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.

Ludd McGahan Leaves A Mixed Legacy

Ludd McGahan’s departure from Munster won’t see too many tears shed among the Munster faithful.  He has never fully won over the fans in his time there, and for most it will be a case of ‘bring on the new era’.  His defenders will thank him for a good job, but won’t mind too much that he’s going deehn andah.

The truth of the matter is that McGahan’s task was a thankless, maybe even impossible one.  He took over Munster at a time when they were the dominant team in Europe, but had grown old together.  By his second season in charge, most of the core of his team were over the top of a pretty steep hill.  The only way was down.  Plus, he was taking over from Local Hero and Man of the People Declan Kidney.
To make matters worse, the previous management (of which he was a part, it must be said) had done little to manage succession.  Declan Kidney was hugely successful for Munster, but, as a coach, rarely looks too far beyond the next game.  As this superb dissection showed, during his time there, the academy produced next to no players of any quality.
Starter’s orders
The first few months of McGahan’s tenure went pretty swimmingly, though it’s hard to know how much to attribute to him, and how much was the continued good habits of a self-managing squad.  His first Heineken Cup game flirted with disaster, as Munster came within a whisker of losing at home to Montauban’s seconds, but they quickly got their act together, navigating the double header with Clermont Auvergne and dispatching Sale home and away.  They also nearly beat the All Blacks on a famous night in Thomond Park.  By now the Munster machine was purring.  They put together a stirring run of form in both competitions.  Even in the absence of their frontline players – traditionally a time for Munster to fold like a cheap suit – the likes of Mick O’Driscoll and Niall Ronan kept the show on the road.  The 22-5 beating of Leinster and the 43-9 crushing of the Ospreys in the quarter-final were arguably the very peak of their powers.  The Lions selection reflected their machine-like brilliance, and retaining the H-Cup appeared a formality.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part I

Then something strange happened.  A thoroughly unfancied Leinster, fed on scraps of their horrendous press and the meeja’s Munster love-in, beat them 25-6 in the semi-final.  It was a game which effected a profound change on Irish rugby, and it took Tony McGahan and Munster a long time to recover. 

Over the next 21 months the rot set in.  The following year saw Munster win 9 out of 18 games in the Magners League, somehow squeezing into the newly minted semi-finals, where they were beaten by – not you again – Leinster in a game they never really threatened to win.  It was their third defeat of the season to their rivals – the first was a humiliating 30-0 thumping at a white-hot RDS, and the second a rare loss on their own Limerick patch.   In the Heineken Cup, Munster huffed and puffed, but made it to a semi-final, but  succumbed to a pretty ordinary Biarritz.  Sheer muscle was all Biarritz had, and Munster had nothing to stop it.
Goodbye Generation Ligind
Worse trouble was brewing: Generation Ligind were coming to the end of the road.  Marcus Horan and Denis Leamy’s powers were vastly reduced, John Hayes could give no more, Alan Quinlan was finished as a starter and Jirry Flannery was about to be ruined by injury.  Paul O’Connell was injured and Donncha O’Callaghan was never all that great in the first place.  Almost nothing had been done to ensure the next generation of would-be liginds was in place.
The chickens came home to roost in a disastrous campaign in 2010-2011.  Munster (and Ireland, crucially, for it tied Munster’s hand)  pinned their hopes on Tony Buckley to take over from John Hayes as the country’s premier only tighthead.  Buckley had come off the back of a successful summer tour, where he was one of few players to emerge with credit following an outstanding display of hard carrying and soft hands in New Plymouth.  But there was one problem: he couldn’t scrummage.  Munster lost carelessly to a poor London Irish side and, critically, to Ospreys, with Adam Jones winning the man of the match award without touching the football.  Faced with needing to win in Toulon, Munster went in to meltdown, turning in a shambolic performance and taking a thorough pounding.
Redemption!  Well, sort of
It looked grim for McGahan, and defeat at home to a young Harlequins side in the Amlin Cup was a nadir, but McGahan finally did what he should have done a long time ago and began to dispose of Generation Ligind.  In came some bright new things: Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan.  The Magners League was secured in style, beating newly crowned European kingpins Leinster. In this season’s Heineken Cup, Munster are set fair with a home quarter final and potential home semi-final.  Their maul and lineout are back to something like they used to be, and the scrum rejuvenated by some prime Saffa beef.  But you can’t help but feel McGahan is something of a punch-bag.  When things were going badly, he took the blame; now they’ve picked up, new forwards coach and all round ligind Axel Foley gets the credit.
The natives still aren’t happy though.  Despite winning six from six in the group stages, there’s a feeling that Munster haven’t played terribly well.  They no longer dominate opponents, and tend to eke out wins.  Increasingly, the twin totems of Radge and POC drag the team kicking and screaming to victory.  But, hey – it was ever thus.  Remember Munster’s peak in 2008 & 2009?  It wasn’t all barnstorming victories.  Those with short memories might have forgotten fortunate wins at home to Clermont and Montauban in 2009, and a decidedly shaky semi-final against an unheralded Saracens side in 2008.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part II
We think it’s fair to conclude that while McGahan hasn’t brought the house down, he has done a decent job in difficult circumstances.  The ire with which he’s regarded in some parts of Munster perhaps has more to do with what’s happening in the blue corner than his own.  Munster fans probably wouldn’t mind a spell of being a bit rubbish, if it didn’t coincide so totally with Leinster’r rise, both on and off the pitch.  When McGahan took over Munster, Leinster were seen as a bit of a joke.  If you’d told fans of either province how the next three seasons would pan out back in 2008, nobody would have believed you.
Back to the Future
We’ll be taking a detailed look at what the Munster job entails later this week.  For whoever comes in to the role, by far the biggest task will be replacing Radge, for two reasons.  First, they have to find someone capable of being as good as him, and there aren’t too many 10s out there that are his equal.  Secondly, at some point they have to phase him out (succession and all that).  As Deccie has found with Ireland, this is harder than it looks.  He has managed part one, but part two is harder.  Any time you lose with Radge on the bench, you can bet his legion of admirers will castigate you for it.  Radge himself is not likely to hand over the shirt too readily, and isn’t shy of doing his bidding in publicIf Munster can manage that most onerous of tasks (they may need to look overseas), they look to just about have enough talent coming through elsewhere to keep them competitive for the medium term.