Long before the thousands jumped onboard the Heineken Cup bandwagon, a hardy few followed Munster rugby in good times and bad.
THE FORMER CAPTAIN (Pat Murray)
BORN and raised within ten minutes of Thomond Park, Pat Murray was always going be a rugby player. “People outside this part of world don’t know what it rugby means here. You have to be living in the place to know that every man, woman and child lives for rugby.
“It is a big community - but with a small community spirit.”
Murray’s first game for Munster came in 1984: “I was only a young fellow. Yes I was nervous, but you’d be nervous before any game, nervous that you would play well and make the most of the opportunity.” Having the likes of Donal Lenihan, Colm Tucker, Niall O’Dononavn, Michael Bradley, Michael Kiernan and Ralph Keyes for company made the moment all the more memorable.
Murray remembers the family pride at his progression into Munster ranks. Though his father was a GAA supporter more used to haunts such as the Gaelic Grounds, Semple and Croke Park, he soon switched allegiances, and became a regular visitor to Thomond, Musgrave, Ravenhill, Donnybrook or wherever Munster, and Murray junior, were in action.
“There was no travelling abroad, you only played a few games every year, in the interpros or against touring sides, but it made for an almost family atmosphere between the players and the supporters.”
Times changed. By 1995, professionalism had overthrown amateurism in rugby ranks.
And there was an exciting new competition in town - the European Cup.
“Our first game was against Swansea in 1995. There was a big build up beforehand compared to anything we had experienced. Professionalism had just come in, Swansea had just gone semi-pro while we were still in our amateur days. The hype was just phenomenal. There were 7 or 8000 people at Thomond Park. And then we beat them 17-13.”
Murray, is too modest and unassuming to go into great detail on how the game was won. In injury time, with Munster trailing 10-13, out half Paul Burke popped a pass to full back Murray for a remarkable try - and ther
Next up was a trip to the France, and a real eye opener for the Munster lads.
“A few weeks later we went off to Castres and that was really, really intimidating. The fans were erupting, they had bands playing, compared to the respect you’d see in Thomond, this was a whole different work. Kenny Smith was out goal kicker, and he got little peace from the fans when he stepped up the ball. There was serious dejection when they got a late try, to win the game.”
It wasn’t to be the last of Murray’s trips to the south of France. A season later he was off to Toulouse - a trip that has gone down in Munster folklore.
“Galimh and Cloghessy called for me to take me to Shannon airport, for our flight first to London, and then to France. But there was no sign of my passport when we got to the airport. It turned out that the lads had hidden it back at the house while I was getting ready and my wife ended up finding it under a flower pot. But that was typical of the banter of the whole side. There was a bit of pandemonium but as it turned out I got there in the end. Needless to say I have never invited the two of them back to the house at the same time since.”
Murray was coming to the end of his days, a game against Wasps in Thomond Park, in 1996 as good as any to take a bow, say farewell and sail off into the rugby sunset. “With the pros coming it, they were getting stronger and faster, well faster mainly,” he says of his decision to walk away.
Does he miss it?
“Not really,” he admits without a pause. “With Shannon we had done three in a row, then I coached them to four in a row so I was easing my way out. This year is the first year that I have taken a complete break from rugby and discovered that sometimes there is a bit of life outside of it.”
Munster moved on without him. The Heineken Cup grew and grew, expanding and developing it’s remit and it’s fan base.
Then it exploded into something incredible - a force of nature that the public, rugby and non rugby alike, were sucked into.
“That was the Saracens game in Vicarage Road around 1999. They were dead and buried, then they came back, to beat one of the best teams in England. It was absolutely incredible. The aftermath was pretty incredible too, I remember meeting Galwey, Cloghessy and Anthony Foley almost directly afterwards. The entire thing really started there with the sheer belief and the whole lot. Everything went up another level.”
So what is this Munster spirit?
He muses for a moment: “Munster is like a local club, a local community with one generation passing the torch onto the next. You see the likes of Jerry Flannery who knows what it is to play for Munster and he is part of that next generation and he will hand the baton over to the next guy and so on and so on. When you put on the jersey you have the responsibility of carrying on that tradition. There is a huge trust factor as well, between the player and the fans. That’s what Munster is.”
