How lucky are we to have so many fantastic memories of players, games and people associated with Munster rugby through the years. Stories of Miracle matches, “get out of jail” acts like the last-minute drop goal against Northampton at home and Zebo’s first hat trick against them away; that hit by the pack on Chabal or James Downey’s tackle on Mike Brown at the Stoop, the 1978 victory over the All Blacks, the 2008 Haka and the only try scored against the All Blacks in their Autumn tour that year by Barry Murphy, the drop goal brilliance of Paul Warrick… The tales of the Red Army on their travels, securing tickets through any means available be it from the South of France for the finals versus Biarritz or Toulouse, in London for the quarter-final at the Stoop or turning Lansdowne Road red for the infamous 2006 semi-final when Leinster were officially the home team! The camaraderie amongst the supporters, sharing info on alternative routes to games, how to get tickets, etc. Even if you don’t have twitter you can check what others suggested as their favourite Munster Memories here.
I sent in a few suggestions myself – my favourite game being the visit of New Zealand in 2008 and the Haka, which is one of my most read blogs mainly through searches about Munster v NZ. I also sent in one about the people associated with Munster – ex-players who gave their all for the team and established the tradition of “playing for the jersey” but also people associated with Munster like teenager Donal Walsh whose message to #LiveLife is inspiring so many long after cancer took him from us and Paul Darbyshire, Head of Strength and Conditioning who tragically died at 41 from Motor Neurone Disease – I remember seeing him wheeled out onto the pitch in his wheelchair for the Magners League Trophy presentation shortly before he passed away. May they Rest in Peace.
Since I started this blog I have captured many more great moments like taking on the PA system at Saracens, the exciting finish in Perpignan and the demolition of Toulouse in the quarter-final. As I have such vivid memories of the 2006 semi-final I decided to write a retrospective blog about it. Living in Dublin there was a lot of banter at work in the build up to it and given the relative performances of Munster and Leinster in their quarter-finals I had to let my Leinster colleagues enjoy their moment in the sun. Munster’s 19-10 quarter-final win over Perpignan was completely overshadowed by the wonderful 35-41 win by Leinster who scored 4 tries to knock Toulouse out of the competition! Their victory had also saved Munster the expense of yet another semi-final trip to France.
I was delighted to get a ticket for the game through my membership of the Supporters Club as tickets were like gold dust as the Brave and Faithful hoovered them up. I met John returning from the game in Sale recently who proudly informed me he had personally secured 65 tickets for his friends as part of that campaign! There was a message sent to the Dublin based supporters with the train details so they could welcome the team at Heuston when they arrived the previous day. I remember walking out to Heuston along the quays on a lovely Spring day, wearing my red jersey and being beeped by cars as other members of the Red Army drove past. On the Sunday morning the lads in the local shop were joking that they couldn’t serve a Munster supporter when I went to buy the paper in my jersey! By the time I got to Lansdowne Road I had butterflies in my tummy. The last thing any Munster fan wanted was for Leinster to go on and win our Holy Grail before we had another opportunity!
I got a good spot on the old terrace and as the stadium filled up I was amazed to see how red it was! Yes it had been very red for the disappointing semi-final versus Wasps there in 2004 but they only brought a few thousand supporters to that game. No one had expected so many tickets to have been secured to make this a home game atmosphere for the team. Munster had even won the toss for the home dressing room at the neutral venue.
So the 16th man, woman and child were in position, flags flying, bodhran’s beating out their war dance. The Fields of Athenry rang out around Lansdowne as Joel Jutge prepared to start the game. The team needed to deliver on the pitch and they got off to the perfect start when Malcolm O’Kelly dropped the kick-off with the Munster pack tearing towards him. Donncha gratefully received the ball to set up the first wave of Munster attacks deep in their 22 and when the penalty was awarded Ronan O’Gara made no mistake, making it first blood to Munster 0-3 within the opening 2 minutes! Game on!
A red-headed Paul O’Connell gave away the next penalty but instead of relieving the pressure on Leinster Girvan Dempsey missed touch and back came Munster on the attack again. Just as South Africa lost their way in the face of aggressive defence from Ireland this month, so too Leinster were reeling, maybe as much initially by the red hordes in Dublin but from the start they were knocked back by wave after wave of Munster players. Their lineout was a liability, Contepomi was out of form and they could hardly get their hands on the ball. Munster played with passion, pace, precision and pure undiluted physicality. Their first try came in the opening 10 minutes. A penalty won was kicked to touch near the 5m line. O’Connell soared and claimed the ball perfectly in one hand. The maul formed and as there was no way the ball was going to get to the backs, O’Gara and Dowling added their weight to the maul and helped drive over the line. Leamy was credited with the score but it was a great team effort. The contrast from the cheering to the silence for O’Gara’s conversion to make it 0-10 was impressive. What a dream start for the red army!
