Munster's last men standing
Earls, O'Callaghan, Hurley, O'Connell and Varley -- hoping to repeat epic exploits of 2009 against Perpignan
IT WAS, Paul O'Connell recalls, one of the great games of en epic era for Munster rugby. The day they went to Perpignan and blew the Stade Aime Giral apart.
The events of December 20, 2009 have taken their place in the pantheon and go down as one of the last great throes of that brilliant team. Leinster had shaken them in the previous season's semi-final, but the arrival of Jean de Villiers and the emergence of Keith Earls had helped smooth the transition.
The talk among the players was of the 'Maldini project' and continuing their careers long into the next decade. Now, as the province face a similar task just four years on, there are just four of the starting XV from that 37-14 win who remain with the club.
Lifeimi Mafi will stand against them on Saturday, now ensconced in the blood and red, while Doug Howlett, Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy have all retired.
Paul Warwick, Tomas O'Leary, Wian du Preez and Denis Fogarty are playing elsewhere, so, when they take on Perpignan on Saturday, only Earls, Donncha O'Callaghan, Denis Hurley, O'Connell and replacement Damien Varley from that famous day will still be wearing away colours.
It is a mark of the turnover of players Tony McGahan and Rob Penney have dealt with in the intervening four years, but the fact the bookies are offering even money on an away win is testament to this generation of Munster men.
Sure, the Catalans may not be the force they once were and there is talk they may even rest some big names in the wake of last week's five-try defeat and ahead of a gruelling Top 14 schedule.
But, in the history of the Heineken and Challenge Cups, only six teams have managed to beat Perpignan at this venue. If Munster manage a result on Saturday, they'll become the only team to have won twice here.
The Reds found out all about it on a difficult day in 2002 when they first experienced the heat of the Stade Aime Giral, losing 23-8 after enduring the crowd's infamous 'la bronca' welcome and the fearsome forwards who extended that welcome once the whistle went.
O'Connell says they were determined not to make the same mistake again against the then-French champions.
"When we were there 11 years ago now we just kept conceding momentum, they were able to build momentum and that's what they do in Perpignan. It's a great stadium and a really great place to play and you have got to give yourself a chance," he recalled.
"It's one of those places that, if you go there and do the simple things well, if you don't stay in the game the game can go away from you. For us, when we went there in 2009 I remember we did a lot of things very well; our line-out was good, our kick receipt very good and our breakdown was really good.
"We were able to hang in there and then Jean came off the bench and was able to score a great try and we pulled away."
Things hadn't been going too well at Thomond Park that season and Munster had just eked out a win over the same opponents a week previously. The de Villiers signing wasn't really working out and the Springbok World Cup winner found himself dropped.
In the intervening days, a loose comment from young flanker Yoann Vivalda, who compared the game in Limerick to an academy game, made perfect reading for the men in red as they prepared their assault.
"It was good fun to play in, certainly was," former Perpignan prop Perry Freshwater recalled. "We had a few young guys playing in the back-row and I think one of them said it was like playing in a second team game, meaning that he looked to his left and right and saw his young mates with him that he used to play in the second team with.
"That was printed in the Munster and Irish press as if he'd said, 'this was easy, it's like playing in a second team game' and Alan Quinlan grabbed me after the game and said 'thank your young players for motivating us', because they cut the bloody article out and pasted it over the changing-rooms. So, they were very angry and it was a lesson learned for the young boy."
Munster's ferocity stunned the Catalans, but it was the guile provided by de Villiers off the bench that truly broke Perpignan's spirits.
"It was one of the best games I can remember in a very long time. I remember Jean de Villiers had been dropped and we played some great rugby," O'Connell recalled.
"Denis Leamy played one of the best games he ever did for Munster and, unfortunately, he found out the next morning he had a bad knee injury and was out for about nine months. I remember coming away from the game, feeling full of confidence about how we were going to go that year and hearing about his injury and being gutted.
"But, they're a team we have a lot of respect for. I wasn't involved when we played in 2002 and were really well beaten over there. The boys had never experienced anything like the crowd and had never experienced anything like the way their team played.
"So, there's a lot of fear among Munster players when they go to Perpignan, a lot of respect for them and that's one of the reasons we were able to go there and do so well (in 2009)."
The high from that win helped carry McGahan's team to the semi-finals where they fell to Biarritz in San Sebastian. The retirements soon followed and the rebuilding was under way.
Hurley scored a try that day and is likely to be among the replacements on Saturday, while that position will be reversed for Damien Varley who is likely to start having been on the bench four years ago. Johne Murphy also recalled the intensity of the experience from his Leicester days when he had bottles thrown at him as he practised his kicking before the game.
Munster's young players have been to Castres and Brive and won in recent seasons, but this should represent a step up in intensity off the pitch.
Penney will address the issue head on in his preparations to ensure that the inexperienced among his group can learn from those who have been there and done it before.
"On the scoreboard is where it becomes more tangible," he explained. "Because history will show you that the home team has an advantage.
"If you go in with a mind-set that predisposes you to being influenced and being less of a performer because you are playing away -- when you are playing away then you will be less of a performer. We are fortunate to have enough here, a few guys who have been down there to experience that, so we will be drawing on that. So, yeah, we have really got to set the seed that it is intimidating and a really difficult place to go but yeah I think guys are aware of that."
Connacht showed the way last week.
It's time for Munster's new guard to write their own piece of history and join the chosen few who have won at the Stade Aime Giral.