Hans Christian Andersen, you may stand down sir. For those who produce fairytales to rival anything ever penned by yourself did so again on Saturday evening in some far flung corner of South Africa. Though I don’t think anybody in the celebrated writer’s works ever endured as much heartache and disappointment between pots of gold as have the rugby men of Munster.
They have been right at the coalface from the time continental – and now inter continental ‘club’ rugby became a thing. And how far it has progressed from the time the southern province played their first Heineken Cup match on a Tuesday afternoon in front of a dog because the one man wasn’t even bothered tagging along!
Thankfully, that scandalously shabby treatmemt of the competition didn’t last too long and once it became the serious sporting spectacle it now is, Munster have been among the bastions thereof. Albeit with a circuitous, pothole-laden road taking them along.
From the width of a goalpost denying Ronan O’Gara a winning penalty against Leicester, to Neil Back blatantly cheating in a scrum and getting away with it and John O’Neill having a perfectly good try hideously chalked off against Toulousse.
Having said all of the above, wasn’t it nearly a given that when they eventually did scale the mountain top there would be a dramatic element to their doing so. Namely Peter Stringer – who spent his entire career defying critics and convention – broke off the back of a scrum he’d fed himself to touch down under the post and all but seal their maiden Heineken Cup win in 2006.
Go back some years before that, to what will forever be known as the Miracle Match when they had to win by four tries and 27 points to ensure European progress. They did it, as only they could.
And then, there were those couple of days when they raged against the machine, the dying of the light, everything. Axel. He was the personification of everything the aura which envelopes Munster Rugby is about. You’d go through a brick wall for the man.
And they did. Less than 24 hours after he was laid to rest. Glasgow Warriors were the unfortunate ones who landed in their airspace. A herd of charging Charolais bulls wouldn’t have stood a chance that day. Keith Earls uprooting the water cooler with a boot said what we were all thinking better than any words ever could.
Earls. His story encapsulates what you might call Munster Vol. 2 as good as anything. Part of the ‘new wave’ that took over when the likes of Gaillimh and The Claw and Keith Wood took their leave of thte red shirt.
Yes there were good days, like the Miracle Match and the couple of consecutive Sunday’s when they went through 40 + phases (or 100,000 phases as the great Michael Corcoran hysterically put it on the radio) to set O’Gara up for winning drop goals.
But there have been tough days too. Plenty of them. Especially for Keith himself, to the extent that you wondered was his career just going to fizzle out in an underwhelming and ill-fitting way.
However, like Superman, the Almighty must wear Paul O’Connell pyjamas as well. Now, in any rivalry, it’s par for the course for matters to be cyclical in nature. For one side to enjoy spells of dominance over the other.
It’s a long time ago now since some sensationalist scribbler referred to Leinster as ‘Lady Boys’ at a time when Munster held sway over them and they had made several attempts to scale the mountain top and come up short.
Stuff like that will generally always come back to bite you where the sun don’t shine. Boy did it. From the day a certain J Sexton replaced Felipe Contepomi in Croke Park and les bleus put every ounce of hurt and derision flung at them to deliver a statement performance which they have continued to expand on ever since.
The wheel will eventually always turn though. Often when you least expect it. Like when there were many who expected Carlow to beat Meath in the Leinster SFC of 1996 but Sean Boylan’s side went on to lift Sam Maguire. Similarly, with Munster short a plethora of top performers, even the most obedient disciple of the Red Army would have got hard to see anything other than another day of disappointment when the old foes faced off once again most recent in the URC semi final on Lansdowne Road. Jack Crowley’s boot had other ideas.
However, mottoes and taglines are generally as such for a reason. And after the most recent sporting weekend, it indeed does appear that to the brave and the faithful truly nothing is impossible. If decades of watching Munster Rugby has taught observers anything it’s not to rush to judgement. In fact, don’t cast judgement at all until they’re off the bus, on the plane and in the air on the way home!
Still, it can probably be taken as a given that they will have been very keen to get off to a good start. On that score, starts don’t get much better than two tries early on via Diarmuid Barron and Calvin Nash. It couldn’t be Munster and be straightforward though, now could it?
Not that there would have been any desire to or intention of hitting self destruct, but when Antoine Frisch’s attempt at a skip pass didn’t, in fact, skip it let the home side give their visitors a rude reminder that they had every intention of being party poopers if they were able to do so.
Munster’s discipline was unusually ragged at the start of the second half and Graham Rowntree’s charges can probably count themselves lucky not to have somebody binned having conceded four penalties in the opening nine minutes after the re-start. In the way that really mattered mind you – on the scoreboard – they were punished enough as it was. The South African’s back row Deon Fourie eventually going over off the back of a maul. Leaving those who were, lest it be forgotten, the holders of the URC title, 14-12 up.
With the game very much being played on Stormers terms at that stage, the feeling that Lady Luck wasn’t of a Limerick persuasion was beginning to take hold. Sometimes, though, there are other forces at play. Axel? You can be sure of it. Bryan O’Brien, Tom Tierney, Moss? Any and all of them. Scheming to give Keith Earls the perfect send off. If, as appears to be the case, the diminutive dynamo is to bring the curtain down on a truly inspiring career.
Carlsberg don’t sponsor Munster, but if they did even they would scarcely have been able to script a more fitting and Munster-esque conclusion to their 12 year trophy drought than what transpired. Firstly, Gavin Coombes indicating that he must played a bit of Gaelic football somewhere along the line with a brilliant block down of what should have been a clearing kick for the Stormers.
Thereafter, Rowntree’s men did, well, exactly what you’d expect them to do. Put the ball up the jumper and go through numerous phases of pick and drive before placing John Hodnett in for the score which put them back in front with five minutes left. Then, to make absolutely sure and further burgeon his ever rapidly rising stock within the game, Crowley nailed the conversion as if aiming at jumpers for goalposts in his own back garden.
A Munster win done the Munster way.