The French love affair
The highs and lows of Munster's Euro odyssey have played out to a Gallic beat, writes David Kelly
It started with a hiss. Since Castres punctured their European bubble in the first season of the competition to deny them a semi-final slot, Munster have won more than they have lost on French soil.
Twice they have denied heavily-fancied, super-rich French aristocrats at the final hurdle of the greatest club competition in the world.
And yet without the remarkably poignant journey that had hitherto brought them so far and no further, one wonders if the joy upon reaching the final destination would ever have tasted as sweet.
When Munster started their European adventure in 1995, in the frantic aftermath of post-amateurism -- where else but in Thomond Park with a win -- they were paid just 600 'punts' for each of their fledgling adventures in Europe.
In the dreary Stade Antoine Beguere, Mazamet, one November afternoon, Munster kick-started their foreign odyssey amidst a sound and fury not even the most caustic of Munster Senior Cup rivalries could have prepared them for.
Their goal-kicker, Kenny Smith, completed his warm-up in virtual silence, but, when the game kicked off, the home crowd gleefully created a raucous noise of such fervour that one of Smith's late penalty attempts failed to reach the goal-line.
Ironically, Munster were hanging on to a 12-12 draw late on, but did not realise that the result could have secured them a semi-final berth; a costly turnover enabled the home side to score a try and begin a sequence of French travels that would at once create the Munster legend and harden a province into eventually becoming two-time champions.
"A few of us had played internationals away from home, but this was a completely new experience for a lot of us," recalls long-time captain Mick Galwey, fated, like so many others in red, never to get their hands on the famous trophy. "That cuteness wasn't there in the early days."
Neither, it seemed, an ability to really compete with European, particularly French, heavyweights away from home.
They were famously thrashed by Toulouse in the 1996/97 season 60-19 -- Galwey infamously exhorting his bedraggled troops to firstly "keep it under 50," then, desperately, to "keep it under 60."
Galwey recalls: "We travelled through London on the morning of the match, Shannon-London, London-Toulouse. We stayed the night after the match. We do it the other way around now!
"But we were all working at the time, fellas couldn't take days off and there was no money to be spending weekends in Europe. It was a learning curve for all of us; the IRFU, the Munster Branch, not just the players. We had had tours before, but this was different territory."
Few were as well-versed then with the intricacies of the European Cup back then as they are now; Munster presumed that, having hosed Wasps at home, and having seen Wasps return the favour by over half a century on their patch against Toulouse, well, do the maths.
Instead, they were given a damaging, but ultimately valuable, French lesson in the squad's development.
"It was unreal stuff," agrees Galwey. "The scary thing about that match was that we thought we would win. We hammered Wasps, Wasps hammered Toulouse at home. We thought we could beat them.
"But they absolutely destroyed us. The worst hiding any of us got. We were hanging in there. I said, 'For f**k's sake try to keep it under 50'. It was the home and away thing, we didn't know anything about that at all. Home difference mattered at home in the Munster Senior Cup or the Inter-pros but not as decisive as that.
"And unfortunately that's the way the Heineken Cup was for a few years; we lost away and beat anyone we wanted to at home."
Irish rugby was a chaotic beast at the time, with many of its best players plying their trade in England, while at national level, a succession of foreign coaches presided over creeping embarrassments, highlighted by three successive defeats against a strong Italian national side.
Hence, it was little surprise that the key to Munster ridding themselves of their French hoodoo would actually come on Italian soil, against Padova, when a mere five Munster supporters travelled to watch one of the pivotal pit stops in Munster's extraordinary European odyssey.
"It doesn't seem like a huge boast now, but it gave us a lot of confidence," concurs Galwey. "Peter Clohessy had played in the home match and caused their front-row havoc in his inimitable way. He was injured for the rematch and the brother Dessy played and he got an awful doing over there, just for being Claw's brother."