Murray is in Cardiff this morning, soaking up the atmosphere, and no doubt been asked time and time again - ‘Will the lads do it’?
“It would be no more than they deserve. But just because they have been so close in two finals means that they will win this afternoon. Biarritz are not a bad side. You have got to look what is inside the jersey - if you want it more than they do then you are half way there.
“Munster can do it. If it happens in the 81st minute at 3-0 we will take it.”
THE RADIO COMMENTATOR Len Dineen (Live 95FM)
LEN DINEEN will be in the Millennium Stadium this afternoon, broadcasting, as he has for the last decade, the exploits of Munster in the Heineken Cup.
Will he be impartial, detached and objective?
You must be joking.
After all he played for the province - an honour which he recalls with fondness.
“I played with London Irish throughout the sixties and midway through the decade I was picked to play for Munster. At the time there was very little movement between England and Ireland so it was a pretty big deal. Tommy Kiernan was on that team and I flew over to play against Ulster. Maybe I broke the bank as it was my one and only cap and it took me three months to get my expenses of about £300 out of the Munster Branch.”
The game, for anoraks finished in a thrilling 0-0 draw.
Let’s jump forward a few decades to 1995 and Dineen was again on Munster duty - broadcasting for local radio on a fledging new competition, the European Cup. Things were far removed from the razz mattaz of today’s series and Dineen recalls the trip to France which Murray referenced, with a chuckle.
“Colm Tucker was manager of Munster when we travelled to play Castres, in one of their first games in the competition. The only problem was that Castres had no floodlights so we had to go to another stadium at the foot of the Pyrennes.”
That night, the travelling party consisted of the squad, the management, parents of some players and a media party of three - Dineen, Ned van Esbeck and Barry Coughlan of this parish.
So it made for a cosy evening? “We were at the back of the stand behind a perspex window. It was just as well we were behind the glass as every time the referee awarded Castres a penalty, this French crowd turned and started waving their fists at us.”
Unperturbed by his brush with French fanaticism, Dineen’s passport began to fill as he travelled to places like Milan, Cardiff, Perpignan and Bourgoin as Munster and the Heineken Cup grew from strength to strength.
Dineen remembers the moment that Munster rugby found itself a bandwagon. Surprise to Surprise - it was against Saracens.
“It really started against Saracens in 1999. There were about 400 supporters over there, and I’ll always remember the game for a few reasons. Firstly, it was the first time that I saw dancing girls at a match. And it was a pretty pleasant experience. The other thing was that Paul Wallace and David Wallace who were playing against each other ended up in a fight. Anytime a bit of a bust up began at Saracens the PA man used to play the theme music to Rocky, so it was a pretty unforgettable experience.”
Munster won a thriller 35-34, and whether excited by news of dancing girls, or boxing brothers, the Thomond Park re-match was heaving.
“There was nearly 20,000 at Thomond for the re-match. They were everywhere, on walls, hanging from rafters. That was before the fire chief stepped in! Munster went onto win that game by a point as well.”
By the time the side reached Twickenham for the competition’s decider against Northampton, they had themselves an army of supporters.
Dineen agrees, such an influx of followers has been something of a mixed blessing.
“Genuine fans who were scrambling for tickets began to get a bit sour and rightly so. The problem is, as in many sports, is that the clubs have gone corporate. Now the clubs will say that they must do this to survive which is fair enough. But some have become too greedy and are charging way in excess of what they should. And that is a pity.”
But why the support? Why has this group of men, won the hearts and minds of such a diverse social and sporting slice of the Irish public.
“What is Munster? I think it goes back a few generations to a time when Munster players were not getting due recognition from the IRFU with regards to national selection. In my time, we were constantly told that Leinster and Ulster players were better than us. That attitude and ethos was completely shattered when Cork Con won the All Ireland League in the early nineties and Munster have dominated the AIL since.
“Another issue is the fans and the players have a great rapport. The Munster players know that if they lose they have let their supporters down. Then take the matches against Gloucester, Sale, or Leinster - what Munster have done transcends rugby, and that is why I think they have more and more supporters who are not from a traditional rugby background. They have this incredible ability to defy the odds or conventions. There is simply no bullshit about them.
