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Champions! Biarritz: 19 – Munster: 23: 2006 European Cup Final

Tuned into radio, rushing home from Communion lunch. Disaster struck, a dodgy try conceded!  Raced indoors, glued to the TV. Halstead scores. Yes!  Fists pumped, fingers crossed.

Stringer you beauty!  Fooled them all!

Penalties conceded, margin reduced. Limerick on big screen re-energises all. Can we prevail? Yes we did!

My unsuccessful entry for the fifty word competition run by Munster Rugby.

Fifty words was never going to be my medium, but it was worth entering as winning would have been cool and it got me thinking of writing my third retrospective blog!  Hence, as the anniversary approached I sat down to watch the match through.  Plenty of nostalgia and moments of confusion due to some rule changes in the interim, but also a tinge of sadness to watch players like Ian Dowling, Denis Leamy, David Wallace and Jerry Flannery who had to retire before their time, as indeed had Paul O’Connell.  At least on the other end of the spectrum Peter Stringer and Donncha O’Callaghan are still going strong – both picking up end of season awards for Sale and Worchester respectively, ten years later!  It is also strange to see Paulie with a head of hair and great to see Jim Williams – part of the coaching team by then – who had contributed to much to the club, arriving on the pitch as waterboy or with the kicking tee throughout the game.

It was fast, it was frantic at times but boy was it exciting in a nerve-wrecking kind of way. Not sure if I can say I enjoyed it live… it was much easier to review  after the event!

They referred to it as our Holy Grail after all the near misses:

  • 2000: Defeated finalists versus Northampton by a single point.
  • 2001: Defeated semi-finalists away to Stade Francais by a single point – a John O’Neill try disallowed controversially.
  • 2002: Defeated finalists versus Leicester. They said you had to win one to lose one but that did not work out for Munster.  I was there for the infamous “hand of Back” incident.
  • 2003: Defeated semi-finalists away to Toulouse by a single point
  • 2004: Defeated semi-finalists versus Wasps at Lansdowne Road by 5 points – I was there in the sea of red – ROG forced off early through injury, costly sinbinnings..more heartbreak
  • 2005: Defeated quarter-finalists away to Biarritz

Would 2006 be our year?  Could we finally put those defeats and disappointments behind us?

I have the souvenir DVD (with the wonderful bonus DVD of the semi-final) but my player is broken so I was glad to find the full game on YouTube in 2 halves.  The first half includes all 3 tries:

The second half features Limerick on the big screen and the all important final whistle!  As Ronan wrote in the Examiner on the 10th anniversary: “That snapshot of the scene back in Limerick during the game on the big screen. The memory still shocks me. Even thinking about it now again. That was the moment you just couldn’t come home if you didn’t have the medal.”

I did not go to the game as my niece and god-daughter Sinead was making her first Holy Communion so I decided to put family first.  However, that did not mean I had time to linger after the meal as I rushed back to the house and took over their living room to see the final which had a 3pm kick-off.  We listened to the opening minutes on the car radio as we drove back to the house and as I wrote above it was 7-0 to Biarritz by the time we took our seats in front of the TV.  The guests who returned later were happy enough in the dining room while the kids were delighted to be out on the bouncy castle on a sunny afternoon so Dad and I were undisturbed as we nervously watched events unfold in Cardiff.

The sea of red proved that once again the 16th man had managed to secure tickets way in excess of their allocation.  With the roof closed the noise levels throughout the game were incredible.  I have been there for the final in 2002 and 2008 and experiencing the sound in person is an incredible experience – shivers down the back of your neck stuff – but it comes across clearly on the TV also.  Trying to hear the lineout calls and other communications on the pitch over the cheering, chanting and singing must have been difficult.

Munster stole the first Biarritz lineout but they made no mistake with their second and several phases later with barely two minutes on the clock Brusque set up Sireli Bobo for the opening try.  Watching the replay there is a hint of suspicion that he may have just touched the whitewash but the score counted and Yachvili’s excellent touchline conversion put them in an early 7-0 lead.

Bobo

Bobo’s try as his foot just appeared to touch the whitewash but it was allowed.

Pulling down the maul provided the first kickable penalty opportunity for Munster after 7 minutes and a successful kick by Ronan O’Gara got Munster onto the scoreboard.

