‘How the hell did they get all those tickets?’
Players pay tribute to incredible support and totemic influence of Paul O’Connell
Casey Laulala celebrates with Simon Zebo after Munster’s victory over Harlequins at The Stoop. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The journey is supposed to be long over, a new generation of Munster men playing the Canterbury way, without all the potions and spells of yesteryear.
But until Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell walk away it will never be over. The cerebral ownership of the breakdown, double bluffing Harlequins into wasting their own time by carrying down red cul-de-sacs in the middle third of the field, because they feared the touchline having lost three of their 13 lineouts, worked to perfection.
A special type of Munster perfection.
“They had the ref in their pockets and they just killed us at the breakdown,” said veteran number eight Nick Easter, the former England international nursing a purple brow with ice cubes. “We couldn’t get any ball, couldn’t fire any bullets really. They really lifted their intensity in the second half. Those two penalties were a little bit daft, they just took the game away from us. Their crowd was just magnificent on an away patch.”
That was the really painful thing for Harlequins; Munster’s London cumann clearly sneaked off with several thousand tickets meant for the locals. The whole point of keeping this match out of Twickenham was to make The Stoop a cauldron, much like Thomond Park.
It certainly sounded like Limerick, maybe even Thurles, such was the ferocity and feral mood the visitors got themselves into after half-time. There was that frenetic, almost championship hurling feel to it all (Tommy O’Donnell also laid down a challenge to Alan Quinlan’s claim to be Clanwilliam RFC’s most famous son).
“I did say to our chief executive, where there is a will there’s a way and Munster fans always seem to be able to get more tickets,” said Conor O’Shea. “The first 15, 20 minutes of that second half was just a car crash . . . the crowd, the energy at the end of the game was magnificent. But it was the team that gave them that energy.”
That energy had so much to do with one man. The grin on Warren Gatland’s face were evident, as the Lions coach watched the 2009 Lions captain dominate so many facets of this contest.
“Ah well sure, we all know about Paul,” said Simon Zebo, a 23-year-old who grew up watching what O’Shea called “the majesty” of the man.
“I think he is still one of the best players in the world,” Zebo continued. “He’s shown it any time he's come back. He’s only played a handful of games this season and has been man of the match in probably the majority of them.
“We all know he is a special talent, a special player. Any time he is wearing a red jersey you’d be more than proud to be lining out with him.
“He has a special aura about him. We always hold our standards pretty high in Munster and when he’s out here they are even higher. He is great to have around, he brings a great work ethic and leadership to the side.”
Casey Laulala said it best: “When I look for the definition of a Munster man, I just look at Paulie.”
So, he’s a certainty to tour with the Lions?
“Aw, definitely. I can’t see how they are not going to take him. He is such an influential guy and most importantly he backs it up with what he does.”
As captain? "You never know. He should be the captain!"
This, a stirring Munster victory on the road, was all new to Laulala, like Rob Penney a rugby man reared on the Canterbury way.
“It’s amazing. I just said to the boys, ‘how the hell did they get all those tickets?’ If I had another moment I would do that lap again.
“It is the same kind of passion that they got back in Canterbury, coming here, today, it was just amazing. I would love to do that lap again."”
Find a way to overcome Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier on April 27th and that wish will be granted.