The Game: Gloucester 3-16 Munster, 5th April 2008
What it Defined: the transformation of Irish provinces into all-conquering Europe-dominating machines, and in particular Munster’s period of dominance
The State of Play
The Heineken European Cup (then just the European Cup) began with a bit of a whimper in 1995. The first season had no English or Scots, but one Romanian representative. Ulster, Munster and Leinster threw their hats in the ring, and the IRFU was delighted to find something for its newly-minted employees to do. Leinster were the only Irish side to make it past the first round, but were beaten by Cardiff in the semi-final, in front of 7,000 (!) at Lansdowne Road.
The English and Scottish joined the next year, and that ruined any chance of immediate success for the Irish. No Irish province made the knock-out stages, which was a fair reflection of Irish rugby’s standing at the time – until the English took a sabbatical in 1998-99.
It was that year that the Irish finally got a taste for the competition. The absence of the English gave them crucial oxygen at a time when the moneybags English game had its jackboot firmly on the Celtic throat – leaving 1999 aside; Bath, Northampton and Leicester (twice) gave England four wins in a row. Ulster and Munster took advantage of the empty field, both making their knock-out debuts. While Munster fell at the next hurdle, Ulster went on to memorable success – the semi-final win over Stade Francais was the first of many Epics involving Irish sides, and the final was an unforgettable occasion, if a forgettable match – the first Irish success in the competition, albeit with an asterisk.
From that point on, for the next 10 and a bit years, the story of Irish rugby in Europe was bound up in Munster’s story. Sporadic success from Leinster merely masked a poor setup, and Ulster endured the worst years in their history. Both played second fiddle to the all-conquering Liginds from the south.
It was all the more impressive for having started at a low base. They will always remember the lowest low in Munster: Mick Galwey standing under the Toulouse posts, begging the lads to keep it below 60 (they did). But their capacity to learn and develop led them to higher and higher peaks.
In truth though, there were three Munster teams – the cohort of 2000 and 2002 were essentially a crowd of players who had straddled the amateur and professional eras, led by giants from outside. Munster rugby had always stood in greater contrast to Ulster and Leinster in that the club scene was the main development pathway, unlike the schools system elsewhere. This meant that players like Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey immediately brought the ethos of Limerick club rugby, which had dominated the AIL in the early 1990s, into Munster. Outsiders like John Langford and Keith Wood (remember, he played virtually his entire career in England) came in and channeled the latent talent into a team that could compete with the best.
That team’s finest hour was the 31-25 semi-final victory away to Toulouse in 2000, a remarkable result, and for many the day that Munster rugby as we know it was born. It left them needing to beat an unremarkable Northampton team in the final, but in heartbreaking fashion, Munster let the game slip from their grasp. The night before the game, the players had an emotional team meeting, with players reportedly in tears talking about the pride they felt in the jersey. It backfired – the emotion was spent and the team were flat by the time they took the field of play. The team that lost the 2000 final had a pack of Clohessy, Wood, Hayes, Galwey, Langford, Halvey, Wallace, Foley.
Two years later another final beckoned, but again Munster came up agonisingly short. Unable to conjure up a try, they did manage to create a platform in the dying minutes with an attaking scrum, but… well, we all know what happened next.
The second great Munster team, the first to bring home the trophy, against Biarritz in 2006, had only Hayes, Wallace and Foley from the 2000 forwards – a serious amount of experience gone, but replaced by the next generation, typified by the aggression of Jirry Flannery, Paul O’Connell and Denis Leamy. The near-miss against Wasps in the 2004 semi-final – one of the greatest matches in the Cup’s history - was the crucible that forged that side. Only six of the team that day started the 2000 final, but most of the newbies would still be there two years later. The 2006 team also had Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara years older and more experienced, and possessors of a couple of Triple Crowns - key players were now becoming accustomed to success.
Either side of that 2006 triumph, Munster limped out in the quarter-finals – still respectable no doubt, but it showed they weren’t yet complete. Their true peak came from 2008-2009, when they mutated into a machine, a match-winning juggernaut that was the best team in Europe, supplied more Lions than any other team, and at times seemed unbeatable.
In the 2007-08 tournament, Munster had a stinking draw, their toughest to date: champions Wasps, their 2007 conquerers Llanelli and French nouveau riche Clermont Auvergne. The group games were memorable, primarily for the bonus point in the Marcel Michelin that ultimately put them through. The stadium would become a familiar venue for Irish bonus points (no wins!), and Munster laid the marker down. In the final pool game they ground a cocky Wasps side into the dirt, ROG giving his much-vaunted opposite number, Danny Cipriani, a lesson in how to play cup rugby on a wet day.