A quick lineout thrown in by Stringer put Munster on the front foot shortly afterwards.  Great continuity brought them into the opposition half before a forward pass resulted in a scrum for Biarritz.  From it Brusque’s clearance kick gave Munster a lineout and an opportunity to maul.  When it was pulled down by Betsen they were awarded a penalty after 11”.  However, they spurned the 3 points on offer, opting to find touch on the 5m line.  After 10 phases Biarritz conceded another penalty which again was kicked to touch, this time on the opposite side of the pitch.  I remember George Hook going mad about Munster not taking the points and keeping the scoreboard ticking over but Anthony Foley wanted to keep the pressure on Biarritz.  Taking the 3 points on offer would have handed them back possession and given them entry back into Munster territory. However, O’Gara’s chip over the try line was dealt with by Biarritz and that opportunity was lost.

The 22 dropout went deep but Payne kicked it back and chased up hard to tackle the receiver.  His pack piled in looking to force the turnover.  Biarritz kicked the ball deep again.  This time it was O’Gara who was covering back.  He countered and with Anthony Horgan in support chipped ahead.  Horgan batted it back and Flannery was there to charge forward.  Neat offloading to O’Connell, supported by Foley as they looked to form a maul.  When that was collapsed they got the ball wide quickly, Leamy then Horan carried, sucking in the defence before Stringer whipped it out to O’Gara whose pass to Halstead was taken at pace.  He forced his way between Gobelet and Bidabe and twisted to touch down, giving Munster an 8-7 lead after 16 minute before O’Gara’s conversion moved it out to 10-7 despite the lack of silence.  Their shouts to put him off were quickly drowned out by the cheers of the Red Army as his kick sailed between the posts.  The scenes from Limerick were equally jubilant.  We had seen such scenes before from France but I don’t recall seeing them from Limerick before and it was an amazing sight.  Apparently 30,000 turned up on the day!

OConnellSt_EmeraldRugby

Photo of the crowds in O’Connell St Limerick taken from Emerald Rugby magazine from 2006

The restart was knocked on as Biarritz tried to respond immediately and O’Gara’s clearance kick from the resultant scrum ensured they got out of Munster territory as the “Fields of Athenry” rang out again around the ground.

A super kick from Yachvili got them back to the Munster 5m line.  Harinordoquy knocked the ball out of O’Callaghan’s hands but the referee saw and Munster had the put in to the scrum.  However, Census Johnson put the pressure on Marcus Horan to win a penalty which Yachvili kicked to tie the scores at 10 all.

It was end to end stuff – some excellent counter mauling when Biarritz had another 5m lineout as the pack showed their hunger and determination to hold their line intact.  A turnover led to a Munster counter-attack which won them a penalty when Biarritz went offside.  O’Gara kicked the ball to touch on the 22m and Flannery prepared to take the throw as the clock went past the half hour mark.  Another three point opportunity spurned, would it pay off as well as the last time?  O’Connell soared to claim the ball and passed to O’Callaghan who offloaded to Wallace on the charge.  The pack piled in behind and drove for the line – Leamy, then O’Callaghan, then Foley picked and went as they edged closer to the Biarritz line before Chris White awarded them a scrum.

The rest as they say is history, Stringer eyed up his options and backed himself, and the video analysis and his reputation of not being one to break as he scampered past Betsen taking a wide arc and dived over the line in one of the most iconic images of the European Cup!

StringerTry

Stringer’s try – from the Irish Examiner coverage

Ronan O’Gara nailed the conversion to extend the lead to 7 points (10-17) with 33 minutes gone as the gamble paid off.  The roar that greeted Brusque’s fumble as Payne returned his kick from deep a few minutes later added to the frustration of the French team.

It was far from perfect, the restarts were not all dealt with perfectly, there were some loose kicks, but the intensity, the passion, the hunger were there in bucket loads as they chased down their quarry, never giving up.  All the values that had earned Munster so many fans over the years of their quest were on display on the highest stage in European Club rugby.

Stats

Some stats from the Irish Examiner from 2006

The second half started perfectly, Shaun Payne chased up his own garryowen, there was some confusion between 2 French players and their moment of hesitation gave him the extra second he needed to put in the tackle and win a penalty when Biarritz did not release.  Maybe the noise in the stadium made it difficult for them to hear each other call.  O’Gara put in between the posts to extend the lead to 10 points in the 42nd minute.

