Heineken Cup did us proud, and we it
It will be interesting to see if ERC’s replacement body can also double their competition turnovers in just five years
Dejected John Langford (left) and Peter Clohessy at the end of the 2000 Heineken Cup final against Northampton. Defeat hurt Munster, naturally, but arguably gave them the hunger to keep coming back until they won the competition, in 2006 and 2008. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho
It’s hard not to feel a little poignant about the closing stages of the last Heineken Cup as we know it. The competition has been especially beneficial to Irish rugby, and who knows whether we’ll have days like Sunday’s upcoming semi-final in Marseille between Toulon and Munster ever again.
In the grim 1990s for Irish rugby, it was one-off wins against the bigger Anglo-French guns which breathed life into the game in this country, and following Ulster’s win in 1999, after Munster’s march to the 2000 final in Twickenham, the provinces and fans alike embraced the Heineken Cup with a fervour that exceeded any of the other five founding countries.
For all the talk of a win next Sunday being possibly Munster’s biggest achievement in the history of the competition, they arguably came from a lower ebb in 2000.
Munster were 66/1 outsiders to win the Heineken Cup in 2000, and Toulouse were every bit the giants of European rugby, like nouveau riche Toulon and their galacticos now.
It’s doubtful whether Munster will score a better try than the near-length-of-the-pitch, four-phase move off a scrum outside their own 22 that May 6th day in Bordeaux which Ronan O’Gara finished off.
In hindsight, perhaps the one-point defeat to Northampton in Twickenham was not the worst thing that could have happened Munster, nor the defeat to Leicester and Hand of Back two years later.
Sated once, they may never have had the same burning hunger. So they kept taking knock-out defeats on the chin and coming back for more until they won it in both 2006 and 2008.
Absent friends from that team, such as Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy, Dominic Crotty, John Langford and a host of others were, in their way, part of that triumph even they didn’t collect winners’ medals.
This in turn inspired a longing in Leinster which meant that come the ’09 semi-final in Croke Park and a world record crowd for a club game at the time, they could take no more.
They have since won it three times, and Ulster and Connacht have in turn upped their games.
Along the way, they have punched above their weight (just compare and contrast with the Welsh, with the same numbers) on and off the pitch, bringing with them fans in numbers that surpass all other countries, which the Anglo-French axis has scarcely acknowledged – Saracens rather tackily attempting to drown out the Red Army’s singing with their PA system for their irritating club ditty last season at Vicarage Road.
As it was, Ireland’s six triumphs to date (equalling those from France and England) undoubtedly rankled, not least with Premiership Rugby (PRL) and ligue nationale de rugby (LNR), who clearly felt in their might-is-right view of the world, that this just shouldn’t be happening.