When Munster prevailed on Irish rugby’s biggest day

It was the biggest game of rugby ever seen in Ireland, Leinster and Munster meeting in Europe for the first time and in a Heineken Cup semi-final no less.
When Munster prevailed on Irish rugby’s biggest day
Anthony Foley, right, Shaun Payne and Federico Pucciariello, Munster, celebrates after the final whistle. Heineken Cup 2005-2006, Semi-Final, Leinster v Munster, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

It was the biggest game of rugby ever seen in Ireland, Leinster and Munster meeting in Europe for the first time and in a Heineken Cup semi-final no less.

It happened at Lansdowne Road on this day in 2006 and for the huge travelling red army of supporters it was a truly epic afternoon in the April sunshine.

That Munster would outclass their old enemies from the capital to book a place in their third European final in six seasons was one thing, denying a Leinster side which had themselves outplayed Toulouse in a thrilling away quarter-final three weeks earlier was quite another.

Brian O’Driscoll led a killer backline and their away victory in the last eight and home advantage in this match had made them favourites. They had also beaten their rivals 35-23 at the RDS on the previous New Year’s Eve.

Yet the Ireland and Lions star knew that would count for little against a Munster outfit side containing the core of the Irish Test pack.

“We can almost hear them from 120 miles away,” O’Driscoll writes in his 2014 autobiography, The Test.

"‘Workrate, workrate, workrate — we’ll outwork them!’”

O’Driscoll threw down the gauntlet to his Ireland team-mate Ronan O’Gara on the morning of the game, sending a text which read: “Let’s go hard.”

“Not too hard,” the Munster fly-half jokily replied, though he would later admit his stomach had been turning inside out.

“I was suffering like mad,” O’Gara has written, “I hardly slept, hardly ate,” before describing the 24 hours before the match as “horrific”.

Donncha O’Callaghan described a horrible, sickening feeling in his gut that had been with him all week, yet you would not have known it looking back at the action from that day 14 years ago.

The result never really looked in doubt. Munster’s pack was dominant, half-backs O’Gara and Peter Stringer controlled the game masterfully and Leinster struggled.

O’Driscoll had had an early premonition of Munster’s dominance as the Leinster bus made its way to Lansdowne Road and all he could see were red jerseys on the streets of Dublin 4.

That transferred inside the ground as O’Gara prepared to kick off, the ‘Fields of Athenry’ ringing out.

“This is it,” RTÉ match commentator Ryle Nugent says by way of a tee-up, “the noise is deafening.”

Munster are on the front foot from the off, Malcolm O’Kelly misfielding O’Gara’s kick-off and a team-mate conceding a kickable penalty at the ruck after just 41 seconds. It is kicked with confidence and Munster are up and running, 3-0 inside two minutes.

Paul O’Connell steals a Leinster lineout in the eighth minute and from a penalty that quickly follows, O’Gara finds the corner.

The driving maul from that lineout, orchestrated by O’Connell eats up the final yards as Denis Leamy touches down for the opening try.

Nugent: “They can sense an opportunity… Leinster are at sixes and sevens… the ball is down, it’s a try for Munster… Munster are off to the perfect start.”

Another O’Gara conversion and it’s 10-0 after as many minutes. The only sour note is an early injury to centre John Kelly, replaced on 11 minutes by Rob Henderson but Munster barely skip a beat. Shaun Payne is imperious at full-back and Munster’s defence is suffocating the creative Leinster backline.

Denis Hickie has a dart up the left wing from inside his own 22 as Munster turnover ruck ball but his dancing feet are gently nudged into touch and it is 20 minutes before Leinster are on the board, Felipe Contepomi with a penalty.

Yet Leinster are still rattled and O’Gara gets the visitors back into a 10-point lead just a minute later as O’Connell is taken out at a lineout. O’Gara is running the show and when opposite number Contepomi loses his rag with Leamy off the ball, the Munster 10 makes it 16-3 and Munster head into the interval in charge.

Munster hero Ronan O’Gara is mobbed by fans after a towering performance against Leinster in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road. 	 Picture: Brendan Moran
Munster hero Ronan O’Gara is mobbed by fans after a towering performance against Leinster in the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road. Picture: Brendan Moran

The only surprise is how long it takes for them to put the game beyond Leinster and Contepomi adds a penalty with nine minutes remaining to make things a little interesting at 16-6.

But it is not enough to unsettle the team in red, not even when prop Freddie Pucciariello is sin-binned in the 76th minute.

A Trevor Halstead burst over the 22 keeps Munster on the front foot and when Stringer feeds his fly-half, O’Gara bisects the Leinster locks, Bryce Williams and O’Kelly, who suffers the indignity of a hand off from O’Gara, who runs in unopposed with three minutes to go.

Nugent: “He’s done it! That’s it! He knows it. Munster knows it. Europe will know it. Munster are going to another Heineken Cup final.”

There’s still time for further Leinster pain, scrum-half Guy Easterby’s pass on the Munster 10-metre line intercepted by Halstead, who can’t be caught, O’Gara finishing off a towering performance with the conversion.

“It ends 30-6,” O’Driscoll wrote. Certain scorelines flatter the winning team but this isn’t one of them.

“It’s a horrible experience. We are hurt, embarrassed, humiliated.”

Munster, of course, went on to lift the Heineken Cup, beating Biarritz as their supporters turned Cardiff red the same way they did Dublin.

O’Driscoll and Leinster would have much better days in Europe, eclipsing their rivals by the end of the decade and not looking back. It was Munster, though, that would light the blue touchpaper.

LEINSTER: G Dempsey; S Horgan, B O’Driscoll - captain, G D’Arcy, D Hickie; F Contepomi, G Easterby; R Corrigan (R McCormack, 68), B Blaney, W Green; B Williams, M O’Kelly; C Jowitt (E Miller, 56), K Gleeson, J Heaslip.

Pens: Contepomi 2.

Replacements unused: D Blaney, N Ronan, B O’Riordan, K Lewis, R Kearney.

MUNSTER: S Payne; A Horgan, J Kelly (R Henderson, 12; T O’Leary, 65), T Halstead, I Dowling; R O’Gara, P Stringer; F Pucciariello, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell; D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley - captain (F Roche, 73).

Tries: Leamy, O’Gara, Halstead. Cons: O’Gara 3. Pens: O’Gara 3.

Yellow card: Pucciariello, 73.

Replacements unused: D Fogarty, M O’Driscoll, S Keogh, J Manning.

Referee: Joel Jutge (France).

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