Harinordoquy attacked the Munster lineout and won a penalty when John Hayes went offside trying to secure possession five minutes later.  Yachvili made no mistake to make it 13-20.  Biarritz were enjoying a purple patch as they came forward again.  This time Denis Leamy was penalised for a high tackle on Harinordoquy which Yachvili kicked between the posts to make it 16-20 in the 51st minute.

Nerves were showing as mistakes were made on both sides – a lost lineout by Munster only for Peyrelongue to kick it out on the full – but it was nothing compared to the nerves of those watching as time seemed to slow down.

Dowling was busy, clearing out a ruck at one side of the pitch before carrying the ball shortly afterwards in the other and it took several players to take him down as the pack formed a maul behind him.  A few phases later O’Gara put in one of his infamous kicks in behind the defence from the halfway line to find a great touch midway in their 22 and pin Biarritz back which the supporters, his team mates and pundits alike appreciated.

There was a break in play before the lineout was taken and a wonderful version of the “Fields of Athenry” rang out around the stadium.  Give me that over a Mexican wave any day of the week!  It would send shivers down your spine as the noise levels increased yet again.   It seemed to drive on the players too as Donncha got up high to steal their throw in and Munster were on the attack again.

However, Biarritz turned them over and then when O’Gara got the ball he kicked it dead only for Biarritz to concede a penalty when Betsen did not roll away.  However, instead of relieving the pressure uncharacteristically O’Gara missed touch only for Peyrelongue to kick it out on the full… whose nerve was going to crack first?  Probably mine!

Another stoppage and this time the cameras returned to show the crowds anxiously watching in Limerick.  When they realised they were on the big screen you could hear them cheer and see them wave.  Those images beamed into the Millennium Stadium also galvanised those lucky enough to be there.

While Stringer’s try is the iconic image check him out at 61’55” – Biarritz are on the attack deep in the Munster half but the pass is dropped and Stringer hacks it through. While Brusque gathered the ball he was forced into touch by the smallest man on the pitch.  Not quite David and Goliath but Stringer was like a man possessed that day and nothing was going to stand in his way.

Marcus Horan was first to be replaced with Federico Pucciariello coming into the front row. As Harinordoquy was contesting the lineout so well Munster changed their tactics and went for the quick throw to ensure they retained possession.  Meanwhile the clock slowly edged forward.  Approaching 70 minutes Yachvili had his third kick at goal of the second half and was yet again successful to reduce the gap to a single point.  Surely fate could not be so unkind as to be third time unlucky?  The Biarritz supporters found their voices as they celebrated their team’s comeback.

Mick O’Driscoll came into action in place of the captain Anthony Foley who left the pitch to great applause.  Micko was straight into the action, gathering a kick and charging forward, eager to make his contribution to the team effort.  He was the target for the next lineout also and when the ball went wide to Halstead the whistle sounded as Census Johnson (back on after an injury to # 1) was penalised for going in at the side.  Was this it?  Thirty minutes since the last Munster score with Biarritz eating away at the margin, would it all came down to this?  Ronan O’Gara lined it up, kept his nerve and put it over the bar to ensure Biarritz would need more than a penalty or a drop goal in the remaining 6 minutes to win the game.

O’Connell received the restart and as the ball went back to O’Gara to kick the leather off the ball and get it as far up the field as possible, Biarritz went offside trying to block it down.  Noise levels ratcheted up.  It was the edge of your seat stuff and as O’Connell was replaced by Alan Quinlan, another who had overcome injuries to make the matchday squad, you could hardly hear yourself think. Our “dreams and songs to sing” looked like they would be realised but it was not over yet. Four and a half more minutes of ecstasy and agony to survive.  The wide-eyed stare of O’Connell sitting helplessly on the bench summed up how many of us were feeling.

Two and a half minutes left – a forced pass led to a knock-on and a scrum to Biarritz.  More stoppages as players needed treatment – not surprising the huge effort of the physical encounter was taking its toll.  Flags flying, voices raised the brave and faithful urged the team on for one final effort.  Biarritz had to go all out to score a try and they threw everything at Munster.  Eagle-eyed Stringer reacted first when the ball popped out and he hacked it downfield forcing Biarritz to come again from deep.

