Tomás O'Leary sets the tone. Running from the back of the scrum, the Munster scrumhalf is stopped 10 metres from the visitors' 22. The ball is recycled – Damien Varley; Paul O'Connell; Niall Ronan; Peter O'Mahony.
A few yards gained, a few lost.
First World War trench fighting.
But Northampton are winning – 21 to 20 – and there’s 79 minutes gone.
I was never afraid to tell a referee where they were going wrong in their life choices. It matters little what unsighted, uninformed view I had of an incident. A ref once stopped a game to tell me to shut up.
I was at the back of a stand at the time.
I was also near the top of the West Stand in Thomond Park on Saturday, November 12th, 2011 – but, unusually for me, I wasn’t making any noise. While spectators around me spent the last six minutes of the European Cup clash on their feet – shouting encouragement and blue murder – I was quiet. Calm.
It has happened just a few times when big games come down to the wire. The emotion is almost too much, and I check out. During the 2016 All-Ireland senior hurling final, with Tipperary six points ahead of Kilkenny, my wife noticed that I was staring at my phone. I was reading a New York Times article about the then upcoming US presidential election – in the Lower Cusack Stand of Croke Park as the All-Ireland hurling final ticked into injury-time. “But it’s a really interesting article,” I protested, when my wife told me to put the phone away.
In Limerick, I just stood, silently watching. I refused to allow myself to believe.
The ball is nearly lost forward by Lifeimi Mafi. Even the supporters in Row TT in the West Stand saw it bobble. John Hayes may now be 38, but his hands could still dig foundations for a two-story house, and he clears bodies so the ball can get to O'Connell. Then Donncha O'Callaghan, then Denis Leamy.
And on it goes.
Two kings or David v Goliath?
While Northampton in Thomond Park sounds like a clash between two kingpins of European rugby, in 2011 things were tough in Munster – on and off the pitch. The Irish side looked to be a fading force – the previous season failing to qualify for the knockout stages of the European Cup for the first time in 13 years. Northampton were in the competition's decider six months earlier, losing to Leinster in Cardiff. Undoubtedly, they fancied their chances in the Limerick fortress, with a pack to match anything in club rugby at the time. And, in Ryan Lamb the English side had a real match-winner. When the outhalf looked behind, he saw Jon Clarke, Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. This was a formidable side.
O'Leary gives a poor, short pass to O'Mahony, who juggles with the ball for what seems like an age. He controls it in time to brace for impact. Munster recover but are now losing ground with almost every phase – Leamy goes, then O'Leary, then Leamy again. As Nigel Owens signals that the clock has struck 80, it's Ronan O'Gara's turn to give O'Mahony no chance.
Northampton have now driven the home side back into their own half.
Thank God for Unanswered Prayers
Minutes before the 41-part final act began, Munster had pinned Northampton into their 22 in search of a winning score. O'Mahony stared at the Northampton forwards and smelled the air. The lineout was going to Tom Wood he reckoned. Both rose together, with both getting their hands on the ball. The battle which began at 10 feet is taken to the ground before the whistle blows. A penalty for the visitors. The noise levels rise again. It is merely coincidence that Owens made the wrong call – the crowd were going to dispute the decision regardless. Northampton clear their lines.
Mixing his play, O'Leary is lost again at the bottom of a ruck, so O'Connell flings it to O'Gara who is standing where he was when he kicked off the half. He finds Will Chambers, whose short stint with Munster is highlighted by finding the 10-metre mark. Suddenly, the home side look back in business. Mafi goes, then Leamy, then Ronan. Emboldened by the inroads, O'Leary gives a long pass to the right and, without looking, Mafi flicks the ball on to Johne Murphy.
No one in the stadium thinks it is a good idea. But Murphy holds on as he is swallowed up. O’Leary gives it to Varley.
On we go.
Memories? I have a few . . .
I have been at far more celebrated days in the history of Munster rugby than I deserve. I’m not a regular attendee. I go when it suits – a few European Cup home matches each season, the odd away game if the location and opposition and date is attractive enough. I rarely miss a Pro 14 match on television, I rarely attend one.
And still, in the long list of extraordinary, unforgettable Munster games, I usually managed to watch from inside the ground.
I was in Limerick in January 2003 when Munster needed to beat England’s top club side, Gloucester, by at least 27 points to qualify for the knockout stages. The home side won, in suitably last-minute fashion, 33-5.
I was in Cardiff for the 2006 decider when Munster seemed to outnumber Biarritz fans by the same ratio in the stadium as they did on Limerick's O'Connell Street in front of the big screen.
And I was in Thomond Park in October 2016, the weekend after Axel Foley died in Paris, when players and fans celebrated and mourned, and whatever visiting side was there dutifully took a hammering (Glasgow).
Each worthy of being someone’s most memorable game.
But, this one, this one, edges them all.
Varley throws to O’Gara. It’s sent on to a quickly-engulfed Murphy, who desperately tries to get to the ground. Munster are now within touching distance of the 22. Hayes takes responsibility before Leamy again has a go – and almost, almost spills the ball. In the panic, O’Leary dives in and O’Connell throws it to O’Gara who is in the pocket, straight in front of the posts, 35 metres out. The outhalf doesn’t have the time or the inclination, and looks for Dougie Howlett who does what Dougie Howlett does and breaks several tackles. Moments later a second half-attempt, when O’Leary fires to O’Gara. Straight in front of the posts, 30 yards out, but no time to even think about a drop.
1 to 100
The 41 phases will dominate every headline, but there were other little bits of history made on the day. When Hayes replaced BJ Botha late in the game he became the first player in the history of the tournament to reach a century of appearances. At the other end of the scale, Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray (who had made way for O'Leary before those final six minutes) made their debuts. O'Mahony would deservedly be named man-of-the-match, but in the final, frantic moments it was a late replacement that dominated. Leamy must have been among the many surprised when he was named on the bench for the encounter. He took the news in the best way possible when he walked on to the pitch after 66 minutes – determined to prove it was an oversight that shouldn't be repeated.
Fittingly, it is Leamy who is left to fire the ball back to O’Gara. A few yards on the goal-side of the 10-metre line, he takes a second to size up the goals.
Most of crowd are only half-looking at the ball – they’re looking at O’Gara and Nigel Owens.
Both raise their hands.
23-21.High in the West Stand, I am no longer silent.