By Mark Jones
Northampton 9, Munster 8
It just wasn’t meant to be. Munster had beaten the likes of Toulouse and Colomiers on French soil and they had twice seen off the crack English club Saracens, so surely it was going to be their season. Certainly, on Saturday last, more than 40,000 red-shirted supporters who packed into Twickenham, London, thought so, but in the end, Northampton won rugby’s European Cup after what was a nail-biting decider.
If a blustery wind and a series of heavy showers reduced the game as a spectacle, Munster still scored the only try through David Wallace and then on the stroke of full-time, Ronan O’Gara had the chance to make it back-to-back wins for Irish provinces in Europe. The out-half’s penalty wasn’t easy, but he had already produced match-winning kicks earlier in the competition, and this one was within his range. For a second it looked good before drifting away to the left of the posts.
No fingers were pointed at the unfortunate O’Gara because the game had been lost elsewhere. In their previous games, Munster’s back row of Anthony Foley, Eddie Halvey and David Wallace had been invincible, but this time it was their direct opponents, inspired by Pat Lam, who dominated.
Lam was the game’s outstanding figure, charging time and time again into the heart of a retreating Munster defense. With not enough possession, the Irish province never got a firm grip on the contest. "We’re not going to look back and say Ronan missed that penalty," pondered team captain Mick Galwey. "We just felt we didn’t perform on the day. They came at us very strongly and they also defended very well. They never allowed us to dictate the game."
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Still, there were moments to savor for a record crowd of 68,500. Keith Wood made some thundering runs during the second-half, Halvey brought off one memorable cover tackle, both centers Mike Mullins and Jason Holland were outstanding and then there was Wallace’s brilliant try.
Not long after Holland had made the score 3-3 with a well-taken drop goal, Wood burst down the right touchline. The ball was then moved to the other side of the pitch where Wallace had the pace to round one defender and dive over. With "The Fields of Athenry" booming around the stadium, you felt at that stage that history beckoned.
With the wind at their backs, Munster began the second-half with a prolonged assault, but Northampton held out and the longer the game went on, the farther Galwey and his team seemed from the Promised Land. "Look, it’s important that if you give something your best shot, you accept the result at the end," said coach Declan Kidney. "There’s no disgrace in being beaten by a good side. You must accept defeat in the same way as you accept victory."
With Northampton moving into a 9-8 lead courtesy of a third penalty by England international Paul Grayson, Galwey was sin-binned for needlessly obstructing Dom Malone and for the first, the legions of Munster supporters lost their voices. "We’ll be remembered as the team that didn’t win the European Cup, but we have to be professional and live with that," said Galwey. "We’ve had a lot of hard challenges this season and this time luck wasn’t with us."
There was O’Gara’s kick, there was a lap around the stadium by the Munster players as an offer of thanks to the supporters who had quit Limerick and Cork in their droves and that was that. Even the normally garrulous Wood was lost for words. The odyssey was over, but Ireland’s champion province had traveled in hope.
Ireland’s rugby tour of Argentina, American and Canada which kicks off in Buenos Aires on Saturday suffered a major setback last weekend when coach Warren Gatland was left counting the cost of an exhibition match between an Irish selection and the Barbarians at Lansdowne Road.
Brian O’Driscoll, Girvan Dempsey, Denis Hickie and Geordan Murphy were all ruled out of the tour when they suffered injuries during the game which the Barbarians won 31-30. Peter McKenna, James Topping and Tyrone Howe were all called into the squad as replacements.
Ireland play the U.S. Eagles on June 10 in Manchester, N.H.