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The Leinster - Edinburgh Rivalry

For Barcelona , read Alfredo di Stefano; For Europe, read Jimmy Demaret; For England, read Australia; For the Boston Red Sox, read Babe Ruth; and for Leinster , read......... eh......... Duncan Hodge?

OK, so the comparison isn't quite the same and is void of international awareness, but Hodge has done more than most to set upon Leinster a chilling form of jinx. His record of played three, won two, drew one, and a grand total of 25 points is a massive understatement to his contributions. (oh, and for good measure, his only appearance against Ireland during a twenty-six times capped career for Scotland was Murrayfield 2001: Scotland 32, Ireland 10).

Last week the GAA held another Special Congress to debate more changes to the future of their sports. Immediately after Galway and Antrim had been relocated to the Leinster Hurling Championship for the next three years, a voice from the back of the room campaigned for further change. The unknown individual, said to have had a strong Australian accent with Middle Eastern extraction, asked for Edinburgh Rugby to be granted admission into Leinster , and in doing so, forfeit any other sporting obligations. The motion was narrowly defeated, and so departed the man of mystery.

The assertion amongst management and some Leinster fans is that the ERC has done Michael Cheika and his players a massive favour by scheduling this game so early in the European season. Unfortunately, history flies in the face of such optimism. This view should be taken with slightly more than a pinch of salt - maybe the whole Saxa factory?

In October 2000, Matt Williams took his Leinster side to the old Myreside Stadium to take on a team formally known as the Edinburgh Reivers. Fly-half Eddie Henkenui failed to land any of the three conversions attempts before Hodge rolled up to deliver the knock out blow. Peter O'Reilly noted in last week's Sunday Times that Leinster felt they had the winning of that game. All this author remembers was listening to commentary on RTE radio that Friday evening. " Edinburgh Reivers 29, Leinster 21 Game over!"

Statistically, Leinster's record against Edinburgh in the European Cup group stages is their second worst in this competition. Only Stade Francais have proved more difficult for Leinster to crack. The two wins from six contests marks it beside Toulouse and the Llanelli Scarlets on a win percentage ratio. The nineteen point-defeat in Murrayfield last season was Leinster's heaviest in the pool stages on these islands since Leicester triumphed 47-22 at Welford Road in September 1997.

Back to 2000-01, L'Aquila were well on their way to conceding 392 pool points (after leaking 90 to Stade Francais) and Glasgow performing equally badly, everyone at Leinster Rugby knew a best runner-up slot would not be possible - the conclusion was to start winning. Biarritz took a hiding at Donnybrook and Northampton were beaten in back-to-back fixtures. Up next? Edinburgh Reivers. Hodge was the hero as he rattled over 19 points - and Leinster were held to a 34-34 draw.

Leinster had raced into a seventeen point lead after tries by Hekenui, Leo Cullen, Bob Casey and Brian O'Meara, who chipped in with a further fourteen points. But the visitors stormed back, with their backs collecting tries at will during a frenetic closing period. The Reivers won a penalty under the Leinster sticks with the last play of the match, and with two Leinster players laying prostate near the half-way line, Don MacKinnon instructed Hodge to go for the three pointer - an extraordinary decision as it effectively eliminated both sides from the tournament.

"I couldn't believe their decision to take the penalty because of the maths but more importantly because as a group, we were shell-shocked", the Leinster captain would go on to say. Biarritz would avenge the defeat in Dublin (as they always seem to do), and Leinster bowed out in group stages yet again.

Hodge was quite perplexed about the notion of a hoodoo when we spoke on Thursday to preview the match. As the conversation moved gently towards its conclusion, he said he fondly recalls his clashes with Leinster, but the drawn game was him favourite. "It was tough, because we knew we had to win the match but the captain pointed to the posts, and that was that". I said him if he said he contemplated over-ruling his skippers decision - "not really, no. I had to do what I was told" he laughed.

A catastrophe was narrowly averted because qualification for the Heineken Cup was based on inter-provincial results (not the Celtic League), with the top two guaranteeing their participation for the following season. Leinster had finished third in the inter-pros after suffering a double defeat to Ulster in September, and a reversal in Galway . Entry to the European Cup in 2001-2002 was now out of Leinster's hands, but Munster 's successful negotiation of Group 4 bailed the Donnybrook club out of an embarrassing situation.

