From soul-searching to sheer ‘euphoria’ - how Munster rallied to pull off Miracle Match
Amidst the deathly silence that fell around the brooding Limerick night sky, a smattering of fingertips tapped furiously on mobile phones in a bid to decipher whether or not Munster needed the extra two points.
All logic had long gone out the window for the majority of the 12,500 who were officially inside the stadium, but that’s not to mention the many others who had jumped over the infamous spot on the back wall of the old Thomond Park.
Munster stood on the brink of what had been deemed the impossible, yet as Ronan O’Gara lined up the conversion with the clock ticking towards the 80th minute, the players and supporters united as one in not having a full understanding of just how important the kick actually was. “I never remember having to get 27 points going into the game, funnily enough,” Mossy Lawler, whose try on the stroke of half-time helped Munster on their way, recalls.
“I just thought we had to get four tries so I didn’t realise how important ROG’s conversion was after John Kelly’s fourth try. That will probably tell you as well where our psyche was going into the game.
“That the magic of the day as well, not knowing how important that kick was. The fact that it went over and it put us through, probably made it even more special.”
From the second the sound of O’Gara connecting with the ball right on the sweet spot echoed around the old Limerick venue, what followed was a noise that remains as vivid as ever for anyone who was in Thomond Park on that unforgettable January evening in 2003.
Many teams have frozen in the white heat of the Thomond Park cauldron but few have suffered stage fright as much as Gloucester did. Having thumped Munster 35-16 at Kingsholm on the opening day of the Heineken Cup, the runaway leaders of the Premiership arrived in Limerick full on confidence.
And who could blame them? After all, Munster would have had to score four tries and win by a margin of at least 27 points. It would have taken a miracle that looked increasingly unlikely, or so they said.
“I think the big thing for me was the week leading up to the game,” Lawler maintains.
“We had just come off the back of getting a (23-8) hiding off Perpignan down in France and there was a bit of doom and gloom around the place.
“There was a bit of soul-searching and guys feeling sorry for themselves on the Monday and Tuesday.
“It was only after Tuesday’s rugby session where we got together and said, ‘Look, we know what we need to achieve on Saturday, we need to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and get on with our jobs.’
“From there on, we set a tone and a standard for what we wanted to achieve from the game and we went after it.
“I think it was actually Mick Galwey on the Tuesday. He was on the bench for the game but Mick being the leader that he was, it was him that grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and brought us in and just said, ‘Look, this training isn’t acceptable. That’s not what we are about.’
“You look around the circle and you had Axel, Mick O’Driscoll, Frankie Sheehan – all top leaders in their own right.
“Once they start leading by example you just row in after them. For me as a young kid, I was only 21, when those guys say ‘Jump’, you say, ‘How high?’ They were the standards that we set for each other.”
Munster went into their 51st European game led onto the pitch by the late Anthony Foley, who remarkably was making his 50th appearance in the competition. The No 8 put in a ferocious performance but, as Lawler explains, there was no fanfare around what the occasion meant to Foley.
“Nothing was really said about it, but for me, I suppose that really emphasised the character of the man. It was never about Axel, it was always about the team and what he could achieve for the team.
“For him, he probably didn’t even bat an eyelid. It (acknowledging his achievement) was obviously massive for the rest of us.
“It’s kind of fitting that it was his second year anniversary this week and with such a big match on the weekend for Munster.
“I don’t think there was any particular attention put on it but again, like I said, that just showed the amount of leaders in the team and what Munster meant to Axel. It was about the game and it was about what Munster needed to achieve rather than being about himself.”
John Kelly got the ball rolling with his first of two tries in the 19th minute before Lawler pounced on Jason Holland’s neat grubber kick to score in the corner.
For a 21-year-old from Limerick, who grew up supporting Munster on the terraces of Thomond Park, this was a special moment for Lawler, who is currently working as Connacht’s Academy coach.
“I had come through the club system with Shannon at the time and club rugby the way it was, you had every international playing every weekend,” he explains.
“For me when I came into the first squad, I knew all of the Shannon lads personally. Obviously it was still a massive step up to play with your province in Europe.
“I suppose I was always very nervous but I did feel comfortable around my peers. I certainly wasn’t overawed. I had massive respect for them and made sure I did everything I could to perform for them.
“When it (scoring the try) happened in the moment, you don’t really appreciate what it was actually all about.
“Like I spoke about with Axel, for us it was just about winning on that day and making sure what Munster wanted to achieve.
“For me, it was just scoring one of the four tries that we needed to get through to the next round. But I suppose looking back, it was a special moment in my career.”
To see a young Munster supporter sprint onto the pitch from the south terrace to congratulate Lawler before running off again summed up what Thomond Park was all about back then.
“I know the new Thomond Park brings its own special atmosphere but I don’t think you can beat the old Thomond Park with a packed house,” Lawler agrees.
“Those terraces were so narrow and the crowd were basically in your face. I suppose that kind of fed into what Gloucester probably never experienced before either.
“Any foreign team or any team that play there, always talk about how passionate the crowd are. And look, they were as important on that day as the team were themselves.”
Mick O’Driscoll’s second-half try put Munster on the brink before Kelly got over right at the death to leave O’Gara with a conversion that was far more important than the hushed crowd realised at the time.
“The job the forwards did on the day was remarkable in firing Gloucester into submission really, and for us backs to be thankfully on the end of a couple of scores out wide,” Lawler adds.
“When you’re reading body language, you’ll always know when a team is beaten or you know when you are on the ascendancy in going after what you want to achieve.
“The euphoria after the game was hard to match. We went on to win two European Cups, so you can’t really say one was more special than the other, but that was certainly one special day and an even better night.”