GETTING ready mentally for the 2006 Heineken Cup final was not a difficult task. Munster had suffered agonising defeats in their two previous attempts against Northampton and Leicester but it was another painful loss that was the real spur to victory.
In April 2005, Munster didn’t go past the quarter-final stages for the first time since 1999. Biarritz Olympique abruptly ended the Irish province’s cup dreams in the Basque stronghold of Stadio Anoeta. The Irish flag bearers were beaten 19-10. It was a painful and early end to the season.
The dressing room was a grim place to be that day. Exhausted players were spread out on the floor, wrapped in ice-cold towels in an attempt to cool down. The heat on the pitch sapped every ounce of energy. No amount of fluids could slake the thirst and red Irish heads thumped with agonising headaches, caused by dehydration.
However nothing was as painful as the manner of the defeat.
We failed on many levels that day. Early in the first half, our discipline let us down badly. Stupid penalties allowed Dimitri Yachvili to slot nine points. He also added a conversion, after Martin Gaitan sliced through our defence for his 15th minute try. We trailed 16-0 at half-time.
Our attack had been full of effort but lacked any ingenuity. We attempted to bludgeon gaps in the Biarritz defensive line. For phase after phase we battered into the Basque strongmen, using one-pass moves, never stretching them further than 10 metres either side of the ruck. We were so tightly packed you could have thrown a blanket over our 15-man formation. Our attack had no sense of purpose and lacked a fundamental belief in our ability. Usually these fruitless attacks ended with a spilled pass or an ugly knock on. Then Yachvili, Peyrelongue or Traille launched the ball back in behind us, we raced back into our 22, recovered the ball and began the same exhausting process again.
In the second half, we regained some modicum of respect. An early try by David Wallace, converted by Paul Burke, gave us a lifeline. But unforced turnovers would decide our fate. We were playing catch-up rugby, running from deep and throwing risky passes. Every time we coughed up the ball, the boot of Yachvili punished us. Eventually Biarritz were awarded the penalty that would kill the match and Yachvili duly nailed it. Game over.
It was the end of an era. Alan Gaffney returned home to his native Australia to become assistant coach to the national side. His tenure with Munster ended and the ultimate prize of a European Cup had eluded him. Speculation was rife as to who could replace him. The bookies listed several candidates but one name stayed completely under the radar. The announcement of Declan Kidney’s departure as Leinster coach to return to Munster was a surprise to every rugby pundit, and received a vitriolic reaction from the Dublin-based media. Nobody in Munster knew what to expect.
Before the season began, Kidney held a meeting with some of the senior players. Mood in the Munster camp was at an all-time low. Confidence had been affected by our early exit from the Heineken Cup. Blame for the quarter-final loss had been attributed to the logistical issue of the Munster squad being based in two centres. Some were pushing for a wholesale relocation of the entire squad to Limerick. What people failed to appreciate is that the two centres in some way forge a unique bond within the squad. The entire squad only came together twice a week, which kept the atmosphere within the group fresh and energetic. We hadn’t enough time together to allow cliques develop. Because of the smaller numbers in both centres, development players and the seasoned veterans tended to socialise in the same group. There was no hierarchy and it led to a great team spirit.
Kidney listened to the concerns of the players and took them on board. He also had an appreciation for the foundations that Munster rugby was built on and realised a knee-jerk reaction wasn’t necessary. He managed to rebuild morale and belief and in his return season brought Munster to its third European final.
In the meeting prior to leaving the hotel for the Millennium Stadium, there was very little emotion and no rousing battle cries. The painful lessons of the past had been etched into the memory of the squad. The mindset going into the final was different than in previous years. Against Northampton and Leicester we hoped we would win. In Cardiff in 2006, we knew we would win.
We knew the backbone of the Basque side remained unchanged. Jerome Thion, Benoit August and Imanol Harinordoquy were the driving forces in the pack. Julien Peyrelongue and Damien Traille would be the leaders in the backline. And of course Dimitri Yachvili would be their key player, orchestrating the Biarritz patterns and master-minding every attack. He would also kick the goals. If we nullified the threat of their leaders, the result would be ours.
Biarritz had a typically French whirlwind start. Sereli Bobo scored an early try for the Basque side, after Bidabe broke through our defence. I had been handed off and was at fault for the break that led to the try. Under the posts I held my hand up, apologised to my team-mates for the error and promised it wouldn’t happen again. That moment was over and we had to start afresh. There was no sense of panic.
The incredible team spirit, the rejuvenated belief and the extensive experience within the squad meant we would fight back and regain the lead.
For 80 minutes we held our nerve and even though Biarritz bravely battled back into contention, our self-belief carried us through.
The valuable lessons learned since our previous meeting with the Basque side paid dividends and helped us to win the cup that had previously slipped from our grasp.
This time around Biarritz are the side carrying baggage. The backbone of their team will remember the harsh lessons they learned in the 2006 final. Yachvili, Harinordoquy and Traille will want retribution.
Munster must be at their best.