Sunday 11 December 2016

The day Munster rugby grasped the Holy Grail

Barry Duggan

Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30

Peter Stringer, above, dives over to score a try against Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup Final. SPORTSFILE
Peter Stringer, above, dives over to score a try against Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup Final. SPORTSFILE
Ronan O’Gara celebrates after the game. SPORTSFILE

Sixty minutes had gone in the 2006 Heineken Cup final in Cardiff.

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Munster led French opponents Biarritz by four points, but hadn't scored in 18 minutes and had just turned over the ball, leading to a break in play.

The men from the southern province had been here twice before, in 2000 and 2002, with heartbreaking losses on both occasions. Gasping for air in the white-hot inferno of the Millennium Stadium, the Irish province were out on their feet as 74,000 - with easily the vast majority supporting Munster - anxiously looked on.

Out-half Ronan O'Gara glanced up at the big screen - and then one of the most remarkable scenes in modern sport took place. The stadium screen relayed live images from a heaving O'Connell Street in Limerick, where a crowd was watching the game. A roar went up in Cardiff. Suddenly realising their team, relations and friends in Cardiff could see and hear them, all of Shannonside roared back. The guttural Munster crescendo descended from the stands, rolling out onto the pitch. The stadium shook.

There was only going to be one winner. We knew then that it was going to be an unforgettable day, and 10 years have failed to diminish those memories.

Getting to Cardiff was an achievement in itself. The stories of fans travelling from around the world rivalled the adventures of Phileas Fogg. Tara Robinson from Limerick made a 32-hour bus journey through Brazil and Argentina before flying to Madrid, on to London - and made it to Cardiff 20 minutes before the game began. Another couple travelled from New Zealand.

Fr Liam Ryan ensured the Augustinian church in Limerick was packed the week before with a prayer of desperation offered to St Jude: "Help me to find a flight, a ferry, a paddle boat, a ticket for the stadium in Cardiff . . . Bless Paul, ROG and all the lads so that they may bring home the Heineken Cup, the Holy Grail . . . If you answer my prayer, I promise to limit myself to one drink if they win. Thank you for the gifts I am about to receive."

Battle-hardened supporters who'd ventured to many a foreign field still recall that weekend as one of the best. Think of the Munster hurling final in Thurles and double it. It wasn't confined to the rugby fraternity either.

Munster rugby unified all - as GAA and soccer diehards rowed in. Big burly men, who barely acknowledged each other at home, drank, hugged and sung with all their might. Families separated across the globe reunited that weekend. 'De Banks', 'Slievenamon', 'Limerick, You're A Lady', 'Spancil Hill' and 'The Rose of Tralee'. Even 'Molly Malone'. It never ceased. Line-outs, rucks and mauls - and that was just the pubs in Cardiff the night before.

They slept on couches and floors. "If your mother asks, we had a fine B&B," one dad warned his 12-year-old son.

Johnny Looby, then president of Kilfeacle Rugby Club, recalled the madness.

"After a rocky night over on the boat, 23 of us stayed in a house about two miles outside Cardiff. There was only meant to be seven in it.

"Pebbles Ryan from [Tipperary] town was laid out on a couch with a towel over him - the same as being laid out in Tom Fogarty's funeral home in Tipp town. We didn't see a dinner from Thursday night until Sunday. I went hoarse. It was the greatest weekend of my life."

On Saturday, apprehension, anxiety and angst. Two men bedecked head-to-toe in Leinster blue got a roaring ovation and 1,000 foam rugby balls hurled at them when they walked into the Prince of Wales pub. They never paid for a drink the rest of the day. Actor Peter O'Toole spoke of his late friend and Munster supporter Richard Harris.

Nerves were unbearable. How could we take 80 minutes?

The game was a rollercoaster. Nip and tuck. Stringer's try. You little beaut. Munster by seven at the break. More penalties and drama. O'Gara stretched the lead to four with six minutes to go. Touching distance.

All stood, as Biarritz laid siege. But then, just before 5pm on May 20, 2006, referee Chris White blew the sweetest sound ever - the final whistle. Munster were champions of Europe.

That night is hard to describe. Happy, laughing faces everywhere. The best rolling maul ever witnessed happened on St Mary Street around midnight. Twenty police officers wrestled with 40 fans for possession of a giant rugby ball, with thousands cheering.

The night never ended. It just gave way to morning and dashes to ferries and airports. It rained in Limerick at the homecoming but we didn't feel a drop. Licensing laws were ignored and work was forgotten.

It's hard to believe that, a decade later, the final of the European competition has just been played, but without Irish involvement. Nobody seemed to notice or care.

Maybe the heady days of the Champions Cup have peaked and the parties we held in Clermont, Leicester, Toulouse, San Sebastian and Cardiff will never be repeated. One can only hope more rich days lay ahead with even more memories to be made.

The final word to the late great Peter O'Toole speaking to this reporter, then with the 'Limerick Leader', barely an hour after the final.

"Dickie [Richard Harris] is dancing in the heavens with this result. They have done it all now, they have beaten the All-Blacks, the Aussies, and are now the champions of Europe. Remember this is only a club and yet there was over 70,000 supporters here in the stands and they came across a sea for this. Who else would do it?" asked O'Toole.

Before waiting for an answer, he spoke for all of us: "I have never seen anything like it."

Irish Independent

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