By Mark Jones
Stade Francais 14
DUBLIN — They said Munster were not the team of a couple of seasons ago. They said Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy were on the wane. They said opposition of the caliber of Stade Francais in their own backyard would be too strong. In short, this rugby European Cup quarterfinal was a game too far.
They said all this, and they were wrong, as Munster produced arguably their finest ever performance, beating Stade Francais by 16-14 Saturday at Stade Jean Bouin in Paris, thus qualifyings for the semifinals of Europe’s premier club competition.
In becoming only the second team in the history of the tournament to win a quarterfinal away from home, Munster left Thomond Park behind and took Paris by storm. True, Stade had several opportunities to win a fiercely contested match in the closing stages, but the Irish side were simply too stubborn, too buoyed by self-belief.
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Building on a halftime lead of 16-3, which featured a magnificent solo try by wing Anthony Horgan and some superb kicking from out-half Ronan O’Gara, Munster faced into the wind after the interval and withstood everything the French threw in their direction. Their supporters, who had descended on the French capital, celebrated as if their team had won the final itself. This was probably the province’s finest hour.
Amid raucous choruses of “The Fields of Athenry” and “Ole, Ole, Ole,” Galwey had just about enough energy to stammer his verdict.
“Absolutely fantastic,” he said. “The team matured like it never did before. We dug deep and pulled through. We said beforehand that we needed everyone to play well and to a man we responded.”
The victory was all the more sweet as Stade had knocked Munster out the semifinal stage last season when the Irish were denied a perfectly good try because the tournament organizers had seen fit not to install the necessary video equipment for replays. That bitter experience was forgotten as coach Declan Kidney and his players now go in to next week’s draw along with holders Leicester, Welsh club Llanelli, and Castres of France.
If Munster come out of the hat either first or third, then their semifinal is likely to be staged at Lansdowne Road, which would be a major advantage in their quest for a second final appearance in a span of three seasons.
“These guys are just phenomenal, it’s a privilege to work with them,” Kidney said afterward. “Some teams can recover from disappointment once, occasionally twice, but this has surpassed that.”
It was also a triumph in the face of adversity. First, the accusations that Clohessy had racially abused the Castres player, Ism’lla Lassissi, in the last qualifying game reared their ugly head once more. Initially, Castres and Lassissi had withdrawn their slur and Lassissi had been hit with a one-year ban for having bitten Clohessy on the arm. But then Lassissi was subsequently cleared off all wrongdoing on appeal and so, and as Munster perceived it, if Lassissi was suddenly deemed to be innocent, where did that leave Clohessy? Then Munster claimed that their final training session in Paris was being monitored by a French representative and a row ensued.
It seemed as if all Munster’s problems had acted as a spur as they stormed into an early lead with a strong wind at their backs. Horgan’s superb try set the tone and the in-form O’Gara landed two penalties, a drop goal and a conversion to put the winners 16-3 in front. If this was a magnificent collective effort, the return of Peter Stringer at scrum-half made a massive difference, and David Wallace also made his presence felt with several strong runs.
The expected Stade backlash materialized soon, with a try by No. 8 Christophe Juillet and two penalties out-half Diego Dominguez cutting the deficit to just 2 points with 6 minutes remaining. Meanwhile, wing John Kelly almost scored at the corner, but Horgan should really have made the game safe. However, he somehow dropped Kelly’s pass with the line at his mercy.
It seemed as if Munster would suffer once again for those missed opportunities, but with young second row Paul O’Connell outstanding, they held on for a historic win. There’s a play doing the rounds in London at the moment that celebrates Munster rugby. The play’s called “They Stand Alone” — and they do.