SOME games get you up more than others. There’s no denying it. People can be surprised to hear that; they think it’s a sign of weakness if a player fails to enter every game in the same frame of mind. The reality is, it’s not possible to do so.
Adrenaline is a funny thing and what it does can be misunderstood. It’s not binary and you don’t turn it on and off. You don’t go, ‘I’m playing a match here, I better pump myself full of it and get ready to perform.’ It manifests in the body and mind on a scale. It’s always there but not always at the same level. To draw on George Orwell in Animal Farm, ‘All matches are equal but some matches are more equal than others.’
You will find few players who would honestly claim they are as amped-up for the Dragons away in Rodney Parade on a miserable winter night as they are for a full house in Thomond Park for a European clash with Toulouse. It’s human nature and it’s unavoidable.
As a Munster player, there is no bigger fixture in the calendar than the first game against Leinster each season. It’s the litmus test for where the squad is at and gives a strong indication of how ready they are to tackle the big guns in Europe. While there is always the return clash to look forward to in Limerick on St Stephen’s Day, the October fixture is usually the only one where both sides are at full strength. So when it comes to bragging rights, this is the one that matters.
I imagine I’m one of a small number of Munster players in recent history that can say they won every game they started against Leinster, even if it was only two games. The first of these was at a sold-out Aviva Stadium in October 2014. I’ve never experienced an adrenaline rush like I felt in the moments before kick off. It was like an out-of-body experience.
Generally, I struggled with the pre-match process throughout my career. I used to get incredibly anxious and nervous if I overthought things and it had a detrimental effect on how well I started games. I performed better if I could keep a degree of mental separation between me and the occasion. While I would still be preparing for a battle, I would try to avoid over-analysing things because it would tip normal levels of nerves and anxiety into something more sinister.
For certain roles, namely lineout throwers and kickers, it is crucial to retain a level of cool. If you are too fired up, it’s more difficult to take it down a notch and go through the process each time you are called upon. Throwing, in particular, requires patience and relaxation of the muscles to do it well. If you are too tense and can’t control your breathing, it’s much more difficult to execute properly. Your timing, or the finish of your hands, might be slightly off. The margins are so fine that any deviation from the norm can have damaging consequences.
That night in Dublin, I tried to do the same as usual but was overcome by the occasion. It was a combination of things; the novelty of starting in the Aviva for the first time, 50,000 people, finally getting to be in the middle of a fixture I had watched and shouted at all my life. To Leinster’s credit, I don’t think there is a rugby club that does the run onto the pitch better.
I’m not sure if it’s the same now but back then, the pyrotechnicians had big flames blasting either side of you while ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by Guns N’ Roses roared on the speakers. If that doesn’t get you up, you must be a psychopath of some sort.
In reality, what probably psyched me up more than anything that evening was the hatred. It’s not discussed very often but hatred exists in a fixture like this, and it is strong. Not in the personal sense obviously; Munster players don’t hate Leinster’s players, coaches or supporters. But we hate losing to our arch-rivals. We hate playing second fiddle to a club we used to be better than. We hate being perceived as an inferior side whose best days have come and gone.
Hatred is central to any great sporting rivalry, whether people like to admit it publicly or not. And I think that’s healthy. Hatred fuels the passion. I have fond memories of feeling hatred towards UL Bohemians when playing for Shannon years ago, despite the fact I had many close friends lining out on the opposite side. And I knew the feeling was mutual.
I have no doubt Leinster hate to lose to Munster more than anyone else. It hasn’t happened very often in the last decade. Based on the start the two sides have had to their respective campaigns – and the current injury list at Munster – it’s going to be a tall order for the visitors to come out on top. But as I know from experience, it’s amazing what a good dose of hatred can do for a group of players with something to prove.