We won’t forget the grim drip-drip death of the build-up in Cardiff that morning as every pub in the city center burst at the seams but there was no singing, no craic, no nothing going on because people were just too nervous to do anything. We won’t ever get beyond the tension of those last 10 minutes, when hands and legs and feet shook uncontrollably at the prospect of Biarritz pulling a win out of what had been a 20-10 deficit. And nothing will ever wipe from our hard drives the memory of that moment when up on the stadium’s two big screens flashed the scene on Limerick’s O’Connell Street. The place almost went into orbit.
You hear a lot of guff talked and see endless waffle written about sport. You may even think this is more of it. But trust me, it’s approaching impossible to experience the likes of last Saturday without a chisel being taken to the walls of your cynicism. After a while, there’s nothing for it but to surrender yourself to it all and feel the love.
Take all the things you’ve ever heard said about the relationship between a sports team and their followers and you won’t find them proven more true than in the case of Munster rugby. It’s not so much about a team as a tribe. The players in the shirts aren’t so much playing for a club as expressing the mores of a people. The bond between those on the field and those in the stands is visceral, almost tangible even. The outsider’s instinct is to dismiss it as emotional poppycock. Until the outsider experiences it, that is.
“It’s something that comes from where we are,” said Man of the Match Peter Stringer afterwards on Saturday. “Where we live, the people that are around us. It’s a special place to be. You walk down the street and you meet people, be they friends or strangers, and they come up to you and it’s something special to see how much it means to them, how much it means to their lives. It’s amazing sometimes to realize how much this all means to people who don’t even know any of the guys playing.”
Stringer’s was the most articulate voice in the aftermath but there were plenty more ready to expound on a similar theme. “It’s definitely about the players,” said Declan Kidney, the Munster coach. “Without a shadow of a doubt they won it. But it’s not just them. It’s the players’ partners, their families, their next-door neighbours. If goodwill was ever going to win a competition, it was going to be this one. The goodwill shown towards this team has been unbelievable. For one split second, I looked up at the screen and I saw O’Connell Street. Like, how the hell do you describe that?”
The O’Connell Street moment will slide effortlessly into lore now, there to sit happily beside Seamus Dennison’s tackle in 1978 and the Gloucester gameplan left in the back of a taxi in 2003. How they got away with it is anyone’s guess. How Biarritz fans – already outnumbered by around 55,000 inside the stadium – felt about it shouldn’t, on the other hand, need all that much speculation.
It came at a time when Biarritz were building up momentum and the Munster crowd had been worried into near silence. It came also at a time when there was a break in play for an injury – nicely-timed so that the players could catch it. “We saw it and pointed it out to each other,” said Paul O’Connell. “It definitely inspired us.”
So yeah, this was a triumph for a professional rugby team. It was the end of a long road, which had featured along the way the move from a raggle-taggle shower of amateurs to a ruthless embodiment of excellence. It was the marriage of technique and training and all the elements that have to go into the preparation of a successful sports team. But that’s the dull part, the book-keeping end of it all. What this was really about, as their captain Anthony Foley explained afterwards, was a much more human thing than that.
“When Biarritz were coming back at us, our support kept backing us. They never got on our backs. When you go to an opposition ground, you try and silence the crowd but here, our crowd wouldn’t be silenced today. People say they’re our 16th man and maybe they are. At times out there, it’s just awesome to look up and see the amount of red that’s around that ground for us.
“I think they see something in us that they can relate to. Because over the years – not alone this year but since 1999 – they’ve followed us far and wide across Europe. They’ve put their hands in their pockets and spent their own hard-earned cash just to see us. It’s great now that we can finally bring home some silverware. It’s for them as much as it’s for us. We all just feel like one.”
Bjorn lucky, as Clarke’s
karma takes morning off
Karma and Darren Clarke don’t seem to be on nodding terms these days. On Monday, the Irish Open was his for the taking and for some reason, fate took it upon itself to intervene and cause some mischief. Considering his general demeanour over the weekend, you’d have thought that maybe just this once it would have cut him a break.
The weather kicked seven shades out of Carton House in Maynooth throughout the tournament, so much so that by Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t clear how they were going to resolve the tournament. Clarke was two shots clear when play suspended due to the torrential rain, having played immaculate golf while all around him melted in the downpour. But when it was put to him that there was a chance the tour authorities would declare Sunday’s play null and void and decide to make the scores after 54 holes the ones that would count, he shrugged his shoulders and said fair enough, if that’s what has to be done. Had this happened, his two-shot lead would have been wiped out there would have been a three-way play-off for the title between Anthony Wall, Thomas Bjorn and Paul Casey, with Clarke back in fourth.
More sensible heads prevailed, however, and the players were told to come back on Monday morning. But when Clarke got to his ball, he found himself in a dilemma. His final shot on Sunday had been a badly-sliced tee shot on the ninth and when he’d left his ball, it was buried in a grassy grave, lying horribly and with a sideways chip onto the fairway his only option. But when he came upon it on Monday morning, someone had clearly lifted it out of there and placed it neatly atop a trampled down area nearby. The improved lie meant Clarke had a relatively straight-forward six iron to the green.
Instead, though, he called the rules referee over and pointed out that his position had been improved and asked what to do. The referee told him he was totally within his rights to play it as it was. “But I felt if I’d done that, I’d have had to walk up to the green hanging my head in shame,” Clarke said afterwards. So he chipped out sideways as he’d originally planned to do. Karma wasn’t in the mood, though, and he ended up making a bogey and cutting his lead to a shot.
Still, he was leading and although he dropped another on the 16th, he stood on the tee at the last in a three-way tie with Bjorn and Casey. A long par-five, it was clear that a birdie would at least put him into a play-off and a prefect drive and three-wood later, he was 15 yards short of the green. Up and down would have done the trick. Considering all he’d been through, considering the equanimity he’d shown in being prepared to give up the win on the Sunday for the good of the tournament and the gallantry he’d shown in not taking advantage of his improved lie on the ninth, you’d have thought karma would have tipped its hat in his direction.
But no. He fluffed the chip. Chunked it a quarter the way up the green like a hungover 16-handicapper on a Sunday morning. Three putts from there and he was out of contention. Casey parred the hole and Bjorn birdied to take the title.
Afterwards, Clarke was angry at himself for losing concentration but all things considered, you’d have to think he was pretty hard done by. Certainly, this isn’t the way things happen on “My Name Is Earl.” Maybe karma takes its time to work through the system. If so, there’s got to be a major on the cards.