By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — First, the brutal truth. No matter what anyone says, Munster were beaten by a better side in last weekend’s dramatic European Rugby Cup final in Cardiff, Wales. But here’s the rub. Leicester’s victory was tainted by a piece of blatant cheating near the end of the game.
It was billed as Munster’s opportunity to make up for the disappointment of final defeat in 2000, and as a last massive effort by a team that was losing Peter Clohessy to retirement, and coaches Declan Kidney and Niall O’Donovan to the Ireland management.
It was the end of an era, with Mick Galway also standing down from the captaincy, but it wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. Leicester’s Martin Johnson accepting the trophy was a scenario that had been pragmatically contemplated, but the antics of the winner’s wing forward, Neil Back, left a bitter taste in the mouths of the 40,000 Munster supporters who made the trip to Wales for Saturday’s game.
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In the closing seconds, Munster were desperately looking for a try to claw back the 6-point deficit, and they had a scrum just 10 meters from the Leicester line. As Peter Stringer put the ball in between the front rows, Back pulled the back with his hand to ensure that Leicester won possession.
It was as obvious a professional foul as ever seen on a rugby pitch, and it should have led to Back being sin binned for the remainder of the game, and to a Munster penalty. However, Back had realized that the French referee, Joel Jutge, was on the opposite side of the scrum when he stole the ball from Stringer. Jutge didn’t see the cheating, neither did the touch judges, and Leicester got away with it.
Now, no one is saying that the Hand of Back deprived Munster of victory, but then no one will ever know what would have happened had the referee penalized Leicester. As for the player himself, he was unrepentant.
“I’m not a cheat, and if anyone called me that I would be very upset,” he said. “I’m quite at peace with myself; that’s part of the professional game. I don’t make a habit of it, but it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t the turning point, it wasn’t the way we won it. We scored two fantastic tries, so we deserved to win.”
If there was outrage and frustration in the Munster ranks, they were keeping it to themselves.
“No comment,” was Kidney’s reaction to the Back incident, while Galwey would only speak of the heartbreak of another final defeat.
“I said before that maybe you have to lose one to win one, but this time I’ll say third time lucky,” he said.
Before Back intervened, Munster had struggled to come to terms with Leicester, who scored tries through Geordan Murphy and Austin Healey. Crucially, Ronan O’Gara missed two penalty opportunities during the second half, and John O’Neill almost scored in the corner.
In fact, Back didn’t have to do what he did. For Munster a second bitter disappointment at the end of another memorable season. For Leicester, a tainted success.