Monday 22 January 2018

They fought the giant and lost, but pride lives on

Laura Butler

Laura Butler

PRIDE almost overcame the purse in the searing French heat.

Leinster came and were quickly sent packing a few weeks ago by Toulon, but Munster certainly made this a long-haul game.

They mauled, they drove, the tackled and they kicked but ultim-ately they went home on the wrong side of a 24-16 scoreline.

The dream lived well into the dying minutes as Paul O'Connell's charges showed a spirit so often exuded from a fighting underdog.

Coach Rob Penney summed it up as a "hollow" feeling and all involved are hurting from the defeat at Stade Velodrome in Marseille yesterday.

While Munster never led at any stage, big-spending Toulon – who booked their accommodation for the final in Cardiff before kick-off – were never comfortable until they stretched eight points clear in the dying moments.

In an audience of 37,043, the Irish rugby fans were hugely outnumbered. But the 8,000 travelling supporters were heard loud and clear as the semi-final got underway.

A chorus of the well-known anthem 'Stand Up and Fight' resounded around the half-completed stadium as Damien Varley's squad stormed the pitch and there was obvious belief in their hearts. The loyal and excited punters waved their flags, chanting for the boys from Thomond Park until the bitter end.

The captain and his warriors battled for 80 minutes to take down the mighty giant that is Toulon.

They came alive in the second half and for a few magic moments it seemed as though twinkle toes Simon Zebo would offer up one or two more tries to secure a spot in the final on May 24.

However, the force of the reigning Heineken Cup champions was too great and Toulon did not trip up.

Zebo described the loss as "frustrating" and very hard to take. "We gave ourselves a mountain to climb and it was a case of too little, too late," the winger noted.

Disappointed Munster fans filtered out of the grounds without the desired result in hand, a place in the last two in Cardiff, but the red army did themselves proud as they cheered on the Irish province from start to finish.

No Munster team would be complete without the 16th man.

And the saddened heroes applauded their faithful following as they did a lap of the pitch before retreating to the changing rooms.

Nicola Wood, from Clare, said that the players showed great signs of strength in the second half and were unfortunate with the number of individual errors made.

"We're so proud of Munster rugby, they are a credit to the sport and we'll follow them through thick and thin," Mags O'Sullivan added.

For some, the tension was so high throughout the day that the only thing to calm the nerves was not a pint, but a vial of holy water.

"I filled it from St Brigid's well and just had to bring it with me," Patricia Ryan told the Irish Independent.

Eight-year-old Darragh Humphreys was privileged to play the Munster team mascot for the afternoon and insisted it was the "best day" of his life as he got the opportunity to walk onto the field alongside the squad, as well as his favourite player Felix Jones.

The host city was truly invaded, with punters descending en masse by any means necessary to be part of the occasion. Colleagues David Bolton, John Daly, Ronan Fitzgerald and David McPartland flew in from their base in Switzerland. Talisman Paul O'Connell's parents Michael and Sheila also mingled with the many red-shirted tourists in the sun-soaked port prior to kick-off.

While the team flew back to Shannon last night, hordes of supporters remained in the Irish pubs dotted about the city until the early hours of this morning before making their way back to home shores.

Today there will be heavy hearts and sore heads but their belief in the team will remain undented.

Irish Independent

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