"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Munster and the holy grail

I haven't posted in a while and although it's late, I thought I'd post a few thoughts on Munster's Heinken Cup triumph.

May 20th 2006, Munster 23 Biarritz 19. It was a long time coming. I was late up that day, having been up studying til two or three in the morning. (While I was studying for my finals I got into strange habits of sleep. By the end, I seemed not to function before midday.) I wanted to get a few hours in before the match. The house was pretty quiet. I had an exam in Jurisprudence on the Monday. So I settled down with The Problem of Social Cost by Ronald Coase and tried to focus. To little avail. I think I managed 20 minutes. It was pointless. All I could think of was this match; it loomed large as perhaps the last best hope of achieving what had so often been reached and strived for, and of fulfilling hopes so often dashed.

I've followed this team for about seven years now. I know that doesn't equip me with the tales of olden times regularly recited by George Hook on RTE's excellent coverage, but I didn't just jump on the final/victory bandwagon, unlike some perhaps. I played rugby for a few years in school. Not to any great level mind and not with anything approaching what commentators have taken to calling "physicality" - the heavyweight collisions that mark the union game in its professional era, particularly in the dour Zurich premiership in England. All I had was a turn of pace and some basic hand-eye co-ordination. But it was enough. I learned to appreciate the (often unspoken) code of civility and sportsmanship that trickles down from the practical example of the sport's greatest exemplars, and is enforced, quite apart from sharp referees, by a sort of social sanction. You don't talk back to the ref, or you stay and clap off your opponents if you have lost because this is rugby. That sort of spirit often feeds accusations that the game is elitist, that it is the preserve of the wealthy. Maybe historically it has been, but one must not forget that the dominant sporting organisation in this country banned its members from playing any other sport, including rugby league, until the 1970's.

I experienced some of rugby's spirit and history first hand at Musgrave Park, 20 minutes by car from my home without traffic, beyond Turner's Cross. My memories of that place are of wet Friday nights or Saturday afternoons (it seems always to be raining; like McCourt's Angela's Ashes) and seeing upclose red clad Southern legends like Clohessy, Galwey and Keith Wood. There were imports, like Langford and Mullins, and more latterly Payne and Cullen, but the beating heart of the team in red was from the province itself, disproportionately from Limerick and Cork, although the Kerryman they called Gaillimh was a prominent exception to that generalisation. French, Scottish, Welsh and English teams came, saw and were (usually, though not with the same legendary constancy as the 11 year Heineken Cup record at Thomond Park) conquered and sent on their way. Other times it was the rival provinces, or the occasional A international. (The inter-provincials have disappeared to be replaced by the Celtic League.)

Since the inception of the Heineken Cup in the mid 1990's, Munster have been perhaps the most consistent side. They reached the final in 2000, losing by a short head to Northampton. I remember like it was yesterday the reaction of RTE's Jim Sherwin when O'Gara kicked that fateful late penalty and the sense of deflation as it slid by the left hand upright by the metaphorical hair's breadth. Two years later, in Cardiff, Munster fell again at the final hurdle. Folk memory in this part of Ireland recalls only Neil Back's cheating (when he knocked the ball from Peter Stringer's hands as the latter prepared to put in to a late scrum in an attackking position), but, much as with England's defeat to Argentina in the 1986 football World Cup, when looked at objectively, Leicester's win that day probably had in the last analysis more to do with technical superiority - and to an extent selectorial errors - than one well-remembered braizen illegal manouevre. Then in 2003 there was the heartbreaking semi-final defeat to Toulouse in the south of France, when O'Gara three times in stoppage time attempted drop goals that would not go over. In 2004, a teak tough London Wasps side (with Lawrence Dallaglio to the fore) had overturned a two-score deficit in the final ten minutes at Landsdowne Road and last year the Munster challenge had met another immovable object, this time Les Basques of Biarritz. In between there had been some of the great victories of modern Irish sport, not least an unexpected triumph away to Toulouse, and, of course, the Miracle Match at Thomond Park in 2003, when Munster needed to win and score four tries against Gloucester, who at the time were flying high in England. This was achieved in a style next to which Roy of the Rovers paled and displaying a courage, professionalism and determination that seemed to mark out these men as champions whose time would come.

