And so the Munster Miracles keep on coming, as if put together on some sort of supernatural assembly line cranked into use only in times of deepest trouble.
They have been dabbling in this particular phenomenon on and off now for the best part of 20 years and seasoned observers of the Red Army’s early continental manoeuvres will remember exactly when it began and where: May 6, 2000, at a venue named in memory of a French prime minister who played once for France, the Stade Chalban Delmas.
That it took place on the same day the IRA announced decommissioning of its weapons and the day before Russia elected a new president, Vladimir Putin, puts it into a historical perspective. A blazing afternoon in Bordeaux found Toulouse, then in their pomp, pummelling a 14-man Munster against the ropes.
In what could have passed for a convincing impression of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope during his Rumble in the Jungle with Joe Frazier, Munster absorbed the punishment, hit back with two sensational converted tries, and put Toulouse out for the count.
The verdict, delivered by the hardman who saw it from his vantage point in the trenches, said it all, in three words. “Unbelievable,” said Peter Clohessy, slumped in the dressing-room. “Just unbelievable.”
And that is how it’s been ever since, often for better, occasionally for worse, as in the losing early European finals when Mick Galwey’s favourites fell flat against a patched-up Northampton and again against Leicester two years later when Neil Back slapped the ball out of Peter Stringer’s hands while in the act of feeding an attacking scrum.
Unbelievable. The only miracle on that occasion back-fired horribly on Munster, the Tigers’ England flanker getting away scot-free with larceny on a grand scale. Nothing could compensate for what they lost that day which may help explain why the rugby gods have not been slow to demonstrate their readiness to help those who help themselves.
Sometimes the help is delivered in such a subtle way that it can often go unnoticed. Not so against Toulon. A penalty try at the very start would have gone a long way towards lobbing not just a French spanner into the miracle-making mechanism but a whole box of monkey wrenches.
Even Nigel Owens, by some margin the most decisive of referees, took a painstaking five minutes to study the evidence and reject Toulon claims for a deliberate knock-on against Simon Zebo. Towards the end with a semi-final place in the balance there was still no hint of Munster hitching their wagon to a superior force.
If Conor Murray’s try from not much more than 6in under the noses of dithering opponents seemed too soft for words, then it ought to be said a similar piece of pocket-picking in the musical Oliver! won Ron Moody an Oscar nomination as Fagin.
The trouble about trading in the miraculous is that the more you perform, be they Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal collection or John Murphy’s corner try against Gloucester all those years ago, the more old hat they tend to become. Nobody suspected that one bright spark had it in him to conjure up a different miracle.
When the chips were down and an ominously muted crowd feared the worst as Toulon cruised six points clear, the dream machine needed a drop of something to fire the ignition to the turbo-charger. And so, with hope fading fast, a French punt came spiralling out of the sky above Andrew Conway’s head.
Even then Munster needed something other than the wing catching Francois Trinh-Duc’s punt without stepping into touch a few inches to his left. Those opponents nearest him had to be taken by surprise and so it came to pass that Conway caught them unawares by sheer bravado.
Seeing a route to the line flash in front of him, the Dubliner had the speed and skill to take off and land in the history book. Conway had the nerve to see something miraculous even by Munster standards and the courage to go for it.
And guess where they go next? Back to the scene of the prototype miracle, Stade Chalban Delmas against the Parisians who squeezed past them thanks to two late Maxime Machenaud penalties in January, Racing 92.
A final thought. If Lourdes, the faded powerhouses of the French club game in the Fifties, were to be resurrected from the depths and run into Munster in five years’ time, the Champions Cup would be bound to have a miracle or two on their hands.
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