It’s no secret that the Heineken Cup produced some truly vintage years for Munster rugby. Beginning with two final defeats and carrying through to their victory in the 2008 final, the men in red never took the field without their legendary passion and never-say-die attitude.
While their most popular team was the one who repeatedly came so close in the early 2000s, and the 15 that will be remembered most fondly when the Heineken Cup is consigned to history is that which annexed their first title in 2006, closer inspection will tell you that the best Munster team to take the field in the past 15 years came after both of these.
Whether their true peak was the team that were shocked by Llanelli in 2007 or the one that defeated Clermont only to run into a Leinster juggernaut in 2009 is irrelevant to our list, as the best Munster team to actually win the Heineken Cup was undoubtedly that of 2008.
What made this Munster team stand out from those that had gone before is the way in which they mixed all of the province’s traditional strengths, like a good set piece, outstanding leadership around the field and the immaculate game management of Ronan O’Gara; Munster combined these strengths with a real cutting edge in the back line.
Their centre partnership of the powerful Lifeimi Mafi and the more subtle Rua Tipoki, two journeymen south sea islanders, both produced the only top-class seasons of their careers while they were in the famous red shirt; defending with manic aggression and attacking with a perfect balance of power and flair.
Added to this engine room, Munster had a sprinkling of Irish talent, with a young Keith Earls waiting (literally) in the wings and the ever reliable Ian Dowling holding down the no.11 shirt.
The biggest reason for Munster’s newfound cutting edge however, was the man in the no.14 shirt. Doug Howlett did not arrive in Munster until halfway through the 2007-08 season, five months before the Heineken Cup final against Toulouse. Slotting seamlessly into the team for the end of the pool stage and the knock-out phases.
The All-Black legend would go on to earn legendary status in his first six months at the province. All of this combined with the likes of Jerry Flannery, David Wallace and Alan Quinlan in the pack, captain fantastic Paul O’Connell and Pundit Arena’s greatest ever Heineken Cup player pulling the strings at out-half, meant that this Munster team truly had the star-studded team that their supporters deserved.
This Munster team however was notorious for never doing things the easy way, and they continued on this path by being handed probably the most difficult pool draw the competition would ever see.
Drawn alongside reigning champions Wasps; mega rich Clermont who were in the process of wowing the continent with their recruiting prowess, and their conquerors the previous year Llanelli, even the most ardent Munster supporter would have realised the mammoth scale of the task facing their team.
The traditional week three and four double header would, as ever, be crucial and it looked as if Munster would require two wins from these fixtures against Llanelli, while denying Clermont and Wasps losing bonus points in Thomond would be key to progression.
The task was made all the more daunting when an injury crisis in the back line, exacerbated by the arrival of Howlett being postponed until January, meant that new Munster manager Shaun Payne was forced out of retirement for the start of the season.
Payne started in his favoured no.15 shirt for the opening game away to Wasps, as Munster visited the Ricoh Arena in Coventry and came away with a losing bonus point in a hard fought 24-23 defeat.
Payne rolled back the years in a commanding performance under the high ball and even added a try in first half stoppage time, but ultimately Munster just came up short; Danny Cipriani kicking four penalties to O’Gara’s three as the teams both managed three tries.
Buoyed by this positive result, Munster returned to Thomond for their second game and truly laid down a marker for the rest of the pool, and the rest of Europe.
Driven on by their usual partisan support, Declan Kidney’s men had a near perfect evening in Limerick, as tries from the evergreen Payne, Brian Carney, Tipoki, Alan Quinlan and Marcus Horan ensured the four-try bonus point and a magnificent defensive performance meant Clermont never got close to a losing bonus in a 36-13 hammering, which left Munster in good shape heading into the double header with the Welshmen.
After two rounds, Llanelli had been established as the whipping boys of the pool, and Munster didn’t need to get out of 3rd gear in their 29-16 and 22-13 home and away victories. Concerns were raised about the failure to add a further bonus in either of the games, but Munster’s fate remained in their own hands.
The journey to Clermont is never an easy one however, and Munster would need all of their guile and experience in the south of France. Things looked grim when they trailed 17-3 after 40 minutes, but crucially an extended period of pressure resulted in a penalty for O’Gara in the 7th minute of first half overtime, which the great man nailed so Munster went in at half time within a score of losing bonus territory.
Mafi forced his way over on the hour mark and more resolute defending saw Munster emerge with a crucial bonus on a 26-19 scoreline. Clermont’s victory kept their hopes alive, but it was Munster who celebrated with greater gusto. Although not yet guaranteed qualification, Munster were exactly where they wanted to be, knowing that a home victory in their final game would see them top the group.
That victory against Wasps in Limerick was secured thanks to one of O’Gara’s greatest performances (and thats saying a lot) as the out-half kicked his side into a comfortable lead before he broke through the champion’s midfield sent Denis Leamy over to give Munster a comfortable 19-3 victory. The champions and Clermont crashed out, while Munster had successfully negotiated the pool of death.
The topsy-turvy nature of the group meant that Munster would have to travel to Kingsholm for their quarter-final against Gloucester, and it was assumed that they would, as so many times before, rely on experience, nous and blind ignorance when required to ensure the away victory.