“For Munster to win the Heineken Cup would be very hard to put into words. It would be the achievement of years of struggle.
“And it would be so, so justified.”
THE PLAYWRIGHT (John Breen, author of Alone It Stands)
JOHN BREEN’S first Munster memory was not on that magical day which he captured so successfully in Alone It Stands.
“Believe it or not it was the game against the All Blacks in 1973. I would have been about seven or eight, and if memory serves me it was on in Musgrave Park - some trip for a youngest back then. A lot of the Munster team that day were part of the side that beat them five years later.”
The Munster mystique bug was yet to bit young Breen but that was to change utterly after a certain meeting with the All Balcks
“Certainly after the 78 game you became aware of it. After that game, Munster were building up quite a reputation. They beat Australia in 1981 and that was a good Wallabies side. I was at a game where Eddie O’Sullivan scored a try against Australia but hardly anyone saw it because of the fog. That was an amazing spectacle, guys were appearing and disappearing out of the fog. That was an amazing Wallaby team, they had the likes of David Campese and Michael Lynagh.
“Some of my friends would have played with Munster schools and even that was a big deal. The red jersey is something special. I think it is the coolest rugby jersey in the world - especially the old one, scarlet red with the three crowns.”
Strangely, Breen first became aware of the Heineken Cup at Lansdowne Road, on January 30th, 1999 - three years after the inception of the tournament.
And Munster weren’t even there.
“Ulster’s final win over Colomiers was my first Heineken Cup game,” he admits. “A friend from Coleraine, Robert Taylor, managed to get tickets and I still remember drinking brandy and port in the stand that day.”
And still Breen managed to find a Munster tie in. “A few scenes we experienced on the day ended up in the play - like the young lad who threatens to burn the car (though he admits to using extreme artistic licence on that one) ‘we were eating sandwiches out of the back of a car and this lad came up to us looking for money.’
Dealing with petty arsonists wasn’t the only highlight of the day: “That was my first real awareness of competition.”
But that was the year English teams were turning their noses up at the series - and by extension devaluing things. Once they returned to the fold, things began to take off. And Breen, was not surprised by Munster’s conquest in the battlefields of Europe.
“You must remember at this stage that Shannon, Young Munster, Garryowen were all going well in the All-Ireland league. Munster teams had been dominating the competition. People should have seen the writing on the wall and the Munster. And shortly after that the Heineken Cup really took over.”
The moment for Breen arrived on a sunny afternoon against Toulouse in 2000 when Mick Galwey’s side hustle and bustled their way to a 31-15 semi-final victory against their hosts.
“We were in France’s back yard,” Breen recalls. “The passion and the fervour was immense. This was only six months after France had lost to the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup Final and had some of those internationals playing that day. That was incredible.”
And there have been plenty of incredible days since though it is becoming more and more difficult, even for a renowned playwright, to land a ticket. Breen though has not complaints about the late comers to the bandwagon. “I think it is a good thing. I was in Lansdowne Road a few weeks ago and I never experienced anything like it. There was not a corporate head in sight, I was talking to hurling fans, football fans, real sports fans.”
Like any good Limerick man, Breen confesses that the spirit of Munster, is down, well to Limerick.
“It is all down to Limerick. Look at the way that rugby started in Limerick. There was a company of Welsh guards stationed there and they started playing against the dockers. Those dockers formed a club, based around the river they worked on, Shannon. Other blue collar teams sprung up. Then there was cross fertilisation between all the clubs, well maybe not Shannon and Garryowen.
“So from those origins, rugby in Limerick, and by extension Munster is inclusive rather than exclusive. Outside of Munster there is a different culture. And it that factor that makes Munster so special.”
Breen has a golden ticket for the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff this Saturday.
And his desire for a Munster win after two heartbreaks is most unselfish.
“I would just be relieved. Success is more the removal of anxiety of defeat. If they win the feeling will be one of overwhelming relief - not so much for me or fans but the players. I would hate to see this amazing group of individuals again disappointed. I hope it goes right from them on the day.”
