Sowing the seeds for a decade of unrivalled prosperity
Published 11/01/2010 | 05:00
SATURDAY, January 8, 2000, and we are squashed up at the back of the stand in the old Thomond Park for Munster's must-win Heineken Cup pool match against Saracens.
The story of Keith Wood's late try from a John Langford line-out take and the winning conversion from a bloodied and bandaged Ronan O'Gara has been told many times but it is often forgotten that Munster were out in the cold in more ways than one that freezing afternoon in Limerick.
Two-and-a-half months previously, in the French industrial town of Lens, an amateur Argentina outfit had ended Ireland's World Cup ambitions to conclude a horrendous decade for Irish rugby in fitting fashion.
Only two members of that Irish side were on the books at Munster, scrum-half Tom Tierney and hooker Keith Wood -- back from Harlequins on a one-season deal. There was a justifiable sense of grievance down south, expertly mined by then coach Declan Kidney, and accentuated by Munster's World Cup warm-up victory over Ireland at Musgrave Park.
By January, the Munster mixture of youthful exuberance and grizzled know-how was starting to build momentum, having won away in London and Colomiers. Saracens had been victims of their own complacency at home against their then unheralded opponents and showed up in Limerick with a team packed with international pedigree, determined to prove a point.
However, for all the efforts of captain Francois Pienaar, Thierry Lacroix, Danny Grewcock and Richard Hill, Munster were not for wilting and, in front of their first Heineken Cup full-house at Thomond Park, the legend that became Munster's European odyssey was born.
And, following Ireland's 50-18 humiliation against England in Twickenham a few weeks later in their opening Six Nations fixture -- a nation turned its lonely eyes to the south and the rest is history.
That is not to say that Ireland's success over the past 10 years at provincial and national level is attributable solely to the Munster template but the confidence generated by their consistency against European opposition gradually seeped into the national side as well as inspiring Leinster to follow suit.
As we ready ourselves -- weather permitting -- for the resumption of Heineken Cup hostilities next weekend, it is remarkable to look back at the Munster and Leinster squads from this time 10 years ago and register how many players are still going strong at this level.
Munster have eight players in the current squad who were on their books 10 years ago with the likes of O'Gara, Peter Stringer, John Hayes, Marcus Horan, Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace all expected to be key men for Ireland when the World Cup rolls around again in New Zealand next year.
Heineken Cup champions Leinster have six squad players from 10 years ago still producing the goods with Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan and captain Leo Cullen still in the international mix and ready to feature in the Six Nations.
Outside the main two provinces, the likes of Bob Casey, Geordan Murphy, Simon Easterby, Jeremy Staunton and Justin Fitzpatrick were all doing their stuff 10 years ago -- although Fitzpatrick, the only remaining Ulster squad member from the 1999 Heineken Cup-winning side, is very much on the fringes in Ravenhill.
In the late 1990s, following the switch to professionalism in 1995, Irish players flocked to England in search of lucrative contracts and the international side was dominated by players plying their trade abroad.
That situation was gradually reversed by the IRFU and the union deserves due credit for overseeing a system that corrals and protects its primary assets. The evidence of the success of such a policy is borne out by a trophy cabinet which boasts four Triple Crowns, three Heineken Cups, five Magners League titles and a Grand Slam since 2000.
Further evidence is represented by the durability of our professional pool, which is in stark contrast to Ireland's Six Nations competitors.
The Heineken Cup has been the breeding ground for Irish success and Munster and Leinster, in particular, have grabbed as much exposure as possible - Irish players fill seven of the top-10 list of most appearances in the tournament, led by Hayes on 89.
Ireland, Munster and Leinster enter 2010 with a core of experience which is the envy of other clubs and nations.
This time 10 years ago, bitterly cold and squashed into Thomond, few would have envisaged the Irish game being in such a healthy state a decade later but who's complaining? This was a long time coming.