Wednesday 15 August 2018

Ireland's lost weekend: Eric Miller and Rob Henderson recall how Leinster and Munster fell short in bid for All-Ireland final

Rob Henderson, is tackled by Trevor Brennan (left) and Yannick Bru during Munster’s European cup semi-final against Toulouse in 2003. Photo: Sportsfile
Rob Henderson, is tackled by Trevor Brennan (left) and Yannick Bru during Munster’s European cup semi-final against Toulouse in 2003. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Leo Cullen, Leinster player: "Losing to Perpignan was dark a day as I had ever experienced with Leinster."

"We were only a whisker away from winning and we would have fancied winning a final in Dublin." Alan Gaffney, Munster coach.

Leo Cullen after Leinster’s defeat by Perpignan in the 2003 European Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road. Photo: Sportsfile
Leo Cullen after Leinster’s defeat by Perpignan in the 2003 European Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road. Photo: Sportsfile

Since the dawn of European combat, there have been all-Ireland finals before and all-Ireland semi-finals too but never an all-Ireland final, of the oval ball variety at least, in Dublin.

Irish sides cannot meet at the pool stages and, with usually just three competitors, meetings have been relatively rare.

Six years ago Leinster vanquished Ulster in a Twickenham final; twice Munster and Leinster have met in semi-finals - victories in 2006 at Lansdowne Road and 2009 at Croke Park staging posts en route to their respective maiden titles.

Munster and Leinster were on course to meet in the 2010 final but that Paris affair remained strictly French after Biarritz and Toulouse triumphed on home soil in the semis. Last season, another local tussle in Lyon fell by the semi-final wayside.

Climax

Bilbao may yet host an All-Ireland final next month, a truly fitting climax to a Grand Slam season.

While Ulster won their sole European title in Dublin at the fag-end of the last century, the city has never staged an All-Ireland final.

Fifteen years ago, however, it should have; like this weekend, Munster and Leinster were in semi-final combat and a potential final awaited. In Dublin. Until they both blew it. It was the lost weekend.

"Don't even go there mate!" Matt Williams had warned us following his Leinster side's quarter-final win against Biarritz in Lansdowne Road.

It would be impossible to warn off all his players though. Winning a European title without having to leave Dublin was now a more than realistic option.

"We don't even have to cross the river, never mind the continent," recalled Brian O'Driscoll.

Fifteen years on, Eric Miller recalls how difficult it was for a side inexperienced in the art of grand European occasions to look beyond the bridge that lay in front of them as unheralded Perpignan awaited in the semi-final.

The prospect of Munster, in France to play Toulouse on the same weekend, reaching their third final against their fierce rivals, was almost too tantalising to ignore.

"We'd had a great win (against) Biarritz, we played exceptionally well and then everything was teed up perfectly for us which was probably our undoing," says the 1997 British & Irish Lion.

"The carrot of a Dublin semi-final and final, having to beat Perpignan where we would have been highly fancied.

"It was very early in our cycle. We'd just got used to winning, okay we'd won a Celtic League and won in France but a European semi-final was new, even for a bunch of experienced players.

"We probably forgot that any other game was probably just as difficult as a game against Munster. And we found that to our cost.

"We hadn't gone through enough big games as a group, winning and losing. We just didn't perform on the day. We were caught napping. Complacency was there, no doubt."

Munster were in a different place; in the three preceding seasons they had been in two finals and a semi-final but lost all three by a score. They just wanted to win, no matter what.

"We knew the final was in Dublin but Leinster were nowhere on our horizon," admits former centre Rob Henderson, who emulated Irish international colleague Miller as a Lion in 2001.

"We had to beat Toulouse and try to get this big bloody monkey off our back."

Neither side could influence the other but there was one Leinster man in Toulouse ranks; the exiled Trevor Brennan.

"He perforated my eardrum," laments Henderson, whose hearing was already impaired by the pre-match air-raid sirens; "He busted my eye," plaints Brennan.

There was only five minutes played in Le Stadium; 12,000 Munster fans in a 37,000 capacity. Another European epic. Another epic loss.

"We dominated the first-half up front and pinned them back with Ronan O'Gara but only led 6-0," remembers Henderson of the rain-swept opening. "We tried to run but we couldn't break them down."

The game opened up in the second act but Munster still clung to a six-point lead with as many minutes remaining.

Toulouse eventually mastered the script after shifting the characters upon the stage; a blizzard of subs shifting Freddy Michalak from nine to 10, from where he would score the decisive try; 13-12.

O'Gara essayed a drop-goal effort from 45 metres in injury-time, his second attempt, but Munster hadn't yet developed a play-book for last-gasp drop-goals and the capricious wind took it hither and thither but not between the posts. "We'll win it some day," he muttered to us later.

A team-mate of O'Gara approached Brennan as the hubbub died down. "Just beat those Leinster fuckers in the final."

Brennan wouldn't get the chance.

The next day, those of us who missed the other semi-final due to travel arrangements were appreciably the lucky ones.

Lansdowne Road was packed with home support; Perpignan had brought just the two men and left the 'chien' at home. A canny canine for the match was an utter dog, a turgid affair that betrayed the furious noise of expectation which had preceded it.

Brian O'Meara missed five of seven placed balls and O'Driscoll hobbled off before the last quarter.

"We were set up for the last quarter, to drive it home," says Miller; Leinster led 3-0 at the break but it should have been 15 then Gordon D'Arcy's try in the 56th minute should have kicked them home.

"That killer punch just wasn't there. Once we got in front, we started thinking about the result, trying to inch towards the line and you can't do that.

"It's about the body language and what you're giving them on the pitch. Any opportunity we missed, they fed off it and rallied. They deserved it. We didn't know how to react when the chips were down, the knowledge of how to eke out a win."

So a potentially Gaelic celebration assumed a Gallic air in an eerily half-full Lansdowne; boosted, it seemed, by the entire village of Leixlip.

Faithful

However, it would kick-start the situation which presides nowadays, whereby the organisers of European competition, while remaining faithful to pre-determining final venues, would begin to sell tickets a year in advance in order to avoid a repeat.

For the two Irish sides, the wait to succeed Ulster would have to wait.

Munster would reach the summit before them but Leinster would respond in kind. After the other missed opportunity in 2010, a meeting between them would be truly mouth-watering.

"I can think about it now because I'm not playing," says Henderson of the prospect. "The players won't. I'd be having a Leinster v Munster final. Miller gives an All-Ireland final better than an even- money shot.

After an unforgettable year for Irish rugby on the field, a memorable weekend in May would round it off quite nicely. No pressure.

Irish Independent

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