Declan O’Connell (Former Chairman of the Munster Supporter’s Club).
DECLAN O’CONNELL’S first outings to places like Musgrave Park and Thomond were not in worship of Munster. No, he had much bigger fish to fry.
“Back then, it was all about the touring sides. I remember as a kid having a poster of the All Blacks on my wall at home and my first big match was South Africa against the Combined Universities. I was 10 or 12 at the time, and you must remember, as television was still only taking off, to see these guys in the flesh was a really big deal.”
Then again Munster games were few and far between at this time, confined only to the interpros and the visits of such touring sides. Yet even then O’Connell remembers Munster always having a special welcome for any high profile visitors.
“Munster used to be fairly dismal in the interpros some years back then. But they were a whole different outfit when the touring sides were in town. They used to peak for those visits and invariably win or share in the Interpros!”
1973 is a year that merits a mention in O’Connell’s trawl of the good old days. Munster featuring Noel Murphy, Tom Kiernan, Moss Keane, Barry McGann and O’Connell’s fellow Charleville man, John Madigan, drew 3-3 with the mighty All Blacks.
“That Munster team is all but forgotten,” continued O’Connell, “after all they came within a minute of history against the All Blacks. Obviously the All Blacks were a big, big draw. The hype, interest and coverage is nothing compared to today. At that stage you could still go to the turnstile on the day of the game and was in (for half crown he recalls). The ban was still around and maybe there would have be reluctance on the part of some GAA supporters to go to a game. Then again it was a different time. By some, you weren’t seen to be fully Irish following rugby.”
There are no prizes for guessing O’Connell’s greatest Munster memory.
“1978 was a surprise. We were all there watching it and couldn’t believe what was happening before our eyes. We were just waiting for the All Blacks to start playing. They never started. That was the strangest thing.
“As you were getting nearer the end of the game the realisation began to sink in that we were about to beat the All Blacks.
“I remember being just alongside the Old Stand at Thomond, just on the right of the terrace. There was a scrum down in front of us, Musnter wheeled it, and drove them over the line and up against the wall. Someone roared ‘Open the gate and let them out.’ You knew that this was something special then.”
His first Heineken Cup match was a midweek affair against Wasps in Limerick. A few Wasps fans, including the parents of one of the players, sat alongside him for company and warmth. He recalls their pre match confidence - and then their shock and awe after their trip Shannonside.
“We had no bother beating them, we hosed them.”
Like Murray and Dineen, the trip to Vicarage Road, is a memorable moment for O’Connell.
“I think that was the first time we won in England. They were top of the English league at the time and not alone did we beat them, we played great rugby to beat them. I actually got the time wrong, I ended up there a few hours before. Maybe it was God punishing me. I told the wife we were going to England shopping.”
She forgave him. In 2000 she was by his side as Munster defeated Toulouse in Bordeaux.
“We had no hope that day. I remember sitting in the stand drenched in sweat wondering how the lads were going to run around in it especially as it was Toulouse and the way they were playing. That performance was just majestic, O’Gara, was superb and the backs played rugby that we had never seen.”
But hard core rugby fans weren’t the only ones watching. Munster’s fan base had spread into GAA and soccer territory. And rightly so says O’Connell.
“Everyone goes to every game now. Rugby fans go to GAA, GAA to rugby, soccer to golf and on and on. I barely remember watching Christy Ring playing as a youngster. In fact my first games would have been watching Cork in the Championship or going to Railway Cup games. 90 percent of the people in Cardiff, will attend GAA matches this summer. And it all the better for it. Sport is sport.”
But will they all be celebrating. O’Connell pauses for a moment: “I am worried about today,” he concedes. “I have been watching this Biarritz outfit and they are a tough bunch. They beat Ulster in Ravenhill in an important game and it’s not too many teams who go to Ravenhill and do that.
“If we play to our full potential we will win. But we have yet to play to our potential in a final. If we win I will be delighted for the players and their families. I’ve gotten to know a lot of them over the years and know the anguish that they have gone through. The defeats to Northampton and Leicester is tough for fans but it is so much worse for the players.
“We cried when we lost.
“Hopefully we will cry when we win.”