In choosing the ten Munster matches that stand out most for me during the history of the Heineken Cup, the temptation was to opt only for glorious victories of which there were so many.
It will be interesting to see how my choice sits with the thousands of members of the Red Army.
But there were those games where the salvation of a precious losing bonus point (Clermont Auvergne 2007/’08) was to prove crucial in the long term. And then there was the semi-final against London Wasps in 2004 where the pain of defeat was assuaged by the majesty of the rugby played by both sides. Otherwise, the concentration was on those days when Munster either attained legendary status (such as the Miracle Match against Gloucester in 2002/’03) or defied the odds (as in winning the title in 2006 and again two years later).
The love affair between Munster and the Red Army was developing slowly but surely when they arrived at the home of Watford Football Club in November 1999 to take on the expensively compiled Saracens squad led by Springbok icon Francois Pienaar. The relationship blossomed into something magical on that remarkable Sunday when Munster twice came from behind to emerge winners of an enthralling encounter by a point. They were 21-9 in arrears at one stage in the second half before rallying to take the lead, then fall well behind again only to find the inspiration to create a great try by Jeremy Staunton which Ronan O’Gara converted. Later that season, they were to again pip Saracens by a point, thanks to further last minute heroics by Keith Wood and O’Gara.
MUNSTER: J Staunton; J Kelly, K Keane, M Mullins, A Horgan; R O’Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, K Wood, J Hayes, M Galwey capt, J Langford, A Quinlan, A Foley, D Wallace.
Munster Scorers: Tries – Keane, Mullins, Foley, Staunton. 3 pens, 3 cons – O’Gara.
This was the day when the travelling Munster fans would have stolen the limelight from the players – had the side not produced a performance and result that in many ways defined the quality of a succession of Munster teams over the past 20 years. It was felt the aristocrats of the French game had only to turn up in Bordeaux to see off the Irish upstarts but the Euro heavyweights were made to pay a heavy price for that complacency. The 3,000 plus visiting fans cheered themselves hoarse, quite justifiably so given how well the team performed not least in creating a magnificent try by Ronan O’Gara after a length of the field attack. Even John Hayes got in on the try scoring act!
MUNSTER: D Crotty; J Kelly, M Mullins, J Holland, A Horgan; R O’Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, K Wood, J Hayes, M Galwey capt, J Langford, E Halvey, A Foley, D Wallace. Replacements: F Sheahan for Wood; M Horan for Hayes; D O’Callaghan for Galwey.
Munster Scorers: Try, 4 pens, 2 cons – O’Gara. Tries, Hayes, Holland.
It happened more than ten years ago but so fresh is the “Miracle Match” in the minds of most Munster men and women that there seems little need to recap on what happened that amazing day. Even though most of the players didn’t know so, they needed to score four tries and win by 27 points to advance in the competition. And that’s just what they did, to the bemusement of Gloucester (who later claimed their game plan had been stolen by a Limerick taxi driver and handed to the Munster management!) and the uncontrolled delight of the Red Army.
MUNSTER: J Staunton; J Kelly, M Mullins, J Holland, M Lawler; R O’Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll, J Williams capt, A Foley, A Quinlan. Munster Scorers: Kelly 2; Lawler, O’Driscoll. 3 pens, 2 cons, O’Gara.
You can’t win them all and this defeat by the Warren Gatland coached Wasps in front of a packed old Lansdowne Road stadium still rankles because of the controversial nature of the decisive try and the targeting of Ronan O’Gara which led to his enforced early retirement. Nevertheless, by wide acclaim, it is regarded as one of the greatest club rugby matches ever contested, with two highly talented sides waging a fierce contest in scorching sunshine. Lawrence Dallaglio, the greatest of all Wasps players, admitted in his autobiography that Trevor Leota was probably short of the line when awarded the winning score.
MUNSTER: C Cullen; J Kelly, R Henderson, M Mullins, S Payne; R O’Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes, P O’Connell, D O’Callaghan, J Williams capt, A Foley, S Keogh.
