Alan Quinlan on the Leicester-Munster rivalry and Ronan O'Gara being the bravest man he ever played with
Joel Jutge says the words ‘crouch, touch, pause, engage’ – before walking slowly to his right.
On the far side of the scrum, Peter Stringer bends low, holds his hands out and prepares to feed the ball in.
Neil Back, meanwhile, can’t see Jutge but does eye an opportunity – and carefully slaps the ball out of Stringer’s hands.
Uproar follows, more so from the stands than the players. Afterwards, when Jutge blows the final whistle, and Austin Healey moves across to ironically applaud the Munster fans who’ve travelled in their thousands to see us play our second Heineken Cup final in three years, cries of injustice are heard.
But not from us.
It isn’t Healey’s cheekiness or Neil’s ‘Backhander’ we’re annoyed by. Instead it is the fact our line-outs failed to function in that final; the fact we coughed up a couple of soft tries, the fact we had a 9-5 lead and couldn’t hold onto it; the fact we didn’t score a try.
We don’t say any of this in the dressing-room afterwards, though. Instead there’s silence. Heads are bowed. One or two players shed tears. Declan Kidney and Niall O’Donovan speak quietly. It’s their last game. Ireland had called. They were off. So was the Claw (Peter Clohessy) who was retiring and yet even though this – in many ways – was the end of a chapter, we didn’t feel it was the end of our story.
In fact, by the time we finally got around to talking about what had happened, we were upbeat and proud.
The fact is Leicester were a more complete team than us. And a better one. “We need to learn from them,” were the words we said.
The following year we did.
A miracle match against Gloucester created joyous scenes in Thomond Park. The crowd cheered and we lapped it up and then we got into the dressing-room and some official – half-scared – quietly said, ‘Eh, lads, well done on the win … but you know, you have to play Leicester now. Away.”
And the smiles stopped.
Back in 2003, they stood for everything that was good about northern hemisphere rugby. Back-to-back European champions, they didn’t fully respect us in that 2002 final because deep down, they knew they’d win.
And while we envied their big names – Ben Kay, Martin Corry, Dorian West, Martin Johnson, Lewis Moody, Graham Rowntree – part of us thought, ‘Do you know what, we can emulate those guys’.
So as the weeks passed and that quarter-final in Welford Road drew nearer, we talked in greater detail about the previous year’s loss.
The intimidation factor was brought up and a decision was made that we’d stand up to it. “We never gave up last year,” we said. “And we won’t now.”
All of this came back to us in the dressing-room before the game.
“We can beat these,” someone shouted.
The whole of Welford Road must have heard us – because from outside the dressing-room window, some Leicester fan jeered.
And that fired us up even more.
You talk about nervous energy. That tiny dressing-room was filled with it. I remember the noise of the studs stamping off the tiled floor, the smell of Deep Heat, the look in everyone’s eyes. I remember the words being said.
“Don’t get talked out of it,” someone shouted.
A jeer came from outside.
“F***ing ignore the crowd. We can win this.”
And deep down we knew we could. Since the 2002 final, our fitness had improved. So had our preparation. We’d done our homework on their lineout.
The swotting worked.
Everything worked that day.
We stole some of their ball, worked our way into a lead, didn’t panic when they came back and then, towards the end of the game, after Stringer had scored to put us 20-7 up, a line-out was won.
Thirteen points up against one of the best teams Europe had ever produced, we said f*** it, we aren’t going to play it safe.
Frankie Sheahan made the call. “Maul,” he said. And the rest of the pack looked at each other and nodded. We won the lineout, got tight, set up the maul and then marched them into their 22.
Not a word was said as we moved. But that was one of the loudest statements we ever made as a team.
A year earlier we respected them so much and had kept our mouths shut after losing to them but now we wanted to show them, as well as ourselves, that we’d grown up as a team.
And afterwards, when Martin Johnson came into the dressing-room to congratulate us, we felt a kind of pride that we’d never felt before – because Martin Johnson was a warrior, a man of few words, a man who wasn’t prepared to move for Mary McAleese but who was prepared to move into our dressing-room and let us know how highly he thought of us. “You deserve it,” Johnson said. “And I feel you can go on and win it.”
Ultimately, he was right – but what we hadn’t appreciated was that it would take us until 2006 before we could fulfil his prophecy.
That was the year we met again – in the 2006-07 season.
Welford Road again.
In the week of the game, Ronan O’Gara gave an interview. “The Celtic League is stronger than the Aviva Premiership,” he said.
Massive headlines ensued. “Thanks a million for giving them free motivation, ROG,” we said.
Yet when the pressure was on, he stood tall. Right at the end of that game, we won a penalty, knowing we needed to score again to win.
The kick was from inside our own half.
“No problem,” ROG said.
And it wasn’t. From a monstrous distance, he nailed it, backing up his words with actions, reminding me why I considered him one of the bravest rugby players I ever played with – because no matter how great the pressure was, he could handle it.
That was the season, though, when we couldn’t handle Leicester at Thomond Park. Until then we had never lost a Heineken Cup game in Limerick.
But when I think back now, it’s obvious we had taken our eye off the ball a little; had failed to re-focus on the job in hand. The chip on the shoulder had gone. And so had the underdogs tag.
For once, Leicester were the possessors of those things and they used it to their advantage in Thomond. They came with a team who had been written off and they did a job. And if that sounds overly simplistic then you really need to know the history of both clubs.
In many ways there are similarities. Munster has a huge support and are proud of their history; but so are the Tigers.
The chip on the shoulder thing – that’s been embedded in both clubs – and handed down from one generation to the next.
And all these things count for something. When you play for Munster or Leicester, you’re expected to play with passion and a work-rate and to never give up.
Are those qualities outdated in this modern world of sports science and technical analysis? I don’t think so, not when you are talking about a game as physically demanding as rugby, where sheer determination is a pre-requisite for success.
Last year, Munster didn’t show enough of those old-fashioned qualities when Leicester beat them at Thomond Park. They need to learn from that – just as we learned from our mistakes in 2002.