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.