The repatriation of Irish captain Keith Wood, on a sabbatical from England, along with the introduction of grizzled Australian John Langford, and fused with the emergence of a cocky young partnership in the half-backs would lay the foundations for their French breakthrough.
That victory against Colomiers in December of 1999 allowed Munster to claim vengeance for the previous year's defeat against the same opposition. With one bound they were free.
Some would maintain that Munster's semi-final success over Toulouse in the baking heat of Bordeaux a season later still ranks as their best; certainly, the type of high-tempo, ball-playing game was a world away from what an Irish team was supposed to serve up in those days, especially against the French.
Northampton stymied their chances in that year's turgid final, but Munster had staunched the French flow of dominance on Gallic soil.
Ireland's stunning success in France in 2000 was a not insignificant factor, propelling Munster from the famous Bordeaux win onwards into a more comfortable existence against the top French sides.
Irish confidence -- and fitness -- made their players a different animal. Where before Munster seemed almost cowed on their travels, in Bordeaux Galwey and his troops unashamedly made for the most vocal end of the Toulouse following to complete their pre-match preparations.
Declan Kidney's role was also significant, ensuring that travel arrangements were more professional, that they brought their own chef -- players had hitherto often decamped to McDonalds, such was their dissatisfaction with the local fare.
Still, it wouldn't have been an odyssey without a regular dollop of pain and nothing hurt more than the infamous 2001 semi-final when Munster drew Stade Francais in Lille, the ERC continuing to prove unwitting partners in escalating Munster's Red Army to juggernaut status.
That was the day when John O'Neill had a perfectly legitimate try ruled out by touch judge Steve Lander -- again an unthinkable occurrence in this day of all-pervasive Television Match Officials.
"We learned one thing that day," Kidney says in Barry Coughlan's 'Rags to Riches'. "We had the best supporters anyone could ever wish for and ultimately the ERC were to learn an awful lot about the competition that day and what they needed to do to improve it."
Another low was the extraordinary tit-for-tat citings between Castres and Munster when the French side attempted to defend their player Ismael Lassisi's bite on Peter Clohessy's forearm by claiming there was racist incitement. The ERC would alter that process too.
Munster -- by now living up to future captain Anthony Foley's credo of being "better when bitter" -- gained their revenge away to both Stade and Castres in the knockout stages in that 2001/02 season.
However, the gods and Neil Back's errant hand mocked them once more at the final hurdle. Would Munster ever reach their Holy Grail? This wasn't Homer's Odyssey at all, more like Homer Simpson's odyssey, destined to end in glorious failure.
Mercifully, history recalls that they got there in the end. And you wonder would it all have been so different had Munster sneaked into that first semi-final and, who knows, won the damn thing at the first time of asking. "There wouldn't have been all that hurt," counsels Galwey, confirming that Irish rugby history might have taken an entirely different course had Munster's decade arrived in unprepared and premature haste.
"And you might have thought, 'Jaysus, it's very easy to win this thing'. Look at Ulster, they haven't even qualified for the knockout stages since they won it. I'm not saying they had it easy, but they never had to experience that sense of hardship.
"They say you have to lose one to win one; we had to lose two and then some. But we wouldn't have been that hardened without those early days. But then I suppose you can only prove that now.
"The biggest fear in 2000 and 2002 was, 'will we ever get back here again'. I'll always remember the press conference in 2002, saying that Munster will eventually win this thing.
"All the players mightn't still be around, but we'll win this thing. I always felt it was going to come."
That it came against French sides proved all the sweeter. But they're not done yet.
Just as the stunning win in Castres (2006) launched that year's successful maiden voyage, and similarly the extraordinary comeback against Clermont to claim a vital bonus point (2008), this season's win in a newly conquered fortress (Perpignan), prompts thoughts of a hat-trick.
Winning against Biarritz -- in San Sebastian, mind -- would erase another bad memory (2005) and qualify Munster for a final. In Paris. The French connection is set to continue.