Munster didn’t just lose a game, their 26-match winning streak at Thomond Park also came to an abrupt end. Meanwhile, Leinster lost, and one of Ireland’s key players, Shane Horgan, limped out of the action with a knee injury and is now likely to miss most of the Six Nations.
A rooster one week, a feather-duster the next, was how the Australian coach, Alan Jones, once described the swaying fortunes of sport. Munster and Leinster know exactly what he meant. At least the two provinces were already sure of qualification for the European Cup quarter-finals, but Munster now have to face a difficult away game against in-form Welsh side Llanelli, while Leinster will travel to London Wasps.
Thomond Park is perched on a hill not far from the city center of Limerick. Because Munster famously beat the mighty New Zealand All Blacks in the stadium in 1978, and because it had proved impregnable since the start of the European Cup in 1995, Thomond is bathed in lore.
It has inspired generations of players in red jerseys, not for its elegance or for its architectural merit, but for its claustrophobic atmosphere and for the way it makes life difficult for the opposition. It is the bear pit of Irish rugby, a place where Munster players walk that bit taller.
The current captain, Paul O’Connell, had talked of how desperate he was not to be in the team that lost the prized unbeaten record. Proud and all as the supporters are of their gladiators, they would remember the players, each and everyone of them, who left the gate open.
But last Saturday’s game against Leicester was to be the last before the bulldozers rumbled into prepare the way for a stadium facelift, so if Munster could defeat their English opponents before the wrecking ball swung, that record at the old ground would in effect be preserved forever.
You could say in hindsight that the whole Thomond Park thing felt like a noose tightening around the team, yet the players denied it. Leicester weren’t intimidated, they never froze under the floodlights, and quite simply they squeezed the life out of Munster with one of the finest performances in the history of the competition.
Of course, Munster didn’t want their record to go, not on this day, not when the game marked a sort of farewell to their spiritual home, however, according to Ronan O’Gara, the occasion didn’t get to the players. “Just made a balls of it,” the out half said of the 13-6 defeat, “let the whole province down. That’s something we have to live with now.”
Leicester, meanwhile, had four Irish players in their starting line-up, and if their prime concern was to win and advance to the knockout stages, there were also some serious bragging rights at stake. “Once you get a good start at Thomond, you can really live off that atmosphere,” said Leo Cullen. “That’s the thing. A lot of teams get a bit panicky here and start trying to chase the game, but you’ve just got to keep doing the basics.”
The Leicester coach, Pat Howard, had referred to Thomond Park before the game as just a field, and had insisted that it was a case of 15 players against 15 players and nothing more. In the end, he was proved right, as his Munster counterpart Declan Kidney accepted graciously. “We have no divine right to win here. Fair play to them, they talked the talk, then walked the walk.”
As for Leinster, they might not have lost a precious record, but they slumped 19-13 at English club Gloucester losing both the chance of a favourable quarter-final draw and potential revenue from a home game. Although several decisions crucially went against Leinster, they could only blame themselves for a missed opportunity.
Afterwards, their coach Michael Cheika was none too pleased with his team’s largely inept display. “I told them that if we didn’t get something out of this game, we wouldn’t win the European Cup,” he fumed.
And if the news of Leinster’s inconsistency wasn’t bad enough, the sight of Shane Horgan hobbling off was not exactly a great omen for the coming international championship. The Ireland wing, who has been in outstanding form of late, will definitely miss the Six Nations games against Wales and France following surgery to repair cartilage damage in his knee.
All, though, is not lost for the country’s two leading provinces as the European quarter-finals are not until the first weekend in April. Munster don’t do despair, or blame, they will be back, while Leinster have the talent, if maybe not the self-belief, to beat anyone left in the competition.
Now, after a weekend in which we suffered for our touch of hubris, the focus shifts to Team Ireland.
Tigers a hand
Nice to be wanted. Kieran Donaghy was the star turn of last summer’s All Ireland football championship, and so the rangy Kerry full-forward has been in demand. A trip to Chicago for a presentation ceremony, and two additional forays with his county to Malaysia and Australia have meant he has been busy off the pitch during the winter.
This week, the football All Stars team – on which Donaghy was duly selected with five of his Kerry colleagues – is in Dubai for an all-expenses paid tour, however, our man has decided to stay behind in Ireland.
If Gaelic football has become his calling, 23-year-old Donaghy is a basketballer of some repute and as his club Tralee Tigers have reached this Sunday’s national cup final, he will be lining out.
However, such an impressive show of loyalty is not the only reason for his decision. “The basketball is only 50 percent of it,” he explained. “I want to get the body right for the National League with Kerry. It’s a great honor to be named as an All Star, but at the same time I don’t want to say I’m not going just because of basketball. I’ve set my own goals for the football year ahead.”
Donaghy won a national cup medal with Tralee two seasons ago, but because of his football commitments over the past year, he is no longer a regular in the team. “I’ve missed a lot of training sessions as I’ve been with Kerry, so some of the players just see me out on court. I hope to feature in the final against UCC Demons, but my time on court will be limited.”
He also revealed that as the All-Star trip would be a week of “functions and drinking” he wouldn’t be ready for the football league. An amateur with a professional attitude.
Trevor Brennan’s meal ticket has always been his aggressive approach to rugby. Never the most gifted athlete, nor the most gifted technician, Brennan had physicality and competitive desire on his side whether he was playing for Leinster, Ireland, or in France for his current club Toulouse with whom he has twice won the European Cup.
But it seems as if that aggression might now have got him into serious trouble following an incident during Toulouse’s game with Ulster last Sunday.
Warming up with his fellow substitutes at the start of the second half, Brennan apparently took offense to something said by an Ulster supporter. So much so that he climbed into the crowd and threw several punches in the direction of the supporter who, it was later claimed, needed medical treatment.
As if that off-the-pitch scuffle wasn’t sufficient, when Brennan came on a sub, he was soon sin-binned for punching Ulster’s Justin Harrison who was also shown the yellow card by the referee.
The 33-year-old Dubliner had previously intimated that the game would almost certainly be his last in the European Cup as his future with Toulouse is unclear. If he is found to be guilty of punching an Ulster supporter he might even have already played his last game of the season.
“Obviously, I can’t say what happened before Trevor Brennan came off the bench,” said Ulster coach, Mark McCall, “but we will be citing him for punching Justin Harrison.”
Brennan writes an entertaining column in the Irish Times newspaper during the European Cup season, but it is likely we won’t be privy to his version of events until sanctions, if any, are decided on.