At number 7 on our list of greatest Heineken Cup winners we have the people’s champions, Declan Kidney’s Munster side of 2006.
In years to come, when the European Rugby Champions Cup is dominating news headlines, the Heineken Cup may come to be seen as a stepping stone to a bigger and better tournament. What will never, ever be forgotten however, is the influence that Munster rugby had upon the development of the game in Europe.
With the advent of professionalism, the game in the Northern hemisphere took a chance, a chance that the game could attract enough supporters to sustain full time players and that a pan-European rugby competition would some day grow into the equivalent of soccer’s Champions League.
The signs were encouraging in early years, with attendances at the Heineken Cup finals peaking at around 40,000 and teams from Ireland, France and England emerging victorious. As a spectacle however, the Heineken Cup lacked a catalyst that would draw in the casual observer and establish it in its rightful place as the premier club competition in Europe. The competition needed a kick, an injection of romance and an attention grabber to truly gain the status that it required to survive.
That kick was undoubtedly provided by Munster Rugby in the early 2000s. Two finals lost by narrow margins and the unforgettable ‘Miracle Match ‘in January 2003 let fans all around Europe know that Irish Club rugby was deserving of the status it currently enjoys and also grabbed the attention of sporting romantics from the West of Ireland to the rugby heartlands of Italy. Most importantly, it set the standard for how teams treated the competition. If a team wanted it as much as Munster did, then the fledgling competition deserved respect.
By the autumn of 2005, these factors had made Munster rugby’s ultimate cause célèbre. Neutrals all across the continent wanted to see the men in red finally achieve their destiny, and most rugby supporters counted Munster as their second team. Legends such as Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey had already retired without ever ascending the steps of Europe’s greatest stadiums and raising its most famous trophy.
The nightmare scenario was that the likes of Ronan O’Gara, Anthony Foley, and Peter Stringer would follow in their wake without a winners medal seemed sinful to think of.
Keen to avenge their disappointment in the quarter final of the 2005 tournament, Munster had assembled an impressive squad to take on Europe in the winter of 2005. Their pack was, as ever, based upon a solid core of Irish players, whose dedication to the cause was key to the provinces trademark passion.
From 1 to 8, Munster boasted seven future grand slam winners in Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, David Wallace and Denis Leamy. The one player who did not go on to win European international rugby’s ultimate prize was inspirational captain Anthony Foley, a true Munster legend and one of the most intelligent readers of the game professional rugby has ever seen.
The key difference between this Munster team and those of earlier years however, was their ability to mix play up with a much improved backline. As ever the half backs consisted of the universally loved Peter Stringer and Pundit Arena’s greatest ever Heineken Cup player, Ronan O’ Gara. The additions of South African stars Trevor Halstead and Shaun Payne at centre and full back added much need quality and international experience in the outside backs to give Munster a real cutting edge they had been lacking in their previous European campaigns.
By Munster’s highly unfortunate standards, their pool draw was not entirely at the “group of death” level, but there would be nothing easy in a pool containing the English Premiership’s coming team Sale, the Newport Gwent Dragons and the always tricky Frenchmen from Castres.
The pool was made all the more difficult by an opening round trip to Sale, led by Sebastian Chabal and in the process of coasting to the Guinness Premiership title. The monumental nature of that particular challenge was underlined by a 27-13 defeat at Edgeley Park in the opening round of games, which forced Munster into a very thorough self-examination .
The popular opinion at this point was that Munster were a team on the decline, with the retirements of legends such as Clohessy and Galwey robbing them of key leadership. Coach Declan Kidney, however, was determined to bring the holy grail back to the province, and was not afraid to gamble on youth to refresh his increasingly stale team, introducing centres Gary Connolly and Barry Murphy to the squad.
Most importantly however, Munster returned to their Thomond Park fortress for round two, and there in front of 13,000 fans O’Gara’s 14 points helped them to an impressive bonus point 42-16 victory over Castres.
After recovering their form, the double header with the Dragons was key, and Munster started in the best possible way with a 24-8 victory in Wales, helped by drop goals from newly-reinstated full back Mossy Lawlor and O’Gara, as well as tries from Horan and Leamy.
The return leg in Thomond was a similarly routine 30-18 victory which meant Munster’s fate was back in their own hands. By the time Munster visited Castres in round 5, exciting backs like Murphy, Ian Dowling and impact sub Tomas O’Leary had grown to be seen as key parts of Kidneys game plan, and O’Leary in particular excelled with two tries as a substitute in a 46-9 victory over the home side.
Munster’s early struggles came back to haunt them however, when Sale came to visit in the final round of pool games. Trailing the visitors by 5 points in the pool table, Munster knew that only a bonus point victory would guarantee progress, and comparisons with the 2003 miracle match were inevitable.
Similar to the Gloucester side that were humbled three years earlier, Sale led the premiership at a canter, and travelled to Thomond confident of not only avoiding the 4 tries to nil scoreline Munster required, but of ending the province’s proud unbeaten record in Limerick.
In the opening minutes however, Munster hit the Englishmen with an intensity equivalent to anything any visiting team has ever experienced in the professional era, emphatically embodied by the pack’s monstrous hit on Sale’s talisman Chabal.
Aside from Munster’s forward dominance, The introduction of the lively Murphy and Dowling paid huge dividends for Kidney, with two spectacular tries, the like of which a previously forward-oriented Munster would have been unlikely to undertake. Murphy in particular opened the doors to a new, more exciting era of Munster back play with an individual effort of the highest quality.
Along with a typically determined effort from captain Foley, these scores saw Munster enter the half time break with a comfortable lead and just one try short of the bonus they required to top the group. A magnificent performance kept Sale out during that second half, before David Wallace pounced in the 82nd minute to guarantee a home semi final and give Thomond it’s second Heineken Cup Miracle.
The intense atmosphere of that game was not replicated in the Lansdowne Road quarter final against Perpignan, and Munster were lucky to have an heroic performance from O’Connell and another 14 points from the boot of ROG in a workmanlike 19-10 victory.
Their victory however, was overshadowed by Leinster’s spectacular 41-35 victory in Toulouse a few hours earlier. The results ensured the first meeting between two Irish sides in the knock out stages of the Heineken Cup, and in the ensuing weeks the hype machine went into overdrive. The expectation among casual supporters was that the decline of Munster would be emphasised by a coming Leinster team, and more pertinently, that their limited, forward oriented game led by O’Gara’s superlative kicking would eventually succumb to Leinster’s flair players and Felipe Contepomi’s exquisite creativity.
In front of a packed Lansdowne Road, Munster emphatically reinforced their status as Ireland’s top team. Motivated by the criticism in the build up, and in particular the criticism aimed at the supposedly limited O’Gara, Munster attacked their domestic rivals from the very off and gave one of the most complete performances in Heineken Cup history.
Led by O’Gara and the imperious O’Connell, they never allowed Leinster or Contepomi a moment’s peace and enjoyed a comfortable 16-3 lead at half time. The scoreline remained unchanged until the defining score of the game, the much maligned O’Gara proving his critics wrong as he cut through the Leinster defence to score under the posts and celebrate with his adoring fans. Even with that score, Leinster’s humiliation was not done as a Halstead interception gave them another try and a 30-6 victory.
Tension reached fever pitch in the build up to Munster’s third final appearance, as their 2005 conquerors Biarritz looked to break hearts once again in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.
The loss of the explosive Murphy robbed the Irishmen of a key back- line threat, and many observers felt that the lack of back-line incision would yet