France is no longer a mystery to Munster
In the early days a Heineken Cup match in France was a step into the unknown
The win that turned the tide as Munster players including Marcus Horan, David Wallace, Jason Holland and Peter Stringer celebrate the semi-final success over Toulouse in 2000. Photograph: Bob Edme/AP Photo
There is an element of French rugby that seems to run in Munster’s veins. Since they lost 19-12 away to Castres at Stade Antoine Beguere in the first 1995-96 European season, a relationship has sprung up and has endured.
But the kinship has not always been equal and in the early days the fear of flying into the south west corner of France or to Paris filled Irish players with more than trepidation.
The French clubs were known to be rugged and physical and in the early years Munster played the weaker partner. Mick O’Driscoll, who left for Perpignan in 2003 and spent two seasons in France, was perhaps a man ahead of his time. But when he came back in 2005, Munster used his knowledge in the training sessions leading up to away matches against French teams.
While the days of apprehension have long gone, there was a learning curve that in part came from the mystery of places like Bourgoin in the east, Toulouse, Biarritz and Perpignan. There was also the French reputation that seamlessly married flair and brutality, while the move towards professionalism was more eagerly grasped than in Ireland.
It was said that O’Driscoll, particularly, took some of the forwards sessions in the days before a French game, his years in Catalonia a window into the soul of French rugby.
“Ah, I wouldn’t go that far,” he protests. “Ultimately you got to look at the difference between what was happening then and what’s happening now. We struggled to win in France for a good few years as did most Irish provinces. But once you get that monkey off your back it’s a completely different scenario.
“They were literally years ahead of us in what they had been doing. The fact they had been getting foreign players in, when it was unheard of for us to have a foreign player . . . they were bigger, stronger than we were. Once that changed we were going over there with confidence, going over and not only hoping to win but believing we were going to win.
“You must remember in the early 2000s the French were miles ahead of us in a professional sense. That has changed but that’s the way it was. It was a very difficult place to go to win games. But once you get over than once, it makes life a lot easier.”
The year after Castres, Munster lost to Toulouse away 60-19 and to Bourgoin 21-6 the following season. The trend continued with defeat in Perpignan 41-24 but they made the quarter-final and drew Colomiers away. Defeat again. 23-9.
By then Munster were learning and growing. The turn of the century marked an upswing with Colomiers’ scalp followed by that of Toulouse 31-25 in Stade Chaban Delmas.
The duck was broken but away French matches seemed always freighted with more difficulty than any other.
Latterly two things happened. Munster players became accustomed to the strangeness and the team became more professional.
“I think it was a combination of both. We definitely came up in a professional sense,” says O’Driscoll. “I remember playing in 1998 when I was 19-years-old and I would have been two stone lighter than I was when I was 24 or 25.
“We were only going professional then but they had been that way a couple of years before that. They were better prepared than us, more aware of what was going on around them, played a lot more big games than we would have had.”
In recent years other factors have entered the French equation, although some of the new elements that make the bespoke star studded sides stronger also detract from the strength of being local and the idea of representing their own patch of France.
Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana and Johnny Sexton are part of the reason clubs like Toulon and Perpignan are more than 50 per cent foreign, which has had a positive effect on the Top 14 and the television deals. The loss is at grass roots level and fewer local heroes.
“Perpignan, they don’t have a huge amount of local players at the moment,” says O’Driscoll. “They have a big amount of foreigners. That’s not to say they are not playing for Perpignan. They are but it’s a very difficult thing to do if you have a lot of foreign players to maintain your local identity. But they are a proud, proud team.”
Munster has also changed and this weekend’s passage will not be fraught with the same lack of confidence that laced trips in the early days.
The last time Munster had Perpignan in their pool was the 2009-10 season. They won 24-23 at home in the first of the back to back matches then thrashed them 37-14 away the following week.
Respect replaced fear and anxiety has become confidence. There is no hankering for the old days.
“This weekend, it’s just an away game,” says O’Driscoll. “The fact that it’s in France, Italy, England . . . I don’t think that matters anymore. All that matters is that it is an away game. You still have experience in this Munster side, plenty of fellas who would have gone to France and won games.
“I don’t think France will be an issue. I certainly don’t think it will be an issue the way it was an issue for a lot of us, who had never won in France.”