It was Declan Kidney’s last match of course, and they sent him off with the kind of game that could handily stand as a signature of his time in charge. They won not because they were demonstrably the better team – the one-score margin of victory was as just as it was predictable – but because through the years they’ve learned how to win when winning isn’t a given. If it’s too much to ask that he ferries that instinct over to his spell in a green tracksuit, we can be sure it won’t be for want of effort or intent.
“People say you have to lose one to win one,” Kidney said afterwards. “I think we’ve lost two to win two. This is special. It comes from everything that Munster rugby has been over 100 years. We’re just the lucky ones who are here now. But this comes from all the work done in the clubs at underage and all the way up. The cream rises to the top and that’s what these players are.”
It’s an elusive and slippery thing, winning. Some teams have it, some come up just short of it. Nobody in Cardiff last Saturday needed reminding that for the best part of a decade in the Heineken Cup, Munster sat crestfallen in the latter corner. But no more. Now they do it because it’s what they do.
They were second best for the first 20 minutes of the final. Second best by a distance. They started with the jitters of a kid brother giving a best man’s speech. They gave up the first score, a Jean-Baptiste Elissalde drop goal and it could easily have been more – Elissalde had another drop goal and penalty drift wide all within the first 15 minutes. If Munster were Rock, Toulouse were most definitely Paper – covering them, consuming them, all but overwhelming them.
But then, uncannily like in 2006, it turned into a half of two halves. Right on 20 minutes, Cedric Heymans kicked into touch on the full from around his own 10-metre line and it felt like Munster could breathe out for the first time since kick-off. Right from that moment, they went from reactive to proactive, from having their every move governed by what Toulouse were doing to imposing their own momentum on the game. Just when you were starting to worry that they were about to find themselves outclassed and on the wrong end of a hiding, they reminded everyone that this was far from their first rodeo.
From there until half-time, the play went in one direction, to the point where nobody doubted a try had to come. When it did on 32 minutes, it was after a spell of thunderously sustained pressure in the Toulouse 22. It was Denis Leamy who was finally thrown over the line by Alan Quinlan to his side and Donncha O’Callaghan to his rear but the score belonged to them all. Ronan O’Gara iced the conversion and then, within a mere couple of minutes, was presented with a penalty right in front of the posts and just like that, Munster were 10-3 up having only had the ball for about a third of the game.
Right there, right in that very factoid, is the reason they’ve endured in this competition for so long and with such heart-thump regularity. Games ebb and they flow, they throw up meaning and significance in possession stats and territory stats and are subject to all manner of interpretations. But if Munster are about anything on the pitch, they’re about never forgetting that games are won on the scoreboard. They’re about keeping in touch when things aren’t going you’re way so that when they eventually do, you don’t have insurmountable ground to make up.
They’d done it against Clermont Auvergne and against Gloucester already this year. And they did it on Saturday, ensuring they carried a four-point lead into the break with them and giving them that cushion for the second half. An O’Gara penalty 11 minutes into that second half – awarded after Fabien Pelous hilariously gave Quinlan a good old-fashioned boot in the arse, picking up 10 minutes in the bin for his troubles – extended that lead to seven.
But it hardly needs recording that this wasn’t Toulouse’s first rodeo either. And within three minutes, Cedric Heymans came up with the final’s one stunning moment of unearthly brilliance. Catching a touch kick beyond his own 10-metre line, he threw to himself and knifed downfield. A chip, chase and collect took two Munster players out of the picture and the kick he managed to get away just before being tackled was directed perfectly into Yves Donguy’s path in the in-gaol area for the simplest of tries. Elissalde’s conversion leveled matters with 25 minutes left on the clock.
There would be one more score in the game. But Munster have made a dynasty out of ensuring that one score is always theirs and duly did so through an O’Gara penalty on 65 minutes. Coughing it up from there was inconceivable. That’s just not what they do.