By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — There have already been a few moments to savor during this rollercoaster Irish rugby season, but nothing has yet capped what happened in Bordeaux last Saturday. A European Cup semifinal against one of the northern hemisphere’s very best club teams in the heartland of French rugby — no one really gave Munster a prayer. But win they did, with a performance that even eclipsed the province’s famous victory over New Zealand in 1978.
Long regarded as the aristocrats of the European game, Toulouse already had one eye on the final, and it showed in a welter of missed chances and dropped passes. However, Munster were simply magnificent once they soaked up the anticipated early French onslaught.
Trailing by just four points at the break, they lost their talismanic hooker, Keith Wood, through injury and still they dominated the second half with two marvelous second-half tries. John Hayes had managed an early score to halt the Toulouse bandwagon for a while, but when Ronan O’Gara finished off a spectacular sweeping movement with 18 minutes left, the underdogs were suddenly 24-18 in front.
The stifling heat, a highly partisan atmosphere — nothing seemed to faze Munster. and when center Jason Holland raced away for try number three, captain Mick Galwey and his players were in dreamland. O’Gara converted for an impressive personal tally of 21 points and the impossible had happened.
How the 3,000 or so supporters who had made the trip to Bordeaux celebrated. A couple of Limerick fellas jumped on a motorbike, caught a ferry to England, hit the road, caught another ferry across the English channel and then sped down to the south of France. Others came in their droves from all corners to witness history.
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"The occasion and the result speak for themselves," said a jubilant Galwey. "We had to take on Toulouse, their supporters and the heat."
One of Galwey first tasks after the game was to take a phone call of congratulations from the actor — and Limerickman — Richard Harris, who was calling from Mexico.
Munster now take on English club Northampton in the final at Twickenham on May 27 and, after putting paid to Toulouse, overconfidence would seem to be the only obstacle to a second Irish European Cup success in a row.
Certainly, the presumption that Irish teams have no chance in France has been blown out of the water this season. First there was that historic Six Nations triumph in Paris and now this victory. If the newer kids on the block — Peter Stringer and O’Gara — were once again outstanding, veterans such as Peter Clohessy and Galwey have been magnificent this season.
There was also a stunning individual effort from wing forward David Wallace and another invaluable contribution from Munster’s Australian import, John Langford. Previously, Irish fitness, self-belief and class had been routinely rubbished by the best of French rugby — for the moment the tables have been turned and it feels good.
"It was the sort of day that makes you get into sport," said coach Declan Kidney. "You put yourself up against one of the top teams around and you win. But it’s important to say that we’re only in a final, we’ve won nothing yet."
For the first time in a while, Kidney was wrong. No matter what happens in the final, this magnificent Munster team has already won our hearts.