The portents were not good for Munster as they prepared for their final pool game in Limerick last Saturday. Simply winning against Gloucester wouldn’t be enough — they had to score four tries and get the better of their English opponents by a massive 27 points in order to earn that coveted berth in the knockout stages.
Earlier losses at Gloucester and, the previous week, Perpignan, had put the southern province in this difficult position. Not even their most fervent of supporters were holding out too much hope of qualification, particularly after falling to Perpignan 23-8. Indeed, victory, and the preservation of a seven-year unbeaten run at Thomond Park, were the realistic targets, while those four tries and 27 points were more the stuff of the players and supporters’ wildest dreams.
But in what has become typical of Munster’s defiance, they edged their way toward the target amid rising tension in a packed ground. With just two minutes remaining, the home side led by 26-6, needing a converted try to secure an historic success. A magnificent effort against a team ranked No. 1 in England, but not enough?
There was time for a final attack. Mick O’Driscoll won a line-out which developed into a maul near the Gloucester posts. Jeremy Staunton was held up just short of the line. But the ball came back, Peter Stringer fed Jason Holland, who sent John Kelly over for the vital fourth try with the Gloucester defense spread eagled.
As the acclaim died down came the realisation that Ronan O’Gara needed to convert Kelly’s score to ensure the 27-point margin. The kick wasn’t easy, out to the right of the posts. However, O’Gara struck it perfectly, and unbelievably, Munster was through.
If the team’s management was aware of the importance of the conversion, O’Gara later admitted that he didn’t know he needed to make the kick.
“None of us had a clue that 27 points was the difference,” he said. “In a way I’m glad I didn’t know our qualification was on the line and in another regard I’m not. I’d hate to have let it slip by a single point — the margin between going through and not going through is crazy.”
Having served up their share of agony and ecstasy over the past five seasons, this victory arguably surpassed anything Munster have achieved in the competition. Initially, it seemed as if they would be drawn against Leinster of all teams in the last eight, but it then emerged that Leicester, who controversially beat them in last season’s final, were to be the opponents.
“It’s a great draw,” said coach Alan Gaffney. “I’d imagine I’ll have to say very few words before that game. The players will need very little motivation from me. Leicester are a class outfit and it’s going to be one of hell of an occasion.”
For the moment, Munster will have to wait until April — following the Six Nations championship — before they have a chance of some revenge, but until then they can savor this remarkable success. It was a triumph for patience and concentration based on a game plan that mixed calmness and fury in equal measures. Ahead 16-6 at the interval thanks to tries by Kelly and Mossie Lawlor and two O’Gara penalties, the hill remained steep.
However, as Gloucester wilted, Munster tightened their grip on the contest during the second half. An O’Gara penalty and O’Driscoll’s try, cleverly created by Holland, eventually made it 26-6. Then followed Kelly’s crucial score and O’Gara’s ice-cool conversion. They’ve talked about Oct. 31, 1978 when Munster beat New Zealand in Limerick, now Jan. 18, 2003 has been burned into the Munster consciousness forever.
A day later, Leinster were on their way to English club Bristol to conclude their qualifying campaign. Already assured of a place in the quarterfinals, all that had to be decided was who they would meet. A convincing 25-12 victory appeared to have matched them against archrivals Munster when news came through that French side Toulouse had been beaten by London Irish, which meant that Leinster would have a home game against Biarritz and Munster would be traveling to Leicester.
Whatever about the permutations, it’s undeniable that Leinster have emerged from the pool stages as one of the favorites for the competition. Ranked the No. 1 team to date after six straight wins, if they manage to defeat Biarritz, they are guaranteed a semifinal at Lansdowne Road. With the final also scheduled for Lansdowne Road, coach Matt Williams’s players may never have a better chance of winning the tournament.
“We know Biarritz from two seasons ago and there’s not a lot of mystery about them,” Williams said. “There are no weak links in the last eight, but we’ve sent out a clear message that we’re not afraid of anyone. It’s also great for Munster and I fancy them at Leicester after what happened last season, I really do.”
Despite being under pressure in the early stages, Leinster took the opportunities to score three first-half tries through Aidan McCullen, Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan to lead 17-12 at the interval. A second McCullen try and a Brian O’Meara penalty was enough to maintain the winners’ 100 percent record.
While Munster and Leinster were basking in the warmth of success, there was frustration for Ulster, who missed out on a knockout place despite beating Northampton 16-13 at Ravenhill. Even though they finished on the same number of points as Biarritz and Northampton, Ulster lost out because they scored fewer tries.
Connacht were also eliminated from European competition when they lost the second leg of their European Challenge Cup quarterfinal 12-9 to Pontypridd. The result means that Connacht go out on an aggregate score of 47-39