Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Five

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.

The Game

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.

The Aftermath

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Very nice piece, I don’t know if it is in your series or not but I think Munster winning in Toulouse en route to their first final is probably as important, I don’t think Irish teams had a very good record away from home in the HC at that stage, Munster played great rugby that day (you can see the tries on youtube) and I think it ended up giving Munster and you might say (possibly a bit of a stretch) to say yu know hwat we can actually beat these feicers over in France.

    Enjoying the series, I did a review of our summer tour (I know many want it blanked from memory!) here: http://v2journal.com/ireland-rugby–summer-tour-review.html

    • Thanks Conor, glad you’re enjoying the series. We had a hard time picking what we felt was the defining Munster match on their quest for European greatness. There were plenty of big steps taken and memorable days along the way. In the end we decided the 2008 victory was their greatest achievement and we wanted to reflect that. No doubt the win in 2000 in Toulouse was also hugely important (ROG, for one, has talked about how much confidence it gave them as a team), but given they lost the resulting final, perhaps not quite as defining as this hard-fought result in Gloucester.

      • conorphilpott95

         /  July 31, 2012

        It was hard fought but relatively comfortable due to Patterson having an off day with the boot. The Saracens match was well worse, we feicing made that harder than it should have been!

  2. Len

     /  July 31, 2012

    Another great piece lads and another well chosen game. Munster were arguably the best Irish side from 2000 – 2009, a period when being a Leinster fan was at times extremely grim ( 2003 pool stage exit and 2005 semi finale hiding from Munster come to mind). Munster gave you some real interest in the HC as an Irish rugby fan and some great moments. I think the point about the influence the club structure had is very important. It points to the early success and unfortunately to the later demise in my opinion. The quality of AIL players has diminished some what with the rise of provincial rugby. Munster’s reliance on AIL clubs as opposed to a schools feeding an academy structure has left them struggling to replace some of the great players who are now reaching the end of their careers with promising young players and although we’re starting to see the Munster academy paying off it will be a while before they’re churning out players in all positions. Leinster in contrast got the academy structure right at the start and while it’s taken a few years to mature it’s now producing more top quality players than the coaching staff know what to do with. Players like Dave Kearney, Andrew Conway, Dominic Ryan and Ryse Ruddock struggle to get game time and are dependant on those ahead of them in the pecking order getting injured. While that’s great for Leinster it’s not great for Ireland. It leaves us in a bad situation from a national point of view. Begs the question is it time to consider the possibility of a loan structure like they have in football. With the IRFU placing more emphasis on Irish players and specifically Irish based players it might be a way of ensuring we get the most out of our player population. Looking forward to the next instalment.
    _______________________

  3. Have that game on DVD as part of the double-disc Heino season review (Munster bias). Watch now and again. The aggression and speed of play is breathtaking at times. It even seems quicker than real-time!

  4. Xyz

     /  July 31, 2012

    Really nicely written, brings back many memories and the goose bumps that went with them.

  5. Degsy

     /  July 31, 2012

    Well done on a fine piece of work. I think you captured it perfectly. Like Xyz above, it has triggered some great memories. I recall after the Toulon debacle the overriding sense among the fans there was that we had got what was coming for a while – the final directions to the end of the road – but also we had watched a team that owed us nothing.

  6. Little bit left of centre with that selection, I had to wrack my brains to think of the match.
    Once I did, the thing I remember most about it, oddly, was Munster winning a Gloucester lineout near halfway. It was slapped back to O’Leary who immediately kicked it into the corner. Gloucester had set themselves up to attack and there was no blindside winger to cover. Munster put a hard chase on and Gloucester had themselves a lineout in the corner under a load of pressure while Munster’s traveling fans thumped the advertising boards. A number of the pack made sure to congratulate O’Leary on the kick. There was no second guessing – if you turn over opposition ball in a cup match, make them pay. That Munster team knew what they wanted to do with the ball and O’Leary knew his pack wanted to keep rolling forward. That’s important for a young guy in a decision making position. At that stage, it looked like the hand over to the next generation would be smooth.

    • Not one of the more iconic Munster games for sure, but given the path it set them on, we thought it was particularly significant. When you saw O’Leary come in and take such ownership of the shirt from the get-go it was pretty daunting. It did seem to be the sort of upgrade that would take them to the next level; and briefly, it did. Kidney’s lack of sentiment was also striking: he didn’t give Stringer a single minute off the bench in any of the three knock-out games.

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