Friday, April 4, 2014


In preparation for Munster's #OldRivalsNewArena HCup quarter final match with Toulouse tomorrow, I've resurrected a match report I wrote for the now defunct site that shows just what Munster are capable of at HCup level.

The match report is from November 2011 and describes the now legendary 40 phases match (even though at the time I had quoted 42). Even now, three years later, reading this gives me goosebumps.

Tomorrow, be loud, be proud, let's show them that we are the Red Army!


The first pool match against Northampton promised to provide the famed festive pre-match atmosphere in Limerick city that comes with a Heineken cup home weekend. And as usual, I missed it, the pre-match atmosphere that is. I found myself hurridly making my way up the hill to LIT 15 minutes to kick-off. I must admit, it was a strange experience. There wasn't a sinner to be seen, every postage stamp size piece of tarmac and grass had a car parked on it, and I honestly thought I had gotten the kick-off time wrong until I heard the stadium announcer calling the remaining supporters to gain access to the ground as soon as possible. Fortress Thomond was a beacon of light beckoning me up the hill and as I got closer, I was met with fellow latecomers rushing to enter the cauldron to soak up the excitement before the team run-out.
I made it in just in time to start the chant as the teams appeared. Thomond was full and everyone was nervous and excited about the impending challenge against last year's runners up.

Munster could not have started better, putting huge pressure on Northampton resulting in Varley going over in the first few minutes, what a marker to put down. Northampton's wide explosive play threatened each time they got possession though. They replied to our first try with fast wild passing and running jinks testing the Munster defence. Within 10 mins, they had run around Munster's defence and were in for an easy try. The majority of the first half was spent in Northampton's half of the pitch, with Munster playing steady repetitive forward play, a dominant Munster scrum and high-ball attacks from Murray and Murphy. The problem of ill-discipline began to appear, but thankfully not to the extent of last week's match against Leinster. A forward pass on the line denied Munster a try at the end of the half, but not to be outdone they rallied again, with the sniping Doug Howlett running in for the last play of the half, putting Munster ahead 17-13 going in.

The crowd were treated to a very impressive rendition of Nessum Dorma by the Celtic Tenors and the Munster Choir during half time. The time flew and the teams were out for what I knew was going to be a tough half between two different but evenly matched teams.  It was going to go to the wire, this is what Heineken Cup rugby is about, bring it on!

The punch for punch contest between the two teams continued well into the second half, with both out-halves slotting over penalties early. Northampton continued to be unpredictable in play but in a structured manner, a dangerous combination. Their probing was finally successful and Northampton ran in again for another easy-enough try, putting them a point in front.

They pushed again, and found themselves behind Munster's defense, with what should have been a certain try. Somehow, their winger (Artemeyev I think) couldn't collect the bouncing ball and knocked on.

The relief from the crowd was palpable.

Munster persevered under the testing attacks of Northampton, and were steadied with the entrance of Leamy, O'Leary and the ever over-enthusiastic Donncha O'Callaghan, who warmed up twice as hard and fast as the other replacements and almost blew a complete ruck of players away in his first act on the pitch. The crowd bemoaned his exuberance, but deep down were happy to see him enter the fray and inject his enthusiasm into the game.  Time was ticking on, but we were only down by a point, come on Munster.

And time did tick on, with Northampton holding Munster around the half way line close to the 80th minute. Phase after phase of Munster play couldn't break the Saint's defense, and then they started to push us back.

Was this the end?

Munster in possession but losing territory and time was in the red. I hate to say it, but the crowd, me included, lost faith at this point. With each phase, Munster couldn't get over the gainline, and each successive cheer rang out quieter than before :-(

And then it happened.

In all the years of the legendary 16th man spurring on the team, urging players to dig deep when all was lost, instilling the pride in the red jersey, proving that Munster isn't just 15 men on the pitch and those in the squad but a red army of thousands!
In that testing moment, when even the red army faltered for just a moment, the players didn't. They picked and went, pushing forward, phase after phase, forwards and backs putting their bodies on the line.

They did for us what we have tried to do for them at every match, they showed us it wasn't over.

The crowd grabbed the outstretched arm of the team with both hands, and then it got loud. All eyes were on Ronan O'Gara, time to do what he does best. He'd done it so many times over the years, could it happen again, just once more?

Perception of time is a funny thing. As I watched each phase inch closer, it felt like an eternity, with ROG back in the pocket waiting. And then the pass came from Paulie...short, forcing ROG to come forward and take it into contact. They had done so well, I haven't seen that level of composure or control since 2008 in Cardiff against Toulouse. More phases, I couldn't believe it, could we, to quote Ryle Nugent, get a second bite at the cherry?

Even with some questionable one handed ball carrying from Leamy, Munster kept possession, and phased on, it was incredible.With every ruck, three words rang out in the minds of every supporter, "in the pocket!". I later found out the passage of play was 42 phases long, but as I said, I had no perception of time at that point. In slow motion, I saw the pass, ROG steady himself, and take the kick. He had won a grand slam this way, could he do it again?

I had time to take a photo, put the camera down and watch the ball slowly sail through the air. It was good, the crowd erupted, we had won, what a finish, what a match!

The exit from the stadium was filled with an atmosphere of relief mixed with residual excitement. A text from a fellow Munster supporter who watched from Canada summed it all up, "if it was a movie, you couldn't write that into the script because nobody would believe it!". Walking back down the hill, I heard the crowd questioning "How many phases?" and stating that "I haven't seen them do that in a long time".

It was game one in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, a game we had to win. As important as that is, to me last night has another significance. It was when our faith in the religion that is Munster Rugby was tested and restored in spades, and when the hope of another Heineken Cup victory was created.

To the Brave and the Faithful, Nothing is Impossible.

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