Peter Jackson: Munster lifted by a higher presence

Every now and then, a sporting event takes place which leaves those who witnessed it wondering whether a superior force had been at work.
Peter Jackson: Munster lifted by a higher presence

Eric Liddell, the Scottish rugby player immortalised in Chariots of Fire, went to the 1924 Olympiad in Paris to run in the 100 metres but refused sacrifice his Christian principle about never competing on a Sunday.

He switched to the 400-metres instead and, clutching a piece of paper bearing a brief quotation from the New Testament, defied the odds to win gold in a world record time. Liddell’s faith as a missionary left him in no doubt that a higher force had been at work.

Nor was he the only Olympian who believed he had been swept home on the wings of a celestial wind. At Mexico City in 1968, Peter Norman, an Australian whose parents brought him up in the Salvation Army, helped change the course of American history in a way which made him a revered figure in the civil rights movement.

In the 200 metres final, Norman came from just about last going into the bend to split the mighty Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. When they asked the silver medallist whether he believed in God before telling him of their plan to make the raised fist protest for Black America, Norman could have washed his hands of it.

Instead he told them: “I will stand with you.” For that, he was vilified on such a scale that the Australian government made a formal apology after his death 10 years ago. The devout Norman believed he had been on that podium to stand up and be counted.

When a 17-year-old American-Chinese kid by the name of Michael Chang sprang a sensation by winning the French Open tennis title in 1989, he dedicated his victory to students and other civilians killed in the massacre at Tiananmen Square during the championship.

“I felt there was a much greater purpose for the Lord getting me through those matches,’’ Chang said. “A lot of people don’t remember that Tiananmen Square was going on at that time.’’ Chang never needed any convincing that he had been guided from above.

Munster have always been far too pragmatic to bank on divine intervention, trusting instead in the hard-headed, eye-for-an-eye philosophy which has twice taken them to European conquest.

And yet there could be no escaping the sense that Somebody Up There was looking after them on Saturday, not that they needed it even if the Somebody in question was wearing No.8 on his back. Filing out of their dressing room into the maelstrom swirling around Thomond Park, Glasgow wore the collective look of a team who suspected that the Foley Factor made it mission impossible. They certainly played as though they had made their minds up long before French referee Jerome Garces sent Keith Earls off, and rightly so. Munster could have given Michael D Higgins a run towards the end in gratitude for his presidential presence and it would not have disturbed Anthony Foley’s heavenly reunion with the team he left behind.

Italian weakness hindering Champions Cup

Two rounds gone, four to go and Connacht are up where they ought to be as PRO12 champions. Nine points from successive wins puts them joint second with Saracens in the rankings behind Clermont, the only contender to boast a perfect 10.

Connacht, exposed to nothing worse than Oliviero Fabiani attempting to take a chunk out of an Irish forearm, made Zebre pay a fearful price for their hooker’s red card.

As long as the organisers turn a blind eye to Italy’s perennial inability to provide adequate qualifiers, the tournament will lose credibility.

Zebre’s presence in the same pool as Connacht, Toulouse, and Wasps offers two of those three every chance of making the last eight. Teams denied the same invitation to fill their boots because they are drawn in more competitive pools puts the event out of kilter. It’s all very well to try and maintain a pan-European façade but doing so risks turning the Champions’ Cup into a misnomer.

Zebre are not alone taking an early count. Two of England’s contingent, Exeter and Sale, are in danger of being counted out with them when the bell goes for the third and fourth rounds in December.

The Premiership pair have one miserable point between them but even that will have felt more like a penalty. Gareth Steenson secured it for Exeter in Belfast, then watched his final shot curl a foot or so off line at the end of a drop goal duel with fellow Ulsterman, Paddy Jackson.

Northampton will also be counted out unless they repair the damage of a record beating, 41-7 at Castres.

Hat-trick shows Giles is future for Wales

Peter Stringer made his European debut for Munster in 1998, the year when Keelan Giles was born. And if few outside Swansea had heard of the teenager before the weekend, they do now.

His hat-trick, on his debut for Ospreys, in their Challenge Cup win at Lyons, provided more than a fleeting glimpse of the future for Wales, even if this 18-year-old has a physique that makes him look far more like Seventies superstar, Gerald Davies, than the last wing capped by Wales at 18, the gigantic George North.

Giles’ advent puts Stringer’s everlasting career into a historical perspective worthy of his longevity. Sale’s scrum half, 38 coming up 39, shows no sign of letting up, on or the field. Only Stringer could have flown home for Anthony Foley’s funeral on Friday, and been back in Manchester in time to line up against Toulon that evening. And full marks to Sale’s co-owner, Ged Mason, for putting a private plane at his scrum-half’s disposal.

French relying on imported talent

Montpellier used two tighthead props yesterday neither of whom came up through the ranks — Jannie du Plessis from South Africa and Davit Kubriashvili from Georgia. In the words of the old song, where have all the French tightheads gone?

Of the six other French contenders in the Champions’ Cup, only Bordeaux got by at the weekend without a foreigner. Toulon, Castres, Racing, Clermont and Toulouse relied on imports from Georgia, South Africa, New Zealand and Samoa.

Enough to make Robert Paparemborde, the monstrous ‘Bear of the Pyrenees,’ turn in his grave.

Yogi Berra’s take on funerals

Nobody ever mangled the English language to more hilarious effect more often than Yogi Berra, the revered New York Yankees’ baseball player and coach who died last year at the age of 90. Had rugby been his bag, he would have been in Killaloe last Friday because Yogi had a take on funerals peculiar to himself.

As he used to tell anyone who cared to listen: “You gotta go to other peoples’ funerals ‘cos if you don’t, they won’t come to yours.”

Weekend best

Best performances of the weekend: 1. Munster. 2, Castres.

Best tries: 1, Nick Tompkins (Saracens v Scarlets). 2, Wesley Fofana (Clermont v Bordeaux).

Understatement of the week: Munster director of rugby Rassie Erasmus before kick-off against Glasgow: ‘The guys are coping.’

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