Cruellest cut ends Munster odyssey
Northampton 9 - Munster 8
To come all the way to the final, and to lose by a point, must be the cruellest cut of all. The sense of let-down amongst the Munster players and supporters over the forthcoming days will be acute albeit tinged with a justifiable sense of pride in their performance.
For all Declan Kidney's protestations to the contrary, it will gnaw at Munster a little that they could, perhaps, have played better. Dominic Crotty, for one, reckoned that Munster played nowhere near their best and there were mutterings along those lines on the trek home via Heathrow. Others, such as Kidney and Keith Wood, took an almost diametrically opposed view.
It is true that Munster only played their brand of quick, high-tempo 15-man rugby sporadically, but to a large extent that's because they weren't allowed to. One could argue about the diminished effectiveness of the backs, or the back-row as a unit, but the troubles started, as they so often do, in the set-pieces.
"They totally outscrummaged us, that was plain to see," said Wood afterwards, and to see Peter Stringer so often getting man and ball under intense pressure, or Anthony Foley having to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear when picking up at the base, was proof of that. Bringing on Marcus Horan and switching Peter Clohessy to tight head must have been considered, but, given John Hayes's lifting, this would have hindered an already struggling line-out.
For, even more unusually, Northampton put the Munster line-out under severe pressure and hence all through the game the men in red struggled to get any kind of primary foothold. To compound all this, Northampton's physical presence in the tackle and ability to slow down Munster's ruck ball further stymied the reds' best intentions.
In this, and much else, Northampton had done their homework well. Spending far more time on the front foot than their counterparts, the Northampton back row reaped a rich harvest, none more so than the outstanding Pat Lam - a colossus, and a magnificent leader. You'd hate to play against him if he had two good shoulders.
To further keep Munster on the back foot, Northampton had seemingly identified a Munster tendency to fan out at ruck time and sniped through on several occasions around the fringes. Crotty has been rock solid all season, however, and in the first half added another three try-saving one-on-one tackles to his seasonal catalogue.
Almost as significant a factor against Munster were the vagaries of the weather. Having three weeks ago played in the most stifling conditions they could encounter in this or most other seasons, Munster discovered that it was still winter time in London at the end of May. A cruel cut.
A blustery, capricious wind made place-kicking a lottery both for Ronan O'Gara and Paul Grayson, and coupled with a greasy surface and a greasy ball made the leather as much a foe as a friend. How Munster could have done with a sunny, dry day.
It's funny how often finals are won by the team with the big juggernaut pack, and the conditions were far more suited to Northampton than Munster. Nor did Joel Dume's performance do Munster many favours. His harshest and most unjustified decision was to sin-bin Mick Galwey for a pivotal 10 minutes in the final quarter.
By rights it should have been a Munster scrum under the posts when Dom Malone fumbled his quick tap before Galwey tugged at him and the decision gave Northampton a discernible lift as well as keeping Munster on the back foot until their captain returned after 76 minutes.
Dume also allowed too much latitude at the base of the ruck and across the gain line. Yet despite the conditions, and the fair old pummelling they received up front, it was another remarkable tribute to this Munster side's indomitable character that they had manufactured a penalty at goal to win the game in the 80th minute.
Indeed, for just over half the game, you felt they had the winning of it. True, they had to absorb an astonishing opening 13 minutes, in which Northampton enjoyed a 70-30 ratio of possession and a 98-2 percentage of the territory.
For Munster to then lead by 86 at the interval was excessively opportunistic even by their stealthy standards. First Jason Holland, who produced a fine game in his own unfussy way from little or no platform, conjured a drop goal out of nothing.
Then, striking even more stealthily just past the half-hour, Keith Wood was launched up the right wing by O'Gara's skip pass after Holland had set up second phase ball up the middle. Wood accelerated up the touchline past opposite number Federico Mendez and the support arrived to secure ruck ball. O'Gara skip-passed to Holland, on to Crotty, whose pass missed Anthony Foley for David Wallace to run 20 metres and take Allan Bateman's tackle for a try.
However, Grayson landed his second penalty (awarded for a high tackle by Mullins) to leave it 8-6 at the break, during which a heavy shower blew over for blinding sunshine to break through and possibly reduce Munster's wind advantage as well. Munster palpably upped the tempo on the restart, and went for the quick score that might almost have killed the game off. But a couple of things happened.
First Malone intercepted O'Gara's delayed pass inside to Crotty, but was hauled down brilliantly 60 yards upfield by the flying Eddie Halvey. The turning point? Then, after retrieving a Northampton footrush up field from another breakdown in midfield, O'Gara's touchfind was charged down by Don Mackinnon and Munster were penalised for offside at the ruck on their line for Grayson to kick Northampton back into the lead.
Gradually you sensed the game slipping away from the men in red. Munster upped a gear and got their quicker tempo running and rucking game going again. The deftest of transfers by Wood, who had a typically dynamic game, put O'Gara through a gap before he was hauled down and from the resulting penalty Munster then opted dubiously for a line-out maul against the beefier Northampton pack rather than take a possible three-pointer.
It would certainly have been easier than any of the four kicks O'Gara saw blown off course. They lost possession when the maul stalled.
O'Gara subsequently stroked a more angled penalty wide before a large dollop of luck helped Munster into striking range at the death. Alas, unlike his matchwinning efforts against Saracens, and despite seeming spot on target to all the Munster connections near the tunnel as it left O'Gara's boot, the ball was blown fractionally off course at the last.
What goes around comes around. That's sport. That's life. Soon, they went into a huddle as Declan Kidney addressed them and Twickenham echoed to The Fields Of Athenry once more. They left us with good grace and, typically, immense character. A pity that it had to end like this, but they'd given us a memorable, enriching odyssey along the way. We'd all have been poorer without them.
Scoring sequence: 2mins: Grayson pen 3-0; 15: Holland drop goal 3-3; 32: Wallace try 3-8; 38: Grayson pen 6-8; 48: Grayson pen 9-8.
Northampton: P Grayson; C Moir, A Bateman, M Allen, B Cohen; A Hepher, D Malone; G Pagel, F Mendez, M Stewart, A Newman, T Rodber, D Mackinnon, P Lam (capt), B Poutney. Replacements - M Szelzo for Stewart (68 mins), J Fillis for Newman (71 mins), J Brannall for Malone (74 mins).
Munster: D Crotty; J Kelly, M Mullins, J Holland, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, K Wood, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt), J Langford, E Halvey, A Foley, D Wallace. Replacements - K Keane for Crotty (83 mins).
Referee: J Dume (France).