Munster took their second European Rugby Cup crown in three years to ensure the record books reflect the reality that they are far beyond the likes of Bath and Brive (both one-time winners) as real heavyweights of the Northern Hemisphere’s top competition. They join Wasps, Leicester and the beaten finalists Toulouse in having at least 2 titles to their name and if those history books permit a footnote it will be that this was surely the toughest road yet travelled to the trophy.
In the immediate aftermath of a depressing and distressing World Cup featuring many of their first XV, Munster faced the 2007 champions Wasps, the French table-toppers Clermont Auvergne and their conquerors from llast year, Llanelli in the pool stages. Although losing 2 from 6, which no previous champion has recovered from, they gouged out the bonus points they needed in the Group of Death.
Those losses consigned them to the hard road through the knock-out stages, playing away to the English league leaders Gloucester and then on English soil against Saracens, again in the aftermath of a huge international let-down, this time the Six Nations. Finally they faced Europe’s aristocrats and the only three-time winners of the Heineken Cup, Toulouse.
In 2006, the primary emotion was relief. Monkeys removed from backs. The spectre of ending careers trophy-less, forever bridesmaids laid to rest. 2007 was a hungover anti-climax, the motivation (it has been admitted) unclear. 2008 was about proving they could build a legacy, stock a cabinet with silverware. That need to prove themselves, that lack of assuredness contrasts with the near-arrogance we expect from Toulouse. 65 minutes gone and having just nosed 16-13 in front, the French you feel would have sought another score, a try to put the game out of reach. Munster instead very visibly and conciously sought nothing but the ball. Stretching for another score might turn the ball over and afford Toulouse an opportunity to counter-attack, to score a breakaway try. The clearest example of this was O’Gara and O’Connell’s board meeting over a kickable penalty with a minute left. Even a successful shot at goal or kick to touch would give Toulouse a chance at gaining possession knowing a converted try would steal the game. Perhaps remembering Croke Park in 2007, O’Gara this time refused to give the French even a sniff of a chance, tapping the penalty and feeding O’Connell to set up a slow, slow ruck in which the referee considered the ball to have become unplayable and blew up for full time.
Very tense, very hard fought, very satisfying. I’m looking forward now to Ireland’s date tomorrow with the Barbarians. It should be a slightly lighter encounter with, dare I suggest, a tiny bit more width on the ball.