Replacements: J Holland for O’Gara, A Horgan for Kelly.
Munster Scorers: Tries – Foley, Williams. 3 pens, 2 cons, Holland. 3 pens, O’Gara.
This is one of those occasions that may have slipped away into the mists of time considering all the many other outstanding Munster achievements but without this four try bonus win over Sale Sharks, there would have been no Heineken Cup for Munster that season. They had lost to the Sharks by double scores at Edgeley Park in the away game and needed a five pointer in the last qualifying round to reach the quarters. And they took their time about it. Skipper Anthony Foley set the tone with one of his many crucial tries and others followed from Ian Dowling and Barry Murphy in particularly memorable fashion. When the bearded French giant Sebastian Chabal was blasted back after gathering a Munster restart, the stadium went ballistic and stayed that way until the last minute when David Wallace somehow dived over for the all-important fourth try.
MUNSTER: S Payne; J Kelly, T Halstead, B Murphy, I Dowling; R O’Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, D Wallace, D Leamy, A Foley capt. Replacements: M Lawler for Payne, T O’Leary for Stringer; F Pucciarello for Horan; D Fogarty for Flannery, M O’Driscoll for O’Connell, S Keogh for Foley.
Munster Scorers: Tries Foley, Dowling, Murphy, Wallace. 4 cons, pen, O’Gara
This game probably ranks with the 2000 away win against Toulouse and the “Miracle Match” against Gloucester as those that Munster fans recall with most relish. They themselves played a major role by somehow getting their hands on as much as two thirds of the tickets, filling headquarters with their red flags and banners and making it akin to a home game. If Leinster were demolished on the terraces, they didn’t fare too well on the pitch either. Ronan O’Gara rubbed their noses in it when jumping into the ecstatic Munster fans after scoring the decisive try.
MUNSTER: S Payne; A Horgan, J Kelly, T Halstead, I Dowling; R O’Gara, P Stringer; F Pucciarello, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, D Leamy, A Foley capt, D Wallace.
Replacements: R Henderson for Kelly, T O’Leary for Stringer, D Leamy for Foley.
Munster Scorers: Try, 3 pens, 3 cons – O’Gara; tries, Halstead and Leamy.
The cheekiest of all cheeky tries! That just had to be Peter Stringer’s never to be forgotten score that stunned Biarritz on this historic day in Cardiff when Munster’s frustrating wait for the Holy Grail of European rugby finally came to an end. It was a case of third time lucky after the final defeats of 2000 and 2002 and nothing could stand in their way, not even the early Biarritz try credited to winger Sereli Bobo who looked to have put a foot on the touch line before touching down or the accuracy of place kicker Dimitri Yachvili who landed 14 points for the French champions. Trevor Halstead, a brick of a man from South Africa, crashed over for Munster’s first try, the unflappable Ronan O’Gara kept the scoreboard ticking over until Stringer spotted both his opposite number Yachvili and more importantly the great flanker Serge Betsen out of position as he danced around the blindside of a close-range scrum and dived over for a try that will live in the annals of Munster rugby for eternity!
MUNSTER: S Payne; A Horgan, J Kelly, T Halstead, I Dowling; R O’Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, D Leamy, A Foley capt, D Wallace.
Replacements: F Pucciarello for Horan, M O’Driscoll for O’Connell, A Quinlan for Foley.
Munster Scorers: Tries, Halstead, Stringer. 3 pens, 2 cons, O’Gara.
If ever Munster were glorious in defeat, it was in 2008 when they somehow snatched a losing bonus point from the visit to the hostile Parc Marc-Michelin, the home ground of the powerful Clermont Auvergne.
They simply had to take something from the game and it was a tribute to their never-say-die mentality that they somehow escaped with a seven point defeat. When Clermont raced into a 23-6 lead, it looked as if Munster were in for a hammering.