Twelve minutes in though and the mid field had to be rejigged as Rob Henderson replaced the injured John Kelly. Denis Hickie had a great chance to break from deep but Paulie nearly got to him and Shaun Payne did enough to force him over the touchline and the danger was snuffed out. Hickie was again the danger man when a penalty was kicked deep for him to chase but Anthony Horgan did superbly to gather the ball, take the tackle from Hickie and get back on his feet to prevent being penalised for holding on and again the danger was cleared. It took nearly 20 minutes for Leinster to get on the scoreboard with a penalty and it was cancelled out only minutes later when Leinster infringed at a lineout and O’Gara made it 3-13. Munster kept pinning Leinster back in their own half, first O’Gara, then Stringer’s kick was chased by Payne to force Easterby to carry the ball into touch.
Contepomi and Leamy had an off the ball discussion which led to a reversal of a penalty against Munster when the touch judge said it was Hickie who had infringed, a case of mistaken identity I believe! That penalty was also converted by O’Gara to make it 3-16 on 28 minutes and so the score remained for nearly 40 minutes more, deep into the second half.
This video clip has the highlights of the opening 15 minutes including the first Munster penalty and try:
I was glad I had bought the Love Munster baseball cap outside the Aviva on my way in as I was on the sunny side. Indeed at half time I was so hot I had to strip off the polo neck top I was wearing inside my Munster jersey. It being navy blue I could not just take off the red jersey in case anyone mistook me for a Leinster supporter! So I managed to hunker down out of sight and get the polo off without losing my great viewing spot on the terrace.
Leinster did have more possession in the second half but a penalty kick came back off the post on 48′. Munster tried to turn the screw coming up to the hour mark. A penalty was kicked to touch and the Munster supporters shouted out their encouragement but Leinster defended the maul and the subsequent scrum. Another penalty, another lineout, more heroic defence. Was this to be the turning point in the game? Leinster cleared their lines and it was the turn of the Blue Army to find its voice. More disruption for the Munster backline as Rob Henderson was injured making a tackle on Dempsey but he bravely hobbled into the defensive line until the next break in play when he was substituted by Tomas O’Leary with 15 minutes remaining. On 68′ Leinster scored a penalty (6-16) after Munster went offside.
The sinbinning of Pucciariello for another offside on 73 minutes should have given Leinster a way back but it was Munster who finished strongly and how! Leinster missed that penalty which would have brought them back to within a converted try of Munster. Trevor Halstead gave a great pass to Anthony Horgan who carried the ball back into the Leinster half. Munster won a scrum and Anthony Foley had to go off to let on Frankie Roche due to Pucciariello being in the bin. Munster retained possession, O’Gara spotted a mismatch and slipped through a gap between the two locks, fist pumping the air before he touched down behind the posts, then hurdled the hoarding to be swamped by supporters, leaving us in no doubt as to how much this meant to him. He returned to the field to successfully convert his try and with just three minutes left it was 6-23.
There was still time for more! Trevor Halstead had a great game, putting Munster on the front foot, over the gain line so often. He put the icing on the cake by intercepting a pass from Guy Easterby in the Munster half and racing to the Leinster line. When he touched down he just lay there on the ball trying to gather his breath, looking wrecked after his long run to the try line being chased down by Hickie and Horgan to no avail! O’Gara converted to leave the final score at 6-30 and the celebrations could begin, along with planning to get to the final in Cardiff. I went into work the following day with a smile on my face! There were plenty of emails and lots of jokes doing the rounds about Leinster fans going to a sale in Brown Thomas to explain how Munster supporters got so many tickets, and (sarcastically) thanking Leinster for doing us a favour by removing Toulouse from the competition, etc. Bragging rights were well and truly ours!
Watching the match again brought back so many memories – seeing Paulie with hair, admiring Flannery’s darts, Stringer’s crisp passes, Ian Dowling’s trademark twirling out of the tackle, O’Gara’s ability to pin back the opposition with laser guided kicking out of hand and off the tee . Of course Joel Jutge brought back memories of the “hand of Back” from the 2002 final while that brought back memories of our encounters with Leicester and the two great wins at Welford Road in ’03 and ’06 (the loss at Cardiff and Thomond have been erased from memory!) Even seeing Jim Williams who was on the coaching side then brought back memories of his great contribution to Munster and indeed that of Declan Kidney.
Munster went on to defeat Biarritz in the final in Cardiff the following month. I did not get to it as my niece/god-daughter was making her Communion but I remember getting back to the house to watch it on TV after the family lunch and as the car pulled up outside the house I heard on the radio that Munster had conceded the opening try but they bounced back. Peter Stringer’s try was a favourite Munster memory for many people! I was at Thomond the following weekend for the final League game of the season versus Cardiff when I was delighted to get a photo with Dad of the Heineken Cup and there was a great celebration on the pitch after the game with Mike Mullen singing “Creep” being a particular highlight! So what are your favourite Munster memories?
This match report by Gerry Thornley is worth re-reading.