But it was not to be that year, not just yet. The 2005 defeat against Biarritz seemed to show that when Munster faced a pack of forwards formidable to match their own, they lacked the guile and pace to switch the point of attack; in short, their backs were inferior to all other top teams when forced to play a running offensive game. The 10 man game plan seemed tired; the Holy Grail seemed further out of sight that for a number of years. Heroic failure might have suited earlier generations of Irish sportsmen, but neither professional rugby nor confident post-Tiger Ireland thought this was not enough.

Sure enough the 2006 campaign got off to a bad start. Sale Sharks saw off Munster with something bordering on ease. The doubts grew. But not where it mattered most. The maestro who had overseen their previous greatest exploits in Europe, Declan Kidney, had returned and set about overseeing what became almost from the off a rescue operation. The rescue boiled down to another January meeting at Thomond Park with a faniced English team. From O'Gara's kick-off, Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan led a charged of men possessed and O'Connell clattered Sebastian Chabal and drove the French number 8 back. The shaken Sharks talisman seemed not to recover and Munster drove themselves on to another epic victory. Just as in '03 a bonus point for four tries was needed. And again it took until near the end for the final act. This time David Wallace picked from a ruck and went the few steps over the line, to rapturous applause. Relief and elation in equal measures. The dream was back on.

Too many times we had asked rhetorically Will this be there year? It didn't seem to work that way. In the quarter-final, Perpignan (with a set of forwards about as physically intimidating as could be rememebered) came very close to repeating the trick of dumping an Irish side out of the Cup at Landsdowne Road, but Paul O'Connell seemed to drag a disoriented Munster side through by the force of his will, his relentless driving determination. The red haired colossus was immense. The semi-final was against Leinster. Munster had usually provided the bulk of the Irish team from 1-10, while Leinster provided most of the outside backs. Certainly there can scarcely have been an occasion like it in modern Irish sporting history, let alone rugby. It was like an All-Ireland, except far more than two counties were engaged in the excitement, the build-up, the expectation. The match day was a beautiful spring day. The president met the players and the old Dublin 4 ground (which, apart from internationals in the autumn) was hosting its last match before its redevelopmemt, was bathed in sunshine. The crowd predominantly roared on the men of Munster. Leinster's eclipse was all but total. Their forwards had no answer to the zeal, the ferocious thunder and the burning tenacity of O'Connell, Flannery, Foley, Leamy and the rest. The old adage that forwards win games and backs decide by how much came true, but it wasn't until O'Gara's late line-breaking try that the result was secured. A third final was on the horizon.

And so we came to the final in Cardiff 11 days ago. Biarritz were a fearsome side, who had beaten Munster before. Key Munster players, including Horan, O'Connell and Kelly, were carrying injuries. The crowd was predominantly made up, once more, of Munster followers - French insouciance and the zeal of Munster's fans accounted for this fact. The match itself was every inch the classic encounter it had been thought might unfold, even if the quality of play inevitably eteriorated as energy sapped. Munster gave perhaps the greatest performance of all in their long history of defiance and passion on the rugby pitch. One of the greatest stories of Irish sport came to the most thrilling conclusion imaginable. I had sat and watched the dreams ofprevious campaigns being broken. Now as I watched, scarcely believing that victory was at hand, grown men could hardly contain the joy, the tears, the utter release that came with achieving a goal so highly and dearly prized. The journey had had its special moments, but none sweeter than that May day in Cardiff.


Blogger Simon said...

excellent post.

Come on Munster

Thu Jun 01, 12:01:00 PM GMT+1  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home