Munster must rekindle spirit of 'Miracle Match'
"It had been a year of great change. Gallimh was still in the squad, but on the bench. Paul O'Connell was out with a bad back injury and Wally had been out for much of the season, too ...
"As a rule, I don't remember much about matches, or the build-ups. But I remember that day. Thomond Park was a special place."
– Alan Quinlan writing about the 2003 'Miracle Match' in his autobiography, 'Red Blooded, The Alan Quinlan story.'
EVENTS are conspiring to test Munster's mettle this weekend. Their prospects of emerging from the qualifying phase of the Heineken Cup will be subjected to another critical examination in confrontation with Top 14 side Racing Metro.
They need to win in Thomond Park to be in with a chance of qualifying, and even that much on its own won't be enough. Munster must win with a bonus point and at least match Leinster's haul of tries from their previous day's endeavour.
And they must prepare this week with Ronan O'Gara's disciplinary hearing tomorrow hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles.
The comparison to Munster's 'Miracle Match' against Gloucester in 2003 is inevitable. It was the game that defined Quinlan's generation.
Paul O'Connell was absent that day because of back surgery – just as he will be on Sunday. They had also been stripped of the considerable influence of David Wallace in his pomp. There was very little going in their favour – on the surface, at least.
They knew exactly what they needed to do in the game, but no-one gave them a chance of defeating a side that was dominating the Premiership, by a massive four tries and 27 points. Jason Holland was partnered with Mike Mullins in the centre that day and had a direct hand in two of the four tries scored.
Astonishingly, qualification for the quarter-finals wasn't foremost in the players' minds that day.
"We just wanted to beat Gloucester," recalled Holland. "I don't think too many lads knew exactly what we needed to do to qualify. I certainly didn't know the exact number of points we needed.
"I knew we had to score four tries and give them a hiding and that was enough."
Munster players can, famously, take insult from the most banal of pleasantries. There was enough left over from the corresponding fixture at the start of the campaign – which Gloucester won 45-16 – to fuel the rage.
"They had given us a bit of a hiding in Kingsholm and had been free with the lip that day too. There was a pride thing involved as much as anything else and we just wanted to stick it up them that day," explained Holland.
Thomond Park was, as Holland remembers it, "a very special place." As a rule, the famous Limerick venue is never as intimidating during daylight hours. That the Gloucester game kicked off at 2.45 had been a source of some worry in the camp.
Any doubts were erased pretty quickly though, when Gloucester full-back Henry Paul made a mess of the first up-and-under sent in his direction and the crowd, to put it simply, exploded at him.
"It's was not unusual to test the full-back early in the game back 10, 12 years ago. And once (Henry) fumbled the first kick we knew that we could make hay. He was subjected to a nightmare of an afternoon and Thomond Park was really rocking," said Holland.
This weekend Munster are facing a similar scenario. O'Connell is again absent with a back injury and the probability is that O'Gara will be a frustrated spectator – although Munster are preparing to vigorously defend their man – and the game kicks off in daylight.
The key to the game on Sunday, according to Holland, is not to get too caught up in the scoreline. Instead focus, as the players did in 2003, on the basics – winning the match.
"You cannot get caught up in margins. Munster need tries, but if you get a penalty 40 yards out that's kickable you take the three points. Once you kick ahead of a team you can then start to squeeze them, especially if you have a dominant scrum and maul."
The new generation of Munster players have yet to experience Thomond Park at its intimidating best. Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Tommy O'Donnell were there in the stands when Gloucester were humbled. It's different experiencing that level of intensity from the pitch.
"We want Thomond to be rocking on Sunday," said O'Donnell in anticipation this week.
"This is Munster with our backs-to-the-wall. No one does this better. And on Sunday we'll again have another one of those magic Munster moments."
The experiences of that 2003 January afternoon will never be forgotten by those who took part in it.
Holland, for example, readily recalled the sequence of events that led to absolute carnage at the final whistle.
As Quinlan wrote: "The whistle went and the crowd invaded the pitch."
The odds of Munster losing Sunday's match are so slim as to be negligible.
Racing Metro will not travel with anything near their full-strength team as they are already out of the competition and must focus their attentions on their domestic Top 14.
The dream is very much alive for Munster. They will know at kick-off time what they need to do. It would take either a very wise or foolish man to bet against their achieving it.
• For the record, Munster's tries on that day in 2003 came from John Kelly (two), Mossy Lawlor and Mick O'Driscoll, with O'Gara adding two conversions and three penalties. Gloucester's Ludovic Mercier kicked two penalties.