Brive won the Heineken Cup in 1997 and lost the ‘98 final by a point but ever since their fortunes have gone downhill. But everything they say about French teams at home is true; Brive produced a comeback in each half to leave Munster breathless on a day when everyone in the Stade Municipal Amédéé Domenecha was struggling for air.
Ultimately, Munster deserved their victory for the manner they carved up the Brive defence with a swashbuckling performance of brilliant counter-attacking rugby. They stormed into an early lead, were pegged back and then moved clear again before relinquishing control after Brive scored a 72nd minute intercept try. It was not what Munster coach Tony McGahan wanted and certainly what his battle-weary physically exhausted charges needed.
“The intercept try really hurt us,” said the coach, “it gave them a great springboard back into the game and they had the fortitude and the courage to keep coming back at us. We had a very good start but there were little turns that allowed them get back in. They’re a good side and the thing about French sides playing at home is that you want to be (significantly) ahead of them on the scoreboard.
“In the end, the heat might have been a factor too; the conditions were the same for both sides but we’re certainly not used to training in that sort of heat.”
It was an amazing first half, with Munster scorching into a 12 points lead with two magnificent tries from Doug Howlett, converted by O’Gara, and Keith Earls. Brive were no doormats though; Mathiew Belie kicked a penalty and then converted a 23rd minute try from Retief Uys. It gave Munster the jitters. Fabrice Estebanez cut through for a try that Belie converted for a 17-12 lead but Munster struck back when Earls and Felix Jones created a magnificent third try for their side, with Howlett cutting in to dot down under the posts to give O’Gara a simple conversion attempt and a 19-17 lead. However, Brive’s Belie had the last word of an enthralling first half with a penalty.
Munster hit the ground running after the break, determined to extinguish a pesky Brive challenge. Earls and substitute Peter Stringer grabbed tries that O’Gara converted for a 33-23 lead before the out-half pushed the lead out to 19 points with three successive penalties.
That’s that then. Actually not. Brive’s response was heroic once Alexis Palisson raced away for a 70th minute try that Belie converted. The home side lost possession on the point of scoring after 77 minutes and that lapse bought Munster the time they required to hold out. Shaun Perry did manage to score a try that Belie converted, but it came just too late to save them.
A home semi-final draw against Harlequins will bring its own rewards, but from a team perspective the psychological boost of winning another European game on the road is far more significant than any monetary rewards.
Munster are again where they like to be – in control of their own destiny.
BRIVE: S Spedding, G Namy, J Noon, F Estebanez, A Palisson, M Belie, A Figuerola, D Kinchagishvili, B Cabello, P Cardinali, T Dubarry, R Uys, G Vosloo, A Claasen (captain), J Le Devedec.
Replacements: R Lespinas for Namy (11, inj.), V Kakovin for Kinchagishvili, J Bonrepaux for Cabello, P Barnard for Cardinali (all 48), F Domingo for Uys (57), S Azoulai for Le Devedec (60), S Perry for Estebanez (70).
MUNSTER: F Jones, D Howlett, S Tuitupou, L Mafi, K Earls, R O’Gara (captain), C Murray, W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll, D Leamy, J Coughlan, D Wallace.
Replacements: P Stringer for Murray (48), J Murphy for Tuitupou, M Horan for Du Preez (both 51), M Sherry for Varley (53), J Hayes for Buckley (57), D Ryan for Couglan (59), N Ronan for Wallace (66).
Referee: D Pearson (England).