When the draw was made for the 2000 Heineken Cup semi-final, the collective groan that emanated from Anthony Foley's house in Killaloe could be heard across the other side of Lough Derg.
A bunch of players were sitting in Foley's kitchen listening to the radio and wondering which one of Llanelli, Northampton or Toulouse would be plucked from the mythical hat.
Of course, it had to be Toulouse. Of course, it had to be in France.
The next day, Declan Kidney gathered his troops together before training. "Well, that was the draw we wanted lads," he told them. Except it wasn't the draw that anyone wanted. But Kidney made them believe that it was.
Three weeks later, Toulouse bodies lay spreadeagled in puddles of sweat upon the sunburned sod of the Stade Chaban Delmas, stunned into submission and subjugation by a crazily defiant red storm.
Munster's Heineken Cup odyssey had begun in earnest...
The story of Munster in Europe has always been about trying to improve on what went before.
Beating the big English teams in the early years was one thing. Beating them on their own patch something else.
It was the same with the French. They could beat them at home but winning away would define them in a more favourable light. Every experience hardened them, too. Tomorrow, they play their 11th semi-final; all but two have been away from home.
"We've never had it easy with those draws," says Marcus Horan, dead-panning his understatement.
The Red Army of supporters – almost 7,000 are expected to pitch up in and around Marseilles, as there are tickets still on sale – have almost developed a perennial sense of grievance against the seemingly capricious nature of successive draws.
Always – virtually – in France. Always – virtually – on a Sunday.
"It's something that has just added to the whole experience of having our backs to the wall," adds Horan, who was speaking at a Sky Sports event this week.
"But we've always risen to it, that factor of being against the odds. It all adds to the bitterness and the sense of it being an odyssey. Achieving something the harder way is often sweeter."
And yet, no side has won more Heineken Cup games than Munster – they drew level with Toulouse after thumping the French giants in the last round – and no one can match their number of appearances in the knockout stages of Europe's greatest club competition.
They say most teams must lose a final before they win one; Munster had to lose two. A brace of tournament wins in 2006 and 2008 were preceded by sickening runners-up appearances in 2000 and 2002.
Along the way, though, for every glorious, soaring achievement in the sun, some of the lessons were harshly painful.
Four years before they stunned the sport by trumping Toulouse in Bordeaux, it had all been so different the previous times the team met. It was Munster's second Heineken Cup visit to France, in the heartland of Les Toulousains, and their gaucheness was glaringly obvious.
"They absolutely destroyed us," recalls Mick Galwey. "The worst hiding any of us got. We were hanging in there. I said, 'for f***'s sake try to keep it under 50'."
Eventually, he had to desperately exhort his side to keep it under 60; they didn't, losing 60-19. That particular circle was almost completed when they beat the aristocrats to win their second title in '08; when Munster fans jokingly urged their own side to keep it under 50 against them during last month's six-try romp, it may have been suggested that the wheel had turned fully.
In the early days, things turned slowly, though.
Munster had to play five times in France – and lose five times – before they made their first significant breakthrough in 1999; it came on the same very ground upon which they had been humiliated by Toulouse three years earlier.
"It didn't hit me at the time just how significant a win it was," recalls Horan of the 31-15 win against a grizzled, gnarly Colomiers side who had gouged and spat and bossed their way to one of Munster's five previous successive reverses on French soil.
Horan had other things to worry about. The evening before the game, he had arrived back in the team hotel after a stroll with Donncha O'Callaghan when Kidney offered him the curly finger.
"Claw is gone, you're in," said Kidney flatly. "The nerves hit then, you're standing in for Peter Clohessy for your first Heineken Cup match as a young fella," recalls Horan, then 22. "It was a baptism of fire."
Remarkably, Horan scored a late try; the pleasure of which, in true Munster fashion, he could only temporarily enjoy.
"I rocked up at the video session on the Monday in flying form, thinking I was a great fella," he smiles. "Then we're watching the game. Jim Sherwin is commentating. 'Marcus Horan! What a dummy!' Yeah, I didn't live that down for a while ... "
It seems almost quaint now to recall that there were only about 30 or 40 away fans high up in the stands; a year earlier, five supporters made the trip to Padova – and four of them were parents.
The players were taken aback. "We thought that was a huge away crowd for us," adds Horan. By the time they got to Bordeaux a few months later, the numbers had swelled beyond 3,000.
In the week of the game, supporters had showered the Munster Branch with faxes; the dominating theme was, 'thanks for a great season, lads'.
"The same thing will be happening this week," notes Horan. "Nobody expected us to win then. Few expect us to win now."
In 2000, after negotiating one giant mental obstacle, they were keen to hurdle another. Sadly, the final presented another mental barrier. That, too, would take time to overcome.