Waiting in the quarter-finals were Gloucester – top of the Premiership and flying high in Europe. It was a familiar stage for Munster, but their last quarter-final win away from Thomond was five years previously, and they were second favourites.
This build-up will be remembered for Deccie’s two massive selection calls – Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley came in for Shaun Payne and Peter Stringer. Both turned up and justified Deccie’s faith – admittedly when you are playing behind a pack like Munster had, that is a little easier to do. This was classic management from a wily coach – changing from a position of strength, and ensuring the new players were being dropped into a settled, winning team. Munster were utterly dominant after a slightly off-key start. Chris Paterson was given several attempts to get Glaws off the mark, but uncharacteristically missed three times in the opening quarter.
After that, it was all Munster – the high-octane frenzied defence and aggressive and opportunistic attack that was to be their signature were both present here. Ian Dowling and Dougie Howlett crossed either side of half time, and Rog’s boot did the rest – it was 16-0 after an hour, and finished 16-3. The intensity and control of Munster’s display was breath-taking, and a harbinger of things to come.
For sure there were more iconic games and more miraculous matches, if you will, but while other games may have defined the Munster spirit and ethos to a greater degree, we have chosen this game because we feel it was the point at which they became a great team, who will be remembered for their trophy haul and not just their pluck. From this point, they didn’t need miracles, only a stage for their greatness.
The teams that day were:
Gloucester: Morgan; Paterson, Simpson-Daniel, Allen, (Ooooooh) Vainikolo; Lamb, Lawson; Wood, Titterill, Nieto; Bortolami, Brown; Buxton, Hazell, Naraway.
Munster: Hurley; Howlett, Tipoki, Mafi, Dowling; O’Gara, O’Leary; Horan, Flannery, Hayes; O’Connell, O’Callaghan; Quinlan, Wallace, Leamy.
Munster went on to win the trophy for a second time, narrowly winning a nervy semi-final against Saracens before dispatching the mighty Toulouse 16-13 in the final. The last 10 minutes of the final became Exhibit A in favour of tweaks to the ruck laws to prevent teams picking and going to wind the clock down, but that didn’t stop Munster on the day. To those playing and watching it felt different to the 2006 win. First time around the overriding emotion was of relief that, having had so many heartbreaking near-misses, they had finally reached their holy grail. In 2008, it felt like the arrival of a truly great side; a European force. The players felt they could enjoy the victory more the second time.
The next season, Munster were insatiable. By now Kidney had moved on, replaced by McGahan, but the transition was seamless. Incredibly, they stepped up another level – the pool stages were a wash, Munster only losing one game (in Clermont) to earn a home quarter-final. That was the game they peaked – smashing an Ospreys team containing Tommy Bowe, James Hook, Mike Phillips and most of the 2012 Grand Slam Welsh tight five 43-9. Seven of the pack that day played in the 2006 final, but only two of the backs. This Munster had a backline threat to go with their test-level pack. Paul Warwick gave them a newfound spark of creativity in the back three, and their sparkling new centre, local boy Keith Earls was enjoying a terrific breakthrough season. The days of Munster as a 10 man team were in the past.
It was the pinacle of Munster 3.0 – with back-to-back Heiny’s seemingly at their mercy, they lost the semi-final that year to an unfancied Leinster (more of which anon). They were the most consistent team in Europe that year, but finished without the trophy (that’s Cup rugby for you), and they never quite recovered. The following year, they were patchy at times, but roused themselves for a couple of memorable performances. They ended a lengthy home winning record in Perpignan’s Stade Aime Geral, thrashing the hosts 37-14, from where they topped the pool. They followed that with a memorable slapdown of Northampton in the quarter-final. It ended in the next round though; Biarritz ground them into the dust, exploiting the rapid de-powering of the front row to end the short-lived dominance of Munster 3.0.
The combination of the experienced and powerful pack built through campaign after campaign in Europe with the perfect 10, a breaking 9, the best centre partnership in professional Munster’s history and the All Black’s leading try-scorer was a potent mix – and it first came together that day in Kingsholm. Keith Earls and Paul Warwick would improve it further. Their peak was a year later against the Ospreys, and their last hurrah another year later against the Saints.
They began a five season period where Irish teams went from a situation where they achieved occasional success, but more often heroic defeat, to one where they beat all comers - four HECs in five seasons (and counting) is testament to that. Despite beating them in 2009, Leinster definitively overtook them only in 2010-11, and by then Munster 3.0 had disintegrated into the rabble that succumbed so meekly in Toulon – Father Time and a reluctance to move on had seen to that.
They’ll be back, but the magic that started in Kingsholm will remain their high water mark for a long time.