rank and file leaderless and panicked.

At least 60,000 Romans butchered in one day will tell you how effective it was.

Munster used a similar tactic during their very own Cannae in 2006, and put enormous pressure on Leinster’s then outhalf and on-field commander Felipe Contepomi. Deliberate and ruthless. The scoreline of 30 points to six in Munster’s favour tells its own tale, albeit several thousand magnitudes less gruesome than the original Cannae in 216 BC.

After the battle, Hannibal had the opportunity to march on Rome and put the city to the sword. For myriad reasons he didn’t. This led to his cavalry commander, Maharbal, lamenting that, “You know how to gain a victory, Hannibal, you do not know to use it.” Munster, however, had no such trouble building on their victory over Leinster and went on to finally lift the Heineken Cup at the end of the 2005-06 season, after twice losing the finals in 2000 and 2002.

In victory so often are sown the seeds of defeat and in defeat those of victory. This was true of both Munster and Carthage and of Leinster and Rome. Miraculously, after Cannae, the Romans didn’t sue for peace, as all logic and precedent dictated. Instead, with the unmoveable will of an empire-in-waiting, they clung to existence and learned that, as things stood, they would not be able to defeat Hannibal in the field. They bided their time and let Hannibal waste his time and resources campaigning around Italy; they resorted to hit-and-run tactics to keep Hannibal frustrated and at arm’s length.

Over the course of the three Punic Wars, Rome was compelled to develop their own fleet to match that of seafaring Carthage. Similarly, they drew attention away from the Italian peninsula by launching their own military campaigns in Spain, an area of massive Carthaginian influence; the city of Barcelona is supposedly named for Hannibal’s family, Barca. Eventually, Rome would learn from all its blunders and develop its military strategy far beyond that of its old foe in order to finally destroy Carthage.

Likewise, Leinster would twice see Munster lift the Heineken Cup, in 2006 and 2008, and would themselves move heaven and earth and, more importantly, the rugby ball – remember when they were the best passing team in Europe? – to finally lift it themselves. While the lion’s share of the credit is due to the players and to their two magnificent coaches, Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt, there’s no doubt that their rivalry with Munster helped hone their skills and propel them to glory.

Heineken Cup, Semi-Final 2006

Leinster’s majestic, soft-hands backline was undoubtedly the work of Cheika and Schmidt, but I believe that the sheer grit and cunning shown by their pack owes something to their twice-yearly battles with Munster. It took three Punic Wars for Rome to get the better of Carthage, and three years for Leinster to overtake Munster, and Leinster might have had something akin to this article’s tagline in mind along the way: it is right to learn, even from the enemy.

And leading this apprenticeship in the Leinster camp was, of course, Johnny Sexton. It was only a matter of time before he made himself known, this Scipio Africanus, to Munster’s Hannibal, Ronan O’Gara. Just like the generals in the ancient world, these two men strived to lead from the front and were the epitome of cool under pressure. Like Hannibal and Scipio, they too fought passionately for the glory of their homelands, threading a thin line between the berserker and the white walker. Fire in the stomach, ice in the mind.

The season after Munster’s second Heineken Cup triumph in 2008, Leinster had learned enough and were ready for their revenge; they were ready for the battle of Zama.

Zama – Leinster 25-6 Munster – Heineken Cup semi-final 2009

During the latter stages of the Punic Wars, some Roman senators habitually ended their orations with, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”, which roughly translates to “And furthermore I believe that Carthage must be destroyed.” This was the gravity with which they viewed the Carthaginian threat and the salty wound that was Cannae. Hannibal was a veritable boogieman to the Romans for decades afterwards; perhaps Ronan O’Gara was to the Leinster men, haunting their sleep with perfectly weighted kicks and piercing grubbers. It’s hard not to imagine, if just for sheer pig iron, Johnny Sexton reciting some mental equivalent of “Ronan O’Gara must be destroyed.”

Leinster’s opportunity presented itself in 2009, and on that day they didn’t so much put Munster to the sword as rip their own sword from their grasp and give them an unmerciful spanking with it. Much the same scenario played out in the battle of Zama in 202 BC.

The Romans, under General Publius Cornelius Scipio, had landed in North Africa, right in Carthage’s backyard, for a reckoning. The Carthaginian Empire, exhausted from the two previous Punic Wars, retained but a core of its former territories and military power. They still had Hannibal, however, and tradition has it that he met with Scipio for a parley before the battle. Whether history or anecdote, the conversation supposedly went like this:

Hannibal: “I made you what you are.”

Scipio: “You caused me to be. It’s not the same thing.”

Now, substitute O’Gara for Hannibal and Sexton for Scipio and you have the gist of this match. Leinster dominated their old foes from first whistle to last, playing with a verve that was entirely their own and a fortitude that had more than a hint of Munster about it. The defining moment, the photograph plastered all over the newspapers and blogs the following day, came just after the half hour mark when Leinster scored their first try: Sexton standing over O’Gara on the Munster try line, screaming joyously and belligerently in his face.

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The Battle of Zama

In the battle of Zama, Scipio made sure to have the superior cavalry, both Roman and allied, to avoid a repeat of Cannae. Hannibal had about 80 war elephants and, much like Munster tended to bully the opposition at the breakdown and in the set pieces, he intended to charge them headlong into the Roman formations to disrupt them, to spread fear and panic.

Scipio, however, knew that this was exactly what was coming.

In order to neutralise the elephantine threat, he had it so arranged that when they charged, his troops would pull aside and leave corridors through which they would harmlessly trundle. This they did and they were dispatched to the great watering hole beyond with relative ease at the rear of the Roman formation.

Scipio went on to carry the day and received the glorious agnomen Africanus for his troubles. Hannibal, for his part, fled Carthage before its eventual sack and served hither and thither around the Eastern Mediterranean as a military advisor, Roman agents ever at his heels.

The boogieman could not be allowed to live.

Now, while O’Gara wasn’t hunted to the earth’s end in the wake of Munster’s defeat, he never again achieved that former glory with his club. Seeing Leinster lift their first Heineken Cup not long after their Zama must have been particularly nauseating for O’Gara, much as one can imagine an embittered Hannibal drinking away his old age while Rome’s influence grew all around the Mediterranean, until he finally acquainted his lips with poison.

Rome forged their empire in battle with Carthage and Leinster marched over Munster on the way to their first of three Heineken Cup titles in four years.

Both feats were unprecedented.

Alas, just as Rome was eventually torn apart by barbarians, so too was Leinster, and by the oldest barbarian of them all: money. The financial might of the French and English clubs may well dominate European rugby for decades to come.

In the new wars, old rivalries such as Munster and Leinster’s are quaint relics. Modern clashes are often toothless re-enactments of the old glories, and rugby is so much poorer for it.

Oh but how I’d love to be proven wrong in their next encounter.

A version of this article originally appeared on Eoin Madigan’s blog, The Lies They Tell Us.

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