Munster has gone from a semi-professional, part-time team to one of the biggest names in European Club rugby. Greg Leddin looks back at how it happened.
“Let me not then die ingloriously and without a struggle, but let me first do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.” - Hector of Troy, Iliad XXII, Lines 304-5
Munster rugby closed the chapter on one of the great sporting stories of our time in the South of France yesterday. Only one other team in sport has a better record of reaching the knock-out stages of their competition (the Brisbane Lions, 12 times).
That alone would be a phenomenal story, but to understand why it’s even more unlikely Munster would be the team to do so well, remember that Ireland spent the 1990s looking very close to a rugby country whose game is in decline. And Munster was traditionally the third province in Irish rugby, with far less success than either Ulster or Leinster in the amateur era.
In all the success Munster and Ireland have enjoyed since then, the same core players have featured. The majority of the players cut their teeth in the All Ireland League just as its glory days were coming to an end. It was still possible for O’Gara to line out with Cork Constitution in the AIL semi-final in 2001 and then fly out to play for the British and Irish Lions in Australia. It is now unthinkable that a player would play AIL a week before the Lions tour – this shows how much Irish rugby has changed in a decade.
The O’Gara who romped in for a try against Toulouse, the Stringer who set Shane Horgan’s try in motion to win the triple Crown in 2004 (our first since the 1980s) and scored the try against Biarritz in 2006, and the O’Gara who calmly kicked a drop goal to seal a Grand Slam for Ireland in 2009 for
the first time in 61 years have written themselves into the history books and it’s fitting they should see out the great story they began in a packed old Thomond Park against a star-studded Saracens team more than a decade ago.
That Munster managed to outlast so many great teams and to be ranked above four time champions Toulouse when other teams have risen and fallen is what sets this Munster team above so many others. Within years of winning the European Cup, Northampton Saints and Brive had been relegated from the top divisions. Bath and Ulster both won the European Cup in the late 1990s but spent the 2000s largely in the wilderness in HEC terms. By any standard, Munster’s squad over the last decade has been extraordinarily good, winning the Magner’s League twice, the HEC twice, and supplying a large proportion of Ireland’s successful Triple Crown and Grand Slam sides. Every great side comes to an end, we’re lucky we saw this side win so much for Munster and Ireland.
It’s no coincidence that the phenomenon of Munster rugby occurred when Limerick city was going through a gang war, and a media response that left casual observers wondering when the UN would be moving in to evacuate the survivors. Munster rugby is Limerick’s good news story. It is considered proof that there might be 100 people who want to fight over drugs and 99,900 people who’d rather just support Munster and get on with things. Cork can validly complain that Limerick has moved with unseemly haste to appropriate the best bits of the Munster story for themselves, ensuring a rebuilt Thomond Park and hosting all the European rugby games.
Munster has gone from a semi-professional, part-time team made up of players drawn from the All Ireland League to being one of the biggest names in European Club rugby. Their stadium has gone from three grass banks and a corrugated stand to the largest club rugby stadium in Europe. What began facing the old, established teams like Saracens and Toulouse in 2000 has ended facing the new era team of Toulon, where a longstanding rugby team has been re-energised with big-name signings.
There has been an appreciable shift in club rugby where more and more clubs seek to rely on buying power rather than their own youth systems. This will affect Munster as much as anyone so we may well look back now and realise we’re seeing the end of an era when a homegrown Munster team could punch out the heavyweights of European rugby.
For over a decade Munster walked that tightrope well, recruiting big-name players like Cullen and Howlett while seeking to keep a close eye on a “Munster ethos” whereby former stars like Jason Holland and Anthony Foley joined the coaching staff and Shaun Payne and Mick Galwey moved into the management of the province. The teams that won the HEC in 2006 and 2008 were largely local.
Those delirious street scenes from Limerick in 2006 final seem long ago now. It’s hard to imagine people dancing on top of phone boxes in 2011, no matter who wins. Their loss.
From losing to the first Northampton by a single point, to ‘miracle’ matches against Gloucester and Sale, to being denied by Stade Francais and a touch judge’s eyesight, and to beating Toulouse in Bordeaux and Cardiff, Munster have gone toe to toe with the greats and become great in the process. If today is an ending then next week and trying to get into the Amlin Cup isn’t so much a shot at redemption as a new beginning.
[Image: Inside the Millennium Stadium for the 2006 final where over 65,000 Munster fans were present]