Not that the domestic divisions in the decidedly more white-collar sport of rugby have been in the same league as those of the GAA, but the rivalry between the four Irish provinces has been healthy to the extent that Munster have often been consumed with a desire to knock the living bejaysus out of those ponces from Leinster. Come to think of it, both Ulster and Connacht have always wanted to knock the living bejaysus out of Leinster as well.
Yet, when every Irish man, woman and child who has a burning interest in rugby – and probably about another 500,000 who have jumped on the roller-coaster ride that has been Munster’s journey in European competition – turn off their mobile phones, turn on their answering machines and take a seat to witness this eagerly-awaited contest in Cardiff, no one will be sending anything else other than positive vibes in Munster’s direction.
Then there’s the 60,000 fortunate or so others who have by hook or by crook managed to get their hands on match tickets. Your correspondent happened to be in Biarritz recently to get the French take on the final, and bizarrely it seemed as if there were more Munster supporters hell-bent on acquiring tickets than locals.
Biarritz were offered an allocation of 7,500 for the game, but the word soon filtered out that they would be taking up between 4,500 and 5,000 at most, and the remainder were there to be sold off. One couple from Cork on a short holiday break in Pamplona, Northern Spain, had made the journey across the border into France purely on spec and were delighted to come away with 10 tickets.
They phoned home with the good news, and were promptly told to get back to Biarritz and to buy a few more. But the Biarritz office was only taking cash, no credit cards or checks. That didn’t matter, the money would be wired to them straight away, and within 24 hours the couple had returned with enough funds to come away with 110 tickets.
And that was just one story among many in the mad scramble to be in Cardiff to pay homage to Munster. It’s not that Biarritz – a proud, successful club with a vibrant Basque heritage – are not taking this final seriously, it’s more that the fever and the passion that has been associated with the Munster story is unsurpassed anywhere in the European countries that love their rugby.
Munster have reveled in their clashes with touring teams from the southern hemisphere, as shown by the litany of glorious fact and mischievous fiction that have grown up around the famous 12-0 victory over New Zealand in 1978. They have scrapped ferociously on the home front, fuelled by a belief that their counterparts from Leinster and Ulster were favored when it came to selection for the national team, but nothing has energized the men in red like this European Cup.
Only instigated 10 years ago, the competition mushroomed in importance and is now talked about in Munster with the reverence usually reserved for either the Holy Grail or the Third Secret of Fatima. The silverware has remained elusive, tantalizingly out of reach, and hundreds of thousands will be hoping that this showdown in Cardiff represents the province’s third time lucky.
Back in 2000, after a ground-breaking victory over Toulouse in France, Munster reached the decider against Northampton of England as hot favorites. Seemingly overcome by the occasion, they failed to fire and eventually spluttered to a 9-8 defeat with Ronan O’Gara missing a late penalty to win the game.
There was an opportunity for redemption in 2002 when Leicester, again of England, were the opposition, but even if Munster didn’t deserve to win, they were denied a chance at the death by a cynical, deliberate foul by Neil Back, which went unseen by the match officials.
The stark truth that Munster hadn’t performed in either final morphed into a perception that they were unlucky in one, and cheated out of the other. If the players were acutely aware of the bottom line, they also knew that year by year, they were getting closer and surely their time would come.
And maybe now it has. Six of the team – Anthony Foley, John Hayes, David Wallace, John Kelly, Peter Stringer and O’Gara – have survived to play in a third final. But as their new talisman, Paul O’Connell, remarked after the emphatic semi-final victory over Leinster, getting to Cardiff meant nothing if he and his colleagues were to return home without the cup once again.
The lessons of bitter defeat absorbed, on this occasion Munster will attempt for the first time in a decider to play with fire in their bellies and ice in their minds. Man for man, they are probably inferior to Biarritz who boast a clutch of France internationals, but that has never bothered Munster in the past.
They have key performers in O’Gara for his kicking and his tactical acumen, in Foley for his experience, in the newcomer Denis Leamy for his explosive power, and most of all in O’Connell for his sheer presence, but Munster are, and have always been, the quintessential sum-of-the-parts team.
If most of Ireland will stop on Saturday, and if all rugby people will be hoping to witness history in the making, there is of course no guarantee that somehow Munster have a divine right to succeed. While Biarritz have played within themselves to get this far, they positively bristle with intent and class, and if they’re brave enough to perform with the sort of ambition they show on occasions during the French championship, then Munster will be holding on for dear life.
But then, surely destiny has some role to play in sport, and Munster’s commitment, energy, and patience will be rewarded. Cardiff will be a sea of red, we’re just hoping that Munster will be painting it red after the game as well.
Tipp upset pundits
The rain came down, but Tipp were in Thurles and a summer of hurling got under way in earnest. Their manager, Babs Keating, and the team had taken a fair bit of stick before meeting Limerick in the Munster quarter-final, and it was widely believed that Tipperary would be beaten. They weren’t, and instead Limerick were dispatched by 0-22 to 2-12.
Not that there weren’t moments when Keating’s charges looked to be living down to their pre-match billing. Early goals by Brian Begley and Andrew O’Shaughnessy had Limerick all fired up. But Tipp settled, and with some sublime play from Eoin Kelly, who clipped over 14 points and had a goal disallowed, all with a dodgy hamstring, they gradually pulled clear.
They now meet Waterford in the semi-final with Limerick still optimistic about finding a route through the qualifiers, however, the other side of the draw is likely to grab the most attention. It contains Cork, the reigning champions, a county in pursuit of a third title in succession.
From the ashes of a bitter dispute with the County Board over facilities and basic privileges, Cork have risen like a phoenix with the players proving conclusively they could walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
They have a hunger and a drive exemplified by men like Sean Og O hAilpin, Donal Cusack, Diarmuid O’Sullivan, the O’Connor twins, Ben and Jerry, and John Gardiner, yet they know that because of their heritage, sporting immortality is hard come by.
Cork people set the bar high, so while two All Irelands have earned them deserved recognition, they need this third to stand alongside the greats. And as ever since the turn of the millennium, Kilkenny are standing directly in their path.
Cork spoiled Kilkenny’s dream of a three-in-a-row in 2004, and maybe now the sliothar will be on the other stick. Manager Brian Cody has been building a new team, and because of the inconsistencies of their rivals in Leinster, Kilkenny look sure to be at the business end of the championship come early September.
There is no reason why it won’t be a Cork-Kilkenny decider yet again, although Galway who broke the big two’s hegemony by reaching the final last year will have designs on going one better with their attacking flair, and down in Munster, Anthony Daly has been hard at work bringing Clare back to the boil.
In fact, Clare could go some of the way to nipping Cork’s ambition in the bud on Sunday week when the pair clash, but there is something special about this Cork team, something indefinable that sets them apart. A third title will be hard won, and Cork are as hard as they are talented.