Seeking stamp of greatness

THEY have colonised entire stadiums, bars and hotels from Scotland to Switzerland but there was a time when Munster’s vast Red Army unnerved their own players almost as much as the opposition.

Chief among them was the province’s first appearance in a Heineken Cup final, against Northampton back in 2000, when feverish excitement and anticipation ended in defeat.

Eight years on, the sight of Munster fans evacuating these shores in planes, on boats and by any and every mode of road transport known to mankind are accepted as a matter of routine.

Back then, it was still considered something of a cultural phenomenon and no-one was fully prepared for the unheralded heights the frenzy would reach that day in Twickenham, least of all the players.

“After a loss you look at where things went wrong,” says David Wallace. “Coming away from that we probably felt we didn’t play as well as we could have. Maybe, on the day, everything overawed us.

“It was a huge stage, there was a huge crowd there and a lot of focus on that — how many people were going to turn up and what the day was going to be like.

“That clouded everything and took away from the rugby. Down the years we have learnt from that.

“It’s brilliant having the crowd there but, unless we are doing our job on the pitch, it doesn’t matter.”

The build-up to this, their fourth, final shows just how much Munster have matured as a team and an entity since that first defeat to the Saints in London.

Stories like the one last week about fans renting two-thirds of the country’s entire fleet of motor homes are still making the rounds but they are being met with a knowing nod and a smile rather than a dropping jaw.

The win in Cardiff two years ago has robbed the last few weeks of the manic edge and salivating anticipation that accompanied the previous three finals.

The new landscape has been duly noted by a squad which, without a Magners League game to distract them this past two weeks, have been able to train all thoughts towards the Welsh capital.

“For the last two weeks we have had nothing to take from the fact that we are playing a final. The focus has been very much on Cardiff,” said Wallace.

“There is probably a little less focus on the final this time around but that is probably a good thing from our point of view.”

Yes, times certainly have changed.

The Munster team that plays in Cardiff on Saturday will be wearing blue, not red, and it will boast a back line that their predecessors could only dream about.

For all that, the biggest change from years gone by will be the few inches between their ears.

Since 2006, they haven’t been able to rage against their Cinderella tag or feed on the hunger that comes with falling at the ultimate and penultimate hurdles so many times.

Back in the final as Europe’s top-ranked team, they have handled the transition from underdogs to overachievers well, but only a win tomorrow will solidify their new-found status.

“That is one of the factors going into the final of the Heineken Cup. You want to perform to your best. Everyone is relishing the fact that we are playing Toulouse because they are definitely one of the best teams in Europe — and one of the best squads as well. To beat Toulouse in a final is a huge cherry for anyone.”

Toulouse’s scalp would certainly be a bonus but the real carrot Munster are chasing this weekend is the opportunity to confirm their greatness by winning a second title in three years.

It was in golf where the saying originated that a good player can win a major, great ones win two but the maxim has spread its wings into other sports in recent times and Wallace doesn’t disagree with its sentiments.

“I don’t know how many times I have heard but I suppose good teams win the cup and great teams win it a second time. We want to be a part of that.

“To win it twice would give that meaning to us.

“We have been here three times before and only come away with the win once. We would like two from four at this stage.”


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