It all started 22 years ago in a small, hostile stadium in Mazamet...

Munster’s Champions Cup opener in France tomorrow will, in one respect, bring the province full circle, 22 years after they embarked on an inaugural European adventure.

It all started 22 years ago in a small, hostile stadium in Mazamet...

Rassie Erasmus will lead a travelling party of around 40 players and support staff from Shannon this morning, in preparation for tomorrow’s round-one clash with Castres at Stade Pierre-Antoine.

Back in 1995, there was a much smaller expedition which left Shannon on the morning of Wednesday, November 8 and flew via London to Toulouse for a game that night not in Castres but in nearby Mazamet at the small town’s municipal Stade Antoine Bergere.

The nascent Heineken Cup was a more modest affair back in year one, with four pools of three clubs and no English participants.

Munster, captained by Pat Murray, had opened their account with a 17-3 win over Swansea in front of 6,000 spectators at Thomond Park the previous Wednesday and had a semi-final in their sights, believing a draw in France would be sufficient to reach the last four.

It would have turned out that way, with Swansea beating Castres at St Helen’s a month later but that first trip to Castres was to prove an eye-opening experience for all concerned.

The game was lost 19-12, but only after an early missed penalty kick and an injury-time turnover with the scores level that handed the home side victory on a plate, much to back-rower David Corkery’s disgust.

“I was the one who messed up,” Corkery said. “I think all we had to do was draw the game to get to the semi-final and we were drawing it.

“They got the ball deep inside our 22 and gobshite here tried to run it out. I was tackled and lost it and they scored in the corner. I half blame Richie Wallace for missing the tackle but I made a complete Horlicks of it. The game was up and if I’d have kicked it out or kicked it long or went to ground and recycled it we’d have been okay but I lost it in the tackle and they scored.”

Jerry Holland was the province’s head coach in that first European campaign and he remembers a lot of new experiences for the travelling Irishmen.

“It was an evening game and we wouldn’t have been used to playing under lights at that point. It was a very intimidating atmosphere in Mazamet. The crowd was quite different to the normal Castres supporters that Munster have experienced in more recent years.

“There were high, wire fences and they were climbing up the fences trying to get over and it was really aggressive and intimidating for everyone.

“Kenny Smith tells the story of how he had an opportunity with a penalty from around the 10-yard line. It was a bread and butter kick for him, he was a sharpshooter for us and his stats as a place-kicker were really, really good. But the bands started up in the four corners of the ground and he just lost the plot completely. He nearly got touch in the corner.

“He’d practised in the nice, quiet atmosphere beforehand but for a lot of the players, they’d never experienced anything like this before.”

Corkery remembers that night the same way and had the bruises to show for it.

“I suppose the most frightening thing after the game was we were attacked coming off the pitch by the supporters. I certainly got a belt off an umbrella from one of the French spectators. It was a very hostile environment at the time and it was something we weren’t used to.

“It was a huge trip into the unknown and the one thing that stood out in my mind was the French enthusiasm. They were behind a mesh kind of cage around the pitch and you’d have nearly expected something if we’d have actually won the game but we lost it and they still went after us. And I can’t remember the game being that aggressive or dirty in any shape or form but the supporters were certainly aggressive, without doubt.”

Nor was it just the atmosphere that was completely new to Munster’s players.

“We were only just transferring into the professional era and we were as best prepared as we possibly could be at the time but there were certainly issues we’d have improved upon if we’d have known what we know now,” Corkery said.

“It was a case of going down there and seeing how it went, But it was daunting.

“I got split, a fairly nasty gash on my head and Len Harty was the doctor. I was taken off, the blood was pouring down but we couldn’t get back into the dressing room, someone had locked it up. So Len stitched me on the ground outside in the corridor while someone was holding a flash lamp, or Len could even have been holding it in his mouth. I was stitched, bandaged up and sent back on again.

“When you consider the medical facilities that are there today, it was worlds apart, but that’s the way it was back then.

“In terms of the rugby, we were there or thereabouts on the night but the physicality of it all was at a different level completely. We could have won the game, could have drawn the game, lost it very narrowly in the end and weren’t far off the mark.”

Holland believes that despite the setback, there was a lot learned that night in Mazamet that would stand to Munster in the following seasons as they got to grips with European away days.

“It was a learning curve for us. Number one, that we could be competitive in Europe because it was a game we could and should have won and it gave guys confidence to realise, yes, there are challenges there but also that Munster will be good enough to not just survive but progress in Europe.

“If we’d have won that game we’d have been into a semi-final, so for a first campaign, it was a case of what might have been. But it got minds thinking that if we get certain things right we can do really well in European competition. So it was a new experience for everybody, and it was disappointing but it wasn’t the worse experience and we learned an awful lot from it.”

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