But French indiscipline – English referee Rob Denney despatched three of their players, Loic Jacquet, Julien Malzieu and Alexandre Audebart, to the sin bin – and the boot of Ronan O’Gara changed the picture.
Replacement prop Tony Buckley used his vast bulk to clear a path to the Clermont line to send Lifeimi Mafi over and O’Gara’s boot dragged them to within seven points and a priceless bonus.
MUNSTER: S Payne; B Carney, R Tipoki, L Mafi, D Howlett; R O’Gara capt, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll, D Leamy, A Foley, D Wallace. Replacements: T Buckley for Hayes, A Quinlan for Foley.
Munster Scorers: Try, Mafi. 4 pens, 1 con, O’Gara.
Declan Kidney must have been hoping that the Millennium Stadium would prove his lucky venue as he prepared his men for their second final in three years at the magnificent Welsh headquarters. Glory would again be his and that of his marvellous band of players as it would be once more when he masterminded Ireland to their first Grand Slam in 61 years there in 2009. Not surprisingly with Toulouse providing the opposition, this was always going to be a nailbiter and essentially it was decided in Munster’s favour by a silly piece of petulance on the part of the outstanding French second-row and captain Fabien Pelous, who was yellow carded for tapping Alan Quinlan on the backside with his boot. Denis Leamy crowned a magnificent display with Munster’s try while the customary accuracy of Ronan O’Gara’s right boot did the rest.
MUNSTER: D Hurley; D Howlett, R Tipoki, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell capt, A Quinlan, D Leamy, A Foley. Replacements: T Buckley for Horan, M O’Driscoll for O’Connell.
Munster Scorers: Try, Leamy. 3 pens, 1 con, O’Gara.
Those who suspected the mystique and drama that had become part and parcel of the Munster team might be diminishing were made to think again after the manner in which they beat Northampton in November 2011. The Saints led 21-20 into stoppage time when Munster gained possession just inside their own half and decided to inch their way forward until Ronan O’Gara was within reach for a drop goal. After no less than 41 phases, they finally decided to let the ace out-half try his luck. Although a full 40 metres out, he gladly accepted a pass from Denis Leamy and calmly swung that educated boot of his. The outcome was never in doubt ... once again, Thomond Park erupted and mystified visiting players and supporters were left to shake their disbelieving heads!
MUNSTER:J Murphy; D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, D Hurley; R O’Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O’Connell capt, P O’Mahony, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Replacements: W Chambers for Barnes, T O’Leary for Murray, J Hayes for Botha, D O’Callaghan for Ryan, D Leamy for Coughlan.
Munster Scorers: Tries, Varley, Howlett. 2 pens, 1 drop goal, 2 cons, O’Gara.
It says so much about Munster’s Heineken Cup squads over the years that several players regarded as household names cannot find a place in my dream team since the tournament began.
I came up with six certainties – Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, David Wallace and Anthony Foley.
After that, though, a whole host of choices became virtually impossible to reconcile. Paul Warwick or Shaun Payne at full-back ... Doug Howlett, John Kelly, Ian Dowling, Keith Earls or Anthony Horgan on the wings ... Trevor Halstead, Lifeimi Mafi, Kelly or Mike Mullins in the centre ... Jerry Flannery, Frankie Sheahan or Keith Wood at hooker ... Peter Clohessy or Marcus Horan at loose head prop ... John Langford or Donncha O’Callaghan in the second-row ... Jim Williams, Alan Quinlan, Denis Leamy or Peter O’Mahony at number six. After a lot of soul searching, I came up with the following:
15. Paul Warwick
14. Doug Howlett
13. Rua Tipoki
12. Lifeimi Mafi
11. Anthony Horgan
10. Ronan O’Gara
9. Peter Stringer
1. Peter Clohessy
2. Jerry Flannery
3. John Hayes
4. Donncha O’Callaghan
5. Paul O’Connell
6. Jim Williams
7. David Wallace
8. Anthony Foley.