There’s nothing worse than the chaotic airport scenes that invariably follow these painful European exits.
With nine chartered flights scheduled for Cork, Limerick and Dublin, all within a tight two-hour departure window, the pressure on the travel agents and airport staff was every bit as intense as that faced by Munster in the opening 30 minutes at the Stade Chaban-Delmas last Sunday.
In the end, the ground crew at Bordeaux-Merignac airport handled the challenge that bit better.
Expectation followed by despair, the disappointment of defeat fuelled even further by the carnage that accompanies the mass exodus of thousands of fans whose only desire now is to get home as soon as possible.
If only. Five passengers are missing from our charter. The French authorities insist we have to wait. This is a country on high alert. It was that kind of weekend.
And to think things started so promisingly. Everyone in great spirits on Saturday morning, despite the 7am departure from Cork.
Munster fans everywhere. Even Jamie Carragher was left scratching his head. The former Liverpool great, spotted making his way towards the check-in desk, had every right to expect a non-eventful passage for his early morning flight to Manchester.
Imagine his reaction at the sight of hundreds of supporters, all resplendently decked out in red, when he set about making his way through security and departures.
The look of fear on his face was there for all to see. A penny for your thoughts Jamie.....(“Oh no, not Manchester United fans heading to the FA Cup semi-final against Spurs.
That’s all I need. Maybe not, that’s not United gear. Liverpool supporters? Can’t be. They have no game this weekend”).
A voice from the back of the crowd offers a hint. “Hi Jamie, don’t tell me you’re going to the Munster match”. It finally begins to dawn on him. They’re rugby supporters. A sigh of relief from the suspended Sky soccer analyst.
An airport official emerges and slips him through the VIP corridor. He wasn’t the only celebrity our group would encounter that morning.
Three hours later our coach from Bordeaux airport pulls up outside the Novotel Lac on the outskirts of the city. It’s only 10.30am but already it’s boiling. With my overnight bag on my lap, I’m first into the hotel lobby.
Just ahead of me, I recognise Dan Carter returning from an early morning stroll. Hi Dan, Donal Lenihan, I met you before with Graham Henry. “Ah yes, I recognise the Cork accent, same as O’Gara”.
It’s unbelievably hot, Munster won’t be used to this I suggest, despite the fact that they have just returned from two weeks in South Africa. “If it’s any consolation, he retorts, neither are we. It’s been really cold in Paris of late.”
That’s encouraging to hear.
Within minutes, the Munster supporters begin to file through the reception. Eyebrows are raised with the realisation that Racing 92 are already ensconced in our hotel.
I suggest to the All Black legend that his anonymity is about to be exposed. Too late. “Hi Dan, any chance of a selfie”.
As always, Carter obliges before escaping to the sanctuary of the Racing team room. Situated just off the hotel bar, I think their manager is going to have to find another access point to their private sanctuary.
A few minutes later, I bump into former Munster centre Casey Laulala. Now retired, he has slipped seamlessly into Ronan O’Gara’s coaching shoes at Racing while his former Munster team-mate has taken up residence with Laulala’s home side, the Crusaders, in Christchurch.
“He’s loving it out there”, he tells me. “He loves the detail”.
I’m wondering what kind of detail Racing will bring to Sunday’s contest. Any chance of sneaking into the team room while they’re on the captain’s run at the stadium this afternoon?
Maybe I could do a Gloucester on it. The miracle match. The day the English Premiership side left their game plan in the back of a Limerick taxi.
Perhaps I could ply the two Laurent’, Racing coaches Labit and Travers, with a few beers on the eve of the game and extract a bit of information.
After all that’s exactly what I did at this stage of the Heineken Cup, 14 years ago, when I met up with Wasps head coach Warren Gatland in Jury’s Hotel in Ballsbridge on the eve of Munster’s epic semi-final against his charges at Lansdowne Road.
We had arranged to meet for a pint but stayed for a few. I got loads of information and planned to give Munster manager Jerry Holland a ring in the morning with the fruits of my inquisition. Must write this down. Gatty calls another round. No pen.
Woke up the following morning, delighted with myself. Must ring Holl. Oh shit, I can’t recall what Gatty was talking about.
In a magnificent game, one of the best Heineken Cup matches of all time, Wasps pipped Munster 32-37 at the death for the province’s third semi-final defeat in five years.
A disputed try from hooker Trevor Leota with just three minutes to go proved the difference. Munster finished as bridesmaids once again..
That day, Wasps targeted Rog from the outset. He lasted only 29 minutes before a combination of a dodgy hamstring and Lawrence Dallaglio finished him off.
I remember it now. “We’re going to target O’Gara”. That’s what Gatty was on about all night. Too late.
In any event, I’m sure being forewarned on that front wouldn’t have made much difference. Roy Keane told me the story about the time he spent a week in the All Blacks camp in New Zealand in the build-up to a test against Ireland as part of the requirements for his coaching badge.
Apparently, you have to spend a week in a different sporting environment to see how a team prepares for a big game and Roy’s interest in rugby encouraged him to look towards the best in class - New Zealand. No surprise there.
The Irish lads had run into him when flying down under and, given that he had spoken to the Munster squad on a few occasions previously, a few of them agreed to meet up with him for a meal some night during the week, which they did.
Paul O’Connell enquired, “what has the week been like Roy, any insights you might be able to offer us”. “Ya, said Roy, this guy Luke McAllister, he is going to run at you all day,” he said with a mischievous grin, pointing towards O’Gara.
“Christ, he’s a big boy”.
The lads - well all except Rog - broke into fits of laughter. Thanks Roy.
I had met the two Racing coaches before, when I shared a table with them and club owner Jackie Lorenzetti, at Rog’s testimonial dinner at the City Hall in Cork. Maybe they’ll remember our evening together in Cork?
I might glean some little nuggets to help Munster’s cause and make up for my forgetfulness in 2004.
With so many Munster jerseys floating around the hotel, the Racing players and management maintained a low profile.
Not a sniff of inside information to be had, apart from the fact that their players looked very relaxed. Even on Sunday morning, there was a calm assurance about them.
That certainly proved to be the case as they came storming out of the blocks. Racing overwhelmed Munster in the opening quarter. They had targeted a big start but, in their wildest dreams, they couldn’t have envisaged scoring three tries in the opening 23 minutes.
Once again, Munster fell short just 80 minutes out from a European final.They lost the collisions and lost their way.
A team renowned for its mastery of the basics was thrown into panic mode and, despite finishing the stronger of the two sides, never recovered. This is even more head-wrecking than what the class of the noughties had to endure prior to conquering Europe in 2006.
Despite contesting six European semi-finals since the 2008 Heineken Cup triumph, Munster still have a distance to travel.
In contrast, Leinster have not only arrived but served notice on Saturday they are capable of dominating on the domestic and European front for some time to come.
Hats off to them.
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