Fall from grace: The decline of Munster
Ten years after their seismic Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Leinster, two-time champions Munster are in serious danger of eviction from Europe's top table
Sunday, April 23, 2006. The clock has been ticking with stubborn, uncaring lassitude.
The speed of racing minds and thumping heartbeats within the 40 men (and one woman) offer a dramatically stark contrast to the stealthy thrum of time.
Each of them has a different rhythm, in search of one unifying beat.
Their captain, Anthony Foley, as the clock passes 1.20, will deliver it.
"This is a day for men. It's a day when we have to stand up and be counted." The captain would. So too his team. And his province.
All weekend, and for weeks before, the Fair City was in thrall to the coming confrontation of two tribes that would, it seemed, dwarf the proverbial historical precedent - Dublin v Kerry - in terms of hyperbole and hysteria.
Munster v Leinster, country v city, red v blue, dinner in the day v pasta in the evening - clichés for every captivated feature writer - announced rugby's arrival as a verifiable national sporting and cultural phenomenon in this country.
Foley's men had endured an odyssey of many years to get to this point and they would have further distance to travel still; their grail a European title; denied in 2000 and 2002 finals and, in the years when there were no finals, there were enough hard luck tales to fill a book.
And yet this day Leinster were favourites. Didn't they possess the culture and swagger demanded of the Celtic Tiger, the brio of Brian, Felipe Contepomi's Latin arrogance? Munster, mere hod carriers, represented an agricultural anachronism no longer fit for the new Ireland, we were lectured.
The only true arena of truth, the playing field, would deliver its resounding response; despite receiving equal allocations of tickets, Munster fans legally pilfered thousands of Leinster's share and thus painted the terraces and stands of Lansdowne blood red.
On the field, Malcolm O'Kelly took his eye off the kick-off, dropped the ball and he and his team never recovered, ground into the dust by a remorseless machine.
Those of us in the old press room in Lansdowne Road witnessed an intense reaction from the Munster players afterwards; Ronan O'Gara told us that he and Paul O'Connell had to walk the streets of Cork and Limerick on Monday morning; his point being that it might not hurt a Leinster player walking through Ranelagh as much.
"It's great for us country people to come up here and get a result," said Foley, happy to confirm to cultural stereotype with victory assured.
Ten years on and the elite level of European rugby enters the last four but Munster will not be there because they did not even have the chance to make it there.
And next year, the very real prospect exists that Munster may not even qualify to play in the European Cup.
This is not like Manchester United playing Midtjylland in the Europa League.
It is like Manchester United being relegated from the Premier League and enduring trips to Burton Albion.
Foley is now the Munster head coach, presiding over the worst slump experienced by his beloved province in the professional era.
Brian O'Driscoll (like Foley, a United fan) has rubbed salt in his former foe's wounds.
"Anyone know what Bucharest is like in December?" he tweeted last Saturday after Connacht stole Munster's thunder and spirit in a thumping win that leaves Foley's side on the brink of European elimination.
During their halcyon days coursing tickets and sporting scalps throughout the continent for more than a decade, there were 15 quarter-finals, 10 semi-finals, four finals, two titles, miracle matches, 41-phase drop-goal dénouements, refereeing controversies.
The suffocating immediacy of agony and ecstasy revolved around the Munster team with giddying intensity, year upon year.
Now, nothing swirls; apathy reigns and, judging from the mood music of Munster's shocking decline in Galway last weekend, it now infects the whole squad, too.
In fact, the whole place has a sense of pervading gloom about it.
A clutch of over-paid overseas but unluckily injured players. A steady decline in playing ability and emerging quality from ever decreasing Academy, club and school streams.
A head coach in Foley who, reluctantly, it seems, will stay on for another year despite half of his backroom staff seeking an exit door before a new director of rugby arrives.
Foley does not know who that will be and, bizarrely, has no part to play in an appointment that will directly affect his daily work.
"Anthony needs to be part of the discussions around the changes concerning a director of rugby," David Wallace told us earlier this year. Munster, clouded by doubt, plough on.
Uncertainty is a devious enemy; what happens off the field is reflected on it; Munster have withdrawn into themselves, unsure of their status, unable to do more than haggle unceasingly at referees or rely on tired underdog status.
"When you're talking about the past management teams, the past players, the present players, the present management team, the administration, we would say there are a lot of things not right in Munster looking from the outside," says Keith Wood, in a damning indictment.
"We would all want to see something better happen. But when everyone is responsible, nobody is. It needs to have an incredibly hard look and review to try to rectify it. If you continue doing the same thing and not getting results, it needs to change."
The swagger of yore has dissipated; Munster have two games to save their European status.
"It would be very, very surprising, and very disappointing, but I remain optimistic," says their former hero, O'Gara, who will celebrate the 10th anniversary of his magnificent display against Leinster in a new guise, an assistant coach with Racing 92 as the Parisians seek to reach a first final against Leicester tomorrow.
"It's important the players and the staff are not overcome by fear, and that their game will be so frozen that they don't express themselves, because there's a massive amount at stake.
"It's now the time to produce. The talking is finished. I know there's umpteen changes but I'd like to think that I still know a lot of the guys in that dressing-room.
"And I still they are capable of producing something when it really is put to them."
This was always Munster's truth in the past. Producing something when they needed it. After Leinster, they faced French champions Biarritz in the 2006 Cardiff final.
They would win, despite not having the services of Christian Cullen, one off the world's best ever players but, with Munster, almost permanently injured. It didn't faze them.
Peter Stringer's audacious try, the 'Braveheart' one-in-a-thousand play down the touchline, stood out as a declaration of Munster's intent. They seized the day.
Serge Betsen was attached to that scrum, screwed slightly by John Hayes, around which Stringer danced on the short-side, winger Sereli Bobo having made a fateful step to his right.
Betsen had to stay down and when he detached, he stepped right too. Stringer took the space; he seized the moment.
Betsen is now a business consultant and he pinpoints that cameo of fateful miscommunication to his many clients.
Biarritz would become French champions that year but, a decade on, they are in the second tier of French rugby and were almost merged out of existence last season. Betsen spent 17 years there; his sadness at their decline freights many of the lessons being painfully absorbed in Munster.
"It's really sad for both clubs," says the former France back-row. "It is difficult to see my Biarritz get relegated and that Munster are struggling to even enter the competition again for next year.
"It's all part of how teams need to react at a high level. Every day you need to be proactive, to anticipate, to be sustainable for a consistent time. That is important in trying to get the challenge right for the long-term.
"The game grows quickly and you need to re-invent yourself, your organisation, re-invent everything you can about yourself to prepare for the future.
"That comes from a lot of pragmatism in the organisation but professionalism also.
"You need to be consistent in what you are doing from year to year and not change all the time."
Munster, though, are changing all the time and latterly, it has seemed, not for the better. While the long-term remains grim, the short-term crisis is of more immediate concern.
They have two games to restore their pride and reputation, beginning with Edinburgh in Irish Independent Park next Friday and finishing with Scarlets on the final weekend of the Guinness Pro12 eight days later.
Currently outside the top six guaranteed entry to the Champions Cup, they are, at least, in control of their own destiny. But O'Connell told us ten years ago this weekend that destiny does not apply. Munster must take their opportunity.
Foley had been adamant when he lifted the trophy in Cardiff. "It's been a journey and it isn't over." Happier, optimistic times.
Unless Munster get their act together, their continued descent may mean their next journey could take them to some strange and unusual places.
The clock is ticking.