Fast forward to Michael Cheika's second season in charge. In typically unpredictable fashion, Leinster began with big wins over Munster and Gloucester in Lansdowne Road, but were horribly defeated in Galashiels by the Borders. In October, they set up tent in Murrayfield. Five months previously, they strolled to 31-8 win on this ground, narrowly missing out on the Celtic League by virtue of David Humphries' unbelievable good fortune in Swansea . The match was live on Sky, with a 13:30 Sunday kick-off.

Yet again the man from Dumfries was to deliver the dagger that punctured Leinster hearts. The visitors were two points and three tries to one up, but reminiscent of 2000, Hodge was sprung from the bench and a crisp drop goal in front of Edinburgh's biggest attendance ensured Leinster's rebuilding post- Black Sunday still had a long way to go.

Cheika's men still had two minutes to win the game after Hodge's sucker punch, but choose to find a route to the try-line, rather than take a simple drop goal. A turn-over just shy of the Edinburgh whitewash signalled the end of a game that nearly failed to make past the half hour mark after referee Joel Judge's head wound. Whatever good news that could be taken was provided by Caucau and friends when Gloucester were beaten in Kingsholm by Agen.

Leinster responded with a thumping 49-10 win in Donnybrook (Dick Best described the boys in blue as "the Peter Pans of Europe") with a typically robust display from Shane Horgan. Lynn Howells, coach of the Gunners, was drooling enviously in front of the Sky Sports cameras when asked about the attacking verve of his more illustrious hosts. Howells could have been forgiven for thinking "only if" after rumours circulated the press that the Welshman was at one point the front runner for the job soon to be occupied by Michael Cheika.

The damage was partly done on Leinster 's European season, and a defeat eight days later in Kingsholm condemned them to a trip to London Wasps. An intercept pass and yellow card prior to half (both incidents involving Wasps) signalled game over. Season 2006-07 also saw a glorious position to claim a Magners League crown end in Cardiff - bringing down the curtain on a very unhappy spell post-Gloucester in January.

Seven months later, Shane Jennings and Leo Cullen returned home like refugees from their Leicester hibernation and yet again the tournament organisers threw up a nasty surprise for Leinster . Edinburgh would be the opponents during the pre-Christmas sparring session. Andy Robinson was the new Edinburgh coach to take on Leinster and crucially, for the Scottish side anyway, he enhanced the unlikely hex.

Bonus points were discussed in the Ballsbridge air prior to the home leg after Leinster's capitulation in Toulouse , but Edinburgh leaked just the three. It was absolutely imperative that Leinster claimed a win in Murrayfield. They didn't. Despite having unprecedented dominance up front, Leinster again choose the wrong tactics, and beating Edinburgh at their own game in a soulless stadium has never been possible. They spread the ball time and time again, and in a season that signalled Leinster 's new found inability to score tries any more, against the rampaging Ally Hogg and brilliant Mike Blair, the visitors were smashed.

Leinster had virtually no control at half back, and the laboured nature of their centres trying to find any sort of a gap was horrifying. What had happened to the stunning back-line football that had been characterised as "Leinster"?. Chances were not taken, and if the same occurs when the sides meet yet again in Murrayfield this weekend, another European season may have collapsed. Leinster need to keep the ball close to their forwards, win their set-pieces, be ultra-disciplined, and take every single opportunity that comes their way.

Such has been Leinster's dire record at Murrayfield that the Edinburgh City Council are thinking of extending the city bus tour. No longer will the the millions of tourists that flock to the Scottish capital have to witness just the Castle, the Royal Mile and Princess Street. A commemorative graveyard will be added to the itinerary at EH12 5PJ. The graveyard is Murrayfield; the sole headstone simply reads "Leinster Rugby". Hodge reckons the key to Edinburgh's success might be that "we don't hold any fears" of Leinster, but, unsurprisingly, he believes the danger-man in the Leinster line up will be Felipe Contepomi.

The former fly half also touched on the problems out wide as "we have had a few centres missing, so Southwell will fill in", but despite the presence of Blair (whom he admitted spending a lot of time with this week), Godman, Patterson and Southwell, the Edinburgh game plan will not be to "kick to the ball up and down the park. We know this is going to be in the tight"

So this Saturday at 13.35, Leinster begin their 14th journey in rugby's premier tournament with a trip to their version of Fawlty Towers . Ironically, the season ends in the same venue and same city. If Leinster are to get this horrendous monkey off their back then anything's possible. If not, then the ten points they have surrounded so early in the League could mean that the most anticipated season in the province's history will be over by Halloween. Over to you, guys!

by Andrew Farrell, © 2008-10-10

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