Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Of Junk Yard Dogs: Heineken Cup Final May 24th

I have attended many great sporting occasions: Ireland beating England in Stuttgart in the Eighties; Ireland beating Italy in the Giants Stadium; Tipp beating Galway in the 2001 All-Ireland Hurling final amongst them, but nothing compared to the experience of seeing Munster beat Toulouse in Cardiff last Saturday. The absolute intensity of the match and the amazing and moving spectacle of the Munster fans doing what they do made it a memorable occasion. Despite the closeness of the score (16-13), Munster were comfortable winners and controlled most of the match apart from the first 20 minutes and one aberration in the second half. They controlled it through the ferocity of their tackling (often double tackling to prevent the release of the ball), their superiority in the lineout and control in the scrum, and primarily their mastery of the dark arts of the ruck and maul where they regularly won turnover ball. Their junk yard dogs Quinlan and Leamy were central to all this while the thoroughbred Wallace was also outstanding. But aside from all these technical matters Munster won because they wanted it more and their passion and commitment was reinforced by the incredible volume of their support – both in terms of numbers and of noise.

A few images and observations:

• The ferry from Rosslare to Pembroke jammed with Munster jerseys - a spectacle spoiled for me by the intrusive Toyota logo. Let the drinking commence. The most common accent was the Cork one.
• The road from Pembroke to Cardiff full of Irish registered cars (from all counties) flying the Munster flag.
• Camper vans sporting Munster flags lining the paths on the way to the stadium.
• The centre of Cardiff a sea of red – everyone with pint in hand.
• O’Leary practicing his kicking and passing for about 20 intense minutes before the match started.
• Hurley putting Munster in trouble from the start by conceding an early 5 metre scrum and was never commanding under the high ball. Shaun Payne must have been feeling pretty hard done by as he watched from the stand. This was a mistake in selection that could have cost Munster.
• The small but animated Toulouse group near us chanting “too loose Anne” (Toulousain) – including a nut brown beauty with a wonderfully expressive face – especially evident when the first chorus of The Fields of Athenry rolled around the stadium.
• The stadium going from riotous singing to eerie silence in a fraction of a second as Elissalde ran up to take a penalty.
• Quinlan collapsing dramatically (a fraction of a second later than was convincing) after being kicked by Pelous. And then the entire Munster medical team rushing from the bench as if his leg had been snapped off.
• Cedric Heymans left boot hoofing the ball miles and his flash of genius for the French try - coming from nowhere as Munster were in seeming control.
• The whole stadium singing "Stand up and Fight" - a welcome relief from the "Fields of Athenry" - moving and all as that was in the context.
• Pelous and Heymans staying on for the post-match celebrations and gazing around the stadium in wonder as they soaked up the atmosphere. Respectful and classy.
• Quinlan presenting a boot each to the Tipp hurlers Nicky English and Donie O’Connell for their sons – a smelly souvenir.
• Quinlan seeking out Declan Kidney at the end of the celebrations for a prolonged embrace – Kidney had faith in him when O’Sullivan didn’t.
• O’Gara and Howlett going off together arms around each other as the rest of the team formed a circle around Kidney.
• The disgraceful state of the pitch made slippery from condendsation due to the closed roof.
• Encountering Mick Galway, Nicky English, and a bunch of old Tipp hurlers in the Yard Bar – a splendid spot in the old brewery quarter.