Watching Munster had me wishing I was down there on the pitch
Players stood up again when it was required to achieve an epic victory
Paul O’Connell salutes the fans. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It finally happened. On Sunday afternoon at The Stoop, watching the controlled ferocity of the Munster pack squeeze the life out of Harlequins, I ached to be out on the pitch. It was bittersweet having to watch the team add another famous chapter to the Munster rugby story.
But still way more sweet than bitter.
I missed being a rugby player during that second half. I desperately wanted to be playing the game that consumed my life until retiring two years ago. As they pounded into Harlequins, I fell into a trance-like state in the Sky Sports studio. That’s the only way I can describe it.
Beforehand, all week, I couldn’t envisage Munster playing with the intensity needed to win on the Premiership champions’ patch.
The closer it got to match day, the more I was inclined to believe Munster would falter at the quarter-final stage for the second season running. That would be the new standard. That’s what goes through the mind when you no longer have any influence on proceedings.
By the time I got to Shannon airport on Saturday I had convinced myself Harlequins would be too strong. The 51-24 defeat to Glasgow was in the mind. Then I started meeting travelling supporters. It was amazing how many of them said the same thing: “Don’t worry Quinny, we can do this!”
That attitude, more than anything else, epitomises what Munster rugby is all about.
Despite a terribly disrupted season, they still believed the Heineken Cup, do-or-die scenario would bring something extra out of the team. It was blind faith coupled with Paulie’s return and knowing Rog would be out there to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
That was enough for many of them.
I’m glad to have entertained everyone on my flight. I left the laptop down on a bench in the airport and went to the shop but when I came back it was gone. I couldn’t find it anywhere and had to abandon the search or I’d miss the flight. Panicked and last to board, I was welcomed by a rousing round of applause. It was a bad start to the weekend.
It got worse at Twickenham later that night. I really thought Ulster would edge Saracens but they simply did not perform.
So there I was Sunday lunchtime alongside Clive Woodward and Will Greenwood trying to keep my emotions in check. But keeping calm during those hectic 15 minutes after half-time was impossible.
Then came an overwhelming urge to be out there on the blindside flank, slowing ’Quins ball when the French ref was watching elsewhere for offside.
Clive snapped me out of it. Nudging me, he said: “This is unbelievable what’s happening here, Alan.”
The Munster forwards had turned England’s World Cup- winning coach into an admiring neutral spectator.
Will Greenwood, a Harlequins man, wasn’t of the same mind. Of course you have to detach yourself from it all when analysing for TV but even Will conceded what happened in those 15 minutes was astounding.
At one stage the Munster number seven shot up and made a big tackle, got back on his feet and sprinted back into the line to make another, which he did. Woodward was purring. “Look at Tommy O’Donnell.”
He was just one example of a player going to the very limit, doing whatever it took to halt Harlequins around-the-corner carries. Tommy’s from my own club, Clanwilliam, so I have always taken a keen interest in his progress.
I was delighted to see that outstanding performance from him on the big stage. He spoke before the team left the changing room. A quiet enough lad usually, his words would have struck a chord with the collective.
This has been no overnight success. Tommy will be 26 in June. He’s waited in what seemed a never-ending queue to get a sustained opportunity in the Munster backrow.
I had to keep him at bay in my last few years. I remember, whenever he got over-excited at training, saying to him: “Come on now Tommy, don’t let one Clanwilliam man take another’s place in the team . . . That wouldn’t be right.”
He’s matured so much in the last 12 months alone. He got outplayed at the breakdown by Ulster’s Chris Henry in the 2012 quarter-final in Thomond Park but he outmuscled England captain Chris Robshaw. That type of performance reverberates. It should see him capped on Ireland’s tour of North America this summer.
Where did the Munster performance come from? O’Connell nailed it on the head. These boys have been working their socks off for years now. This was the reward. They will have a taste for it now, especially after that lap of honour.’s the drug I still craved. But I took a lot of satisfaction from seeing old friends Paulie and Rog still in the thick of it. Despite both being shattered, they were able to enjoy a quiet pint on their return home on Sunday night.
They would have slept like babies. That type of sleep is something I miss too. Then again, I don’t miss the horrible feeling waking up the morning after big loss.
Until Sunday, this campaign must have been a horrible experience for the players. Ten defeats across both competitions. Win a few matches then lose a few matches. People sniping at Penney’s new philosophy and the supposed lack of Munster principles.
It all builds up. The Munster team I played for tended to react to defeat with a string of victories. This hasn’t happened. But on Sunday we saw the fear, the anger and the hurt coming out. Guys like Zebo and Jimmy Downey took responsibility when they weren’t expected to. Zebs grabbed a high ball he had no right to catch and Downey cut Mike Brown in two when the ’Quins fullback tried to counter attack.
Even before the Glasgow match I found it hard to believe Munster had the ability to go to The Stoop and win. Especially factoring in the influence of Conor O’Shea and his knowledge of Munster’s players. Conor’s a very grounded guy but he would have been targeting this game (the measure of the man was how he shook the hand of every Munster player afterwards).
Munster must have identified Harlequins’ vulnerability, losing three games in the lead-in. I watched Exeter beat them 27-16, on March 2nd and remember thinking Munster had a chance if they played in a similarly direct manner.
I’ve played on talented Munster teams that would be well able to adopt the Rob Penney wide-wide game – the 2008 backline were a threat from everywhere on the park. But we still built our game around physicality, fitness and pressure. Taking teams through the phases up front.
Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, James Coughlan and the other guys like BJ Botha and of course the next generation – Tommy, Mike Sherry, Dave Kilcoyne made it that sort of game.
This victory gives the whole organisation a shot of adrenaline. Contrast that with Ulster, whose previously successful season will always be associated with their lack of a performance against Saracens.
Sport can be cruel like that.
Playing Leinster in Limerick will always matter but the Pro 12 is gone for Munster. The pressure is off for a few weeks and Penney will be tempted to rest some players. However, anyone with Lions aspirations will refuse to give up the jersey.
I’m not sure the Munster players will be able to repeat the intensity levels six days on, but the fear of a heavy beating from a Leinster team chasing a Pro 12 home semi-final should provide ample motivation.
That it might be Brian O’Driscoll’s last game at Thomond Park, and Johnny Sexton’s for a while as well, should guarantee a hospitable welcome for old friends.
PS The laptop wasn’t stolen by the way. I got it by Monday. Safest airport in the world is Shannon.