Who knows how the story may have been scripted had they won their first final? "Ah, there wouldn't have been all that hurt," says Galwey. "And you might have thought, 'Jaysus it's very easy to win this thing'."
Even this weekend, they revisit a fixture – playing Toulon, away from home, albeit on neutral territory – which re-opens scars of a 2011 trouncing, when Munster failed to emerge from the pool stages for the only time this century.
History tells us Munster can always bounce back. Heineken Cup victories have always been special for them.
And they are even sweeter on French soil.
Years of the French – Six of the best Munster Away Tours De Force
Colomiers 15 Munster 31
Saturday, December 18, 1999, Stade Selery
colomiers, beaten by Ulster in the previous season's final after roughing up Munster in the quarter-final, were served cold, brutal revenge by a ruthless display. "We'd be a dangerous team if we played for 80 minutes," Kidney deadpanned.
Munster – J Staunton; J Kelly, J Holland, M Mullins, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, K Wood, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt), J Langford, A Quinlan, D Wallace, A Foley. Reps: I Murray for Hayes (40), T Tierney for Stringer, D Crotty for Staunton (74), F Sheahan for Murray (77).
Scorers – J Holland 2 tries, K Wood, M Horan try each, R O'Gara 3 pens, con.
Toulouse 25 Munster 31
Saturday, May 6, 2000, Stade Lescure
RONAN O'Gara's epochal try summed up Munster's on-field spirit and the 3,000 fans who completed the odyssey encapsulated the now rampant Red Army off the field. A post-match phone call from Richard Harris to Mick Galwey illustrated how Munster's tale was already of the folk variety.
MUNSTER – D Crotty; J Kelly, J Holland, M Mullins, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, K Wood, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt), J Langford, E Halvey, D Wallace, A Foley.
Reps: F Sheahan for Wood (40), D O'Callaghan for Galwey (78).
SCORERS – J Hayes, J Holland try each, R O'Gara try, 4 pens, 2 cons
Stade Francais 14 Munster 16
Saturday, January 26, 2002, Stade Jean-Bouin
REVENGE for Lille and all that. A closing pool defeat in Castres had forced Munster on the road again. Backed by a gale-force wind in the Parisien winter, Munster built up a big lead and defended it resiliently on a day the greatness of a certain Paul O'Connell emerged.
MUNSTER – D Crotty; J Kelly, R Henderson, J Holland, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, F Sheahan, J Hayes; M Galwey (capt), P O'Connell; J Williams, A Foley, D Wallace.
Rep: M Horan for Clohessy (80).
SCORERS – A Horgan try, R O'Gara 2 pens, con, drop-goal).
Castres 17 Munster 25
Saturday, April 27, 2002, Stade de la Mediterranée
A SEMI-FINAL delayed by foot and mouth and steeped in blood, chiefly that of Peter Clohessy, upon whose arm Ismaela Lassissi had attempted a Mike Tyson in the pool game. Clohessy returned for this semi-final as Munster's forwards won a torrid affair.
MUNSTER – D Crotty; J Kelly, R Henderson, J Holland, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, F Sheahan, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt), P O'Connell, A Quinlan, D Wallace, A Foley.
Reps: D O'Callaghan for Foley (15), M Horan for Clohessy (70), J Staunton for Crotty, M Mullins for Henderson (80).
SCORERS – J Kelly try, R O'Gara 6 pens, con).
Castres 9 Munster 46
Friday, January 13, 2006, Stade Pierre Antoine
AFTER losing in Sale and failing to pick up bonus points against Dragons, Munster were 50/1 to win the competition. Barry Murphy and Ian Dowling launched a scintillating display of running rugby as Munster ended as champions.
MUNSTER – S Payne; J Kelly, B Murphy, T Halstead, I Dowling; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley. Reps: T O'Leary for Kelly (58), G Connolly for Halstead (67), F Pucciariello for Horan (70), M O'Driscoll for O'Connell (71), D Fogarty for Flannery (72), J Manning for O'Gara (75).
SCORERS – P O'Connell, T O'Leary 2 tries, M Horan, S Payne, J Kelly try each, R O'Gara 3 cons, pen, J Manning con.
Perpignan 14 Munster 37
Sunday, December 20, 2009, Stade Aimé Giral
Perpignan fell to only their third home defeat in the history of the competition in what Reds legend Mick Galwey reckons is Munster's greatest ever success away to a French side.
MUNSTER – P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi (J de Villiers 61), D Hurley; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Fogarty (D Varley 59), J Hayes (T Buckley 66), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan (D Ryan 59), D Wallace, D Leamy. Reps: D Ryan for Quinlan (59), D Varley for Fogarty (59), J De Villiers for Mafi (61), T Buckley for Hayes (66).
SCORERS – J Fogarty, D Hurley, J de Villiers, D Howlett try each, R O'Gara 3 pens, 3 cons.