Two minutes left and from that lineout Biarritz made no ground but held onto possession, albeit via a scrum. This time it was Freddie who needed treatment and while play was stopped again the anthem rang out as the infamous 16th man made it’s presence felt, knowing that energy levels must be waning after such a tough physical encounter.

One minute left – Biarritz had gone wide and as Brusque burst into the Munster 22m Halstead was there to drag him down.  Biarritz retained possession but with 24s left there was a massive cheer of joy and relief as Bobo’s pass drifted forward and Chris White blew his whistle!!!  Justice was done – the man who foot may have gone into touch in the opening minutes was the one to concede possession in the vital final minute.  Still the game was not over but belief was peeping out from behind the couch.

Last play – hold onto possession on our own scrum.  Could we do it?  Yes we can but as whistles rang out in the stadium as the clock went past the 80 the scrum had to be reset.  Oh our collective nerves.  Blow it up ref!!!

Leamy had the ball under control at the base of a solid scrum but before he or Stringer could play it Yachvili, desperate to have one last chance of a score went offside and conceded a penalty.  Stringer blasted the ball high into the stand and the sweet sound of the final whistle was the prelude to celebrations on and off the pitch.   I can still picture the guys jumping up and down for delight on top of the telephone box in Limerick.

IndoPoster

Souvenir poster from the Independent

There were plenty more iconic images of the celebrations on the pitch also, before the after the trophy presentation.

EmeraldRugbyCentreFold

From Emerald Rugby magazine

I had a ticket for the final game of the season – the league match against Cardiff as there were no play-offs then – and decided that if Munster won the final those tickets would be like gold dust so I bought a second ticket for my Dad.  So there we were, the following Saturday. queueing up to get our photo taken with the Cup.  To this day it remains one of my favourite photos of the 2 of us.  We barely got through that queue in time to take our places on the terrace by kickoff.  The game itself was remarkably high scoring and lively, given the celebrations that had taken place in the intervening week.  Afterwards there was a great singsong and the squad players not in the match day 23 in Cardiff but who had been part of the qualification for the final were presented with their medals.  Several players were leaving and / or retiring including Rob Henderson.  I remember Mike Mullins singing “Creep” by Radiohead and that track is now included in my rugby playlist as a result.  It would have been great to be at the final, or in Limerick for the home-coming but this was the next best thing.

dadgaylsepia

A great occasion and wonderful memories being shared across social media for the 10th anniversary, including @MunsterRugby’s live tweeting of the game as if was live today https://twitter.com/hashtag/Cardiff06?src=hash

Check out also the Munster Rugby podcast remembering 2006:

Munster: S Payne; A Horgan, J Kelly, T Halstead, I Dowling; R O’Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell; D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley (capt). Replacements: D Fogarty, F Pucciariello, M O’Driscoll, A Quinlan, T O’Leary, J Manning, R Henderson.

Biarritz: N Brusque; J-B Gobelet, P Bidabe, D Traille, S Bobo; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; P Balan, B August, C Johnson, J Thion, D Couzinet, S Betsen, I Harinordoquy, T Lievremont (capt). Replacements: B Noirot, B Lecouls, O Olibeau, T Dusautoir, M Carizza, J Dupuy, F Martin Arramburu

Referee: Chris White (Rugby Football Union)

hoarder

Souvenirs of a great occasion (and confirmation of my hoarding tendencies)

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3 comments on “Champions! Biarritz: 19 – Munster: 23: 2006 European Cup Final

  1. Míle Buíochas Gayl

    Thanks for this great 10th Anniversary blog when Munster Rugby finally grasped the Holy Grail. That win probably was the catalyst for Ireland’s Grand Slam victory in 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBN6LWmEOCU .

    2006 Heineken Cup Final Souvenir Special still available online is also a great read http://www.limerickcity.ie/media/Rugby075.pdf .

    Hopefully with their new training centre, Munster will make next year’s play-offs.

    Go n-éirí an t-ádh leat Gayl, Up Munster

    • Thanks Tony. Hope you enjoyed the Connacht v Glasgow semi-final at the weekend. Great to have an All Ireland final or as Pat Lam joked: Connacht in the Scotland changing room versus Ireland in the away changing room at Murrayfield!

  2. From Twitter: Ian : Great read Gayl. Memorable day. We had to move a 10month old David out of the room – he was getting too excited us roaring at tv 🙂

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