And so it was last Sunday at Lansdowne Road, where a decisive late try and a highly controversial sending off were sideshows to the main storyline which put Munster into the final of the competition confined to clubs from Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
In truth, Munster deserved their victory. Most powerful in the forwards where Paul O’Connell, Frankie Sheahan and Anthony Foley provided an edge, and so tenacious in defense that Leinster’s much vaunted attacking line of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Shane Horgan and Denis Hickie made just the single breakthrough in the 80 minutes.
Trailing 17-16 as the contest drifted into added time, Foley plunged over between two Leinster would-be tacklers for the crucial score following a sustained Munster attack. Try as they might in the few minutes that remained to wrest back the initiative, Leinster’s season ended in more frustration.
They had good reason to be furious at the way things had panned out. With five minutes left, their New Zealand playmaker David Holwell was deemed to have kneed Peter Stringer in the head at a ruck.
Despite the fact that television pictures were inconclusive, and that the mild-mannered Holwell was simply engaged in legitimate rucking, the touch judge recommended to referee Nigel Whitehouse that the red card be shown. The incident might not have warranted a sin-binning, it might not have warranted a penalty at all, but Holwell was sent off for the first time in his career.
“It was the turning point of the match,” said Leinster coach Gerry Murphy who was unable to see the incident clearly. “You’re in front with four or five minutes to go and then you lose your out-half.”
Earlier in the game, Leinster were also not pleased when the influential Horgan was dubiously yellow-carded by Whitehouse.
“The referee said it was a professional foul,” added a disappointed Murphy, “but what were Munster doing for the last 10 minutes of the game?”
With a total of 13 of the starting Ireland side on the pitch, and with several pretenders seeking to make their cases to national coach Eddie O’Sullivan, who was watching, the match was always going to be tense as well as tetchy.
There were a few minor feuds running throughout, and it was no surprise that Munster’s Alan Quinlan was eventually sin-binned at 69:00 for punching Shane Jennings.
“I was a bit worried to be truthful,” said Munster coach Alan Gaffney about the final quarter during which his players piled on the pressure without reward until Foley’s last-gasp try. “We seemed to be struggling to put things together for a while, and I’m just delighted to have a smile on my face at the end of it. We knew we’d have a contest on our hands and you didn’t have to gee anyone for this one.”
Saturday’s decider against Welsh side Llanelli will be Gaffney’s last game in charge as he returns home to Australia, and there was some closure in the Leinster ranks as well as veteran back rower Victor Costello retired following his team’s defeat.
With a stiff wind at their backs, Leinster were soon into a 6-0 lead thanks to a couple of Holwell penalties, but Munster quickly responded with a close-range try by prop Marcus Horan that Paul Burke converted. Once again, Leinster dominated territory without threatening the Munster defense and it was left to Holwell to regain the lead with two more penalties.
If anything, Munster looked more potent in attack and after Burke had narrowed the gap to 12-10, it took an outstanding tackle by O’Driscoll on Anthony Horgan to prevent Munster from going in at halftime in front.
Backed now by the breeze, Burke added two more penalties to give Munster a 16-12 lead, however, the Leinster backs finally found their feet and following some glorious inter-passing, Girvan Dempsey fended off Burke?s attempted tackle for a perfectly executed try.
It seemed that Dempsey’s spectacular effort would be decisive, but Leinster hadn’t bargained on the referee and Foley. Bragging rights once again go to Munster.
Meanwhile, the All Ireland League Division One title was won by Shannon for the seventh time in 11 years when the Limerick club defeated Belfast Harlequins by 25-20 in last weekend?s final at Lansdowne Road.
In his first season as coach, former Ireland second row Mick Galwey saw his charges storm into a seemingly unassailable half-time lead of 25-0 with tries from Brian Tuohy, Colm McMahon and Nigel Conroy, however, Belfast Harlequins made a real game of it in the second half as Matt Mustchin, Ian Humphreys and Greg Mitchell all scored tries.
The Division Two championship was won UL Bohemian for the first time when they edged out St Mary?s 18-12, and Greystones clinched the Division Three title with a 39-20 victory over Instonians.