Keith Wood, Tony Diprose, Will Carling and a host of other Lions and internationals were in the squad. Munster were already eliminated and would play for nothing but their pride. Not much was expected from a semi-professional team pitting themselves against the English elite. But Munster are a dangerous animal on their own patch and Carling and his team-mates were sent packing.
Players and coaches have come and gone from both set-ups in the interim but there are two hardy Munster characters who remain from those early European days. David Wallace and Ronan O’Gara both featured for Munster in 1997. They were two young guns who had just broken into the Munster scene and have enjoyed glittering careers over the past 14 seasons.
O’Gara and Wallace have contributed to two European Cups, a Grand Slam, four Triple Crowns and two Celtic Leagues. They have been central to Munster’s success over the last decade and a half. And in their 14th season they are still the two players whose incredible performances bring about Munster wins.
O’Gara has been rejuvenated since the arrival of his international rival Jonny Sexton. Competition drives O’Gara. He has shown in his Six Nations cameos that he is still a force in Irish rugby with nerves of steel and ability to kick the crucial winning points at the death.
Wallace’s current form defies all logic. Open-side flanker is a physically demanding position. One look at Neil Back’s face confirms that. Number sevens make more tackles and hit more rucks than anyone else. Wallace has managed to get through 14 seasons of ferocious, punishing confrontation without too many extended lay-offs.
However, he does carry his war wounds. Today both ankles will be bound tightly with tape to ensure some kind of stability and will also surely be strapping a shoulder or knee. But the old warhorse will continue to shine, showing no sign of his advancing years.
The worry for Munster is that O’Gara, Wallace and the other veterans are still the best Munster performers on the pitch. Every week one of the older brigade makes the big plays, whether it’s O’Gara kicking the crucial points or Wallace breaking yet another tackle.
Munster’s younger crew needs to start making an impact. No longer can it be acceptable for Munster’s youth to follow the lead. They need to set a new standard, reaching beyond the bar set by the established players. Munster’s future is reliant on Conor Murray, Mike Sherry, Tommy O’Donnell, Ian Nagle and the other graduates of the academy. They have to drive Munster’s transition into a new era.
When Paul O’Connell first appeared at Munster training as a raw recruit, he was annoyingly aggressive and treated every training session like a cup final.
He dished out black eyes and bruised egos to several established players.
He also won instant respect.
The Challenge Cup against Harlequins is the ideal stage to blood the young players in Munster.
Winning for Munster has to be their ultimate goal and they have to push on ahead of their older team-mates.
Hopefully in fourteen seasons, we will be looking back on the Harlequins Challenge Cup semi-final, remembering the launching of Conor Murray, Mike Sherry and several others.