Munster (23) Biarritz (19), Heineken Cup Final, May 20, 2006, Millennium Stadium
Fourteen years on, it still stands alone as the most surreal moment I have witnessed inside a stadium. Even watching it back now, it’s difficult to articulate just how special the feeling was.
For all of the brilliance on the pitch in an epic Heineken Cup final, it was the magical meeting of the Munster supporters in Cardiff and Limerick that left a lifelong impression.
For a city that was so often dragged through the mud this was Limerick at its very best as 15,000 people turned O’Connell St into a sea of red.
Of the 74,534 inside the Millennium Stadium, 60,000 were said to have travelled from Munster, although that was a conservative estimation.
The scenes back home had flashed up on the stadium’s big screen several times during the game, most notably after first-half tries by Trevor Halstead and Peter Stringer, but when they did so as the clock ticked beyond the hour mark it had an even greater impact.
Dimitri Yachvili’s unerring accuracy had just knocked over a fourth consecutive kick with his wand of a left foot to bring Biarritz back to within four points (20-16).
Not for the first time, it was beginning to feel like groundhog day for Munster.
The French side’s colossus Imanol Harinordoquy hit the deck and required medical attention, which brought a rare lull in what was otherwise a pulsating clash in the Welsh capital.
Munster supporters had danced this dance before. The European final defeats in 2000 and 2002 left deep scars that could only ever be healed by getting their hands on the coveted prize.
The nervous tension was palpable as Harinordoquy was seen to, but suddenly it was lifted as the joyous scenes in O’Connell St were once again beamed onto the big screen inside the stadium.
Down below on the pitch, you could see both sets of players glancing up at what was going on. As much as they were all trying to keep their heads in the game, such was the cacophony, it was impossible not to look.
At the time, I wondered what Biarritz must have made of it all, and I still do to this day.
There was no sign of something similar being broadcast from their city but from a Munster point of view, there was no room for sympathy. The hurt had been lingering for too long.
Munster never did things the easy way, they still don’t, and true to form they made it a nervy affair right up to the last minute, until Sireli Bobo ran into his own man and conceded a scrum that ultimately brought the final whistle.
Seventy-eight minutes earlier, Bobo had tiptoed his way along the touchline and scored a try that should never been allowed, but with the TMO not having the same power as today, the winger’s foot in touch went unpunished.
The momentum that was building from early that morning when the Munster supporters took over the streets of Cardiff, had been punctured. Deja-vu struck.
Ronan O’Gara’s eighth-minute penalty put his side on the board to reignite the fervour before captain Anthony Foley repeatedly turned down shots at goal in favour of going for the corner.
It was a risky strategy, but one which spoke volumes for the trust Foley had in his team.
The talismanic No 8 was outstanding, leading from the front in the kind of performance that typified everything Foley, and Munster, stood for.
If Halstead’s try on 17 minutes sent the crowd into raptures, it was nothing compared to the euphoria 14 minutes later when Stringer scampered over for one of the most memorable scores in Heineken Cup history.
Four years earlier, on the same pitch, Stringer had endured a nightmare moment when Leicester’s Neil Back swiped the ball out of his hands while he was feeding a scrum.
This was redemption as Stringer peeled around the blindside and away from the great Serge Betsen on his way to diving over the line.
A 17-10 half-time lead was down to the narrowest of margins by the 70th minute as O’Gara and Yachvili continued to put on masterful displays from the tee.
But when Census Johnston inexplicably coughed up a cheap penalty for coming in at the side of a ruck, O’Gara stepped up to follow his half-back partner in banishing his demons.
O’Gara’s struggles in the 2000 final defeat to Northampton seemed like a lifetime ago as he bisected the posts to give his side some much-needed breathing space.
Back came Biarritz again however, and when they launched a stunning move off a scrum in the final minute, panic struck until Bobo’s error.
It was fitting that Stringer was the one to boot the ball out of play and signal the final whistle, but seeing Foley lead Munster to the podium before lifting the cup aloft was even more poignant.
This was a success story that was the culmination of years of hard work and given that Foley was the link between that Munster team and the one that preceded it, there was no better man to finally lead Munster to the promised land.
The streets of Cardiff and Limerick were united once more as supporters basked in the glory of an unforgettable occasion.
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