With this in mind, Kidney’s 15 surprised everybody. There was no place in the lineup for old reliables Payne, Anthony Foley or, most shockingly, Peter Stringer. The unknown Denis Hurley would take Payne’s place at full back, while Tomas O’Leary, at this point still known simply as ‘Seanie O’Leary’s boy” became the first man in almost ten years to usurp Stringers claim to the no.9 shirt.
The changes were vindicated however, as tries from Dowling and Howlett, after a pinpoint kick from Hurley, helped them to a 16-3 win.
Now with a newfound mix of youth and experience, Munster again headed to England to face Saracens. In a tense game, an early try from the home side was negated by effort from O’Gara and Quinlan and Munster held a comfortable 15-7 lead at the break.
Wave after Saracens wave pounded the Munster defence in the second half, but their lead, along with heroic defence lead by the back row ensured the lead was enough. In the second half they only added one further 3 pointer and held on to a 19-16 victory to scrape into yet another Heineken Cup final.
The heroic defenced of Howlett on the right wing endeared him to Munster faithful, and by the time that final came around they had added his name to their list of legends.
The final brought Munster back to the setting of their finest hour two years previously, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Again the opposition would be French, as Guy Noves’ Toulouse looked for their record 4th title.
Having coasted through the tournament before getting by a spirited London Irish in the Semi-final, confidence was high in the camp of the French aristocrats, and their confidence was validated early on as they dominated Munster in every area of the pitch.
O’ Gara struggled to impose himself on the game and Munster had barely crossed the half way line in the opening hour. Their top quality defence, with O’Leary again justifying his place in the team, kept Toulouse at arms length however, and they only had a snap drop goal from Jean Baptiste Elissalde to show for their dominance.
Howlett rubbed salt in this particular wound just after the half an hour mark. The winger finally escaped defensive duties and showed his attacking prowess with a stunning outside break, which eventually resulted in Leamy agonisingly knocking on as he reached for the Toulouse line.
The momentum had jumped to the Munster men now however, and a fired up pack decimated the Toulouse scrum to win a scrum off, which Leamy finally scored. O’Gara added a penalty, which was cancelled out by Elissalde to give Munster a scarcely deserved 10-3 lead at the break. The shock was clear on the faces of the Toulouse payers as they trooped off to face the wrath of Noves following Munster’s five minute, ten-point smash and grab.
They finally did manage to breach the Munster defence, however, with a spectacular score early in the second half. Cedric Heymans collected an O’Gara kick in touch and inside his own territory. Impatient and no doubt frustrated by the wonderfully efficient Munster defence, the Frenchman threw the lineout to himself, before chipping over the on rushing Munster defence.
Upon regathering the ball, he kicked again and another kick from Yannick Jauzion eventually resulted in a foot race which Yves Donguy won in the corner to level the game. Elissalde missed the difficult conversion, but the damage had been done and Toulouse were level and had the bit between their teeth.
More heroic Munster was required, and Elissalde butchered a golden opportunity with an awful kick, before Fabian Pelous, already sin binned early in the game let his side down again and gave away a kickable penalty. Pressure kicks in the dying moments of huge games were by now Rog’s bread and butter, and he nailed the kick to give Munster a lead the would not relinquish again.
When his side was awarded a penalty with ten seconds remaining on the clock, O’Connell carried into contact and when the ball failed to emerge, the full time whistle blew and Munster had their second Heineken Cup title, which would lift this teams status to true greatness.
The celebrations weren’t half bad either as the Millennium Stadium turned down the lights:
Everyone has heard the saying that good teams win once, but great teams win twice, and it makes this victory for Munster truly special. If they had failed to add to their title in 2006, Munster rugby in the 2000s would probably be remembered as a passionate and hard working group of men who finally reached their holy grail before fading away.
Not half bad, but the 2008 title showed the likes of O’Connell, O’Gara, Wallace and Quinlan for what they truly were; gifted players, among the best in the world, who combined their passion and drive with amazing levels of skill and born winners.
Munster added a great deal to their game in the years between their two titles, not just in terms of personnel but in terms of attitude, style, and the hard nosed clinicalness it takes to close out tight matches regularly.
Their amazingly difficult route to the final sets the apart from many other champions, as they somehow managed to avoid any minnows or home draws, with the closest thing to a gimme they encountered was a trip to Gloucester in the quarter-final.
Counting against them, and keeping them is the niggling feeling that they had but yet finished their development. The Munster team of the following year played with more style, and tore through he competition decimating all before them, before being shocked by Leinster.
Moreover the nature of their knockout victories counts against them, as apart from the quarter-final they relied heavily upon outstanding defence to get them through, just doing enough before holding on.
Munster XV vs Toulouse:
FB 15 Denis Hurley
RW 14 Doug Howlett
OC 13 Rua Tipoki
IC 12 Lifeimi Mafi
LW 11 Ian Dowling
FH 10 Ronan O’Gara
SH 9 Tomás O’Leary
N8 8 Denis Leamy
OF 7 David Wallace
BF 6 Alan Quinlan
RL 5 Paul O’Connell (c) Substituted off
LL 4 Donncha O’Callaghan
TP 3 John Hayes
HK 2 Jerry Flannery
LP 1 Marcus Horan Substituted off
HK 16 Frankie Sheahan
PR 17 Tony Buckley Substituted in
LK 18 Mick O’Driscoll Substituted in
FL 19 Donnacha Ryan
SH 20 Peter Stringer
FH 21 Paul Warwick
CE 22 Keith Earls
Coach: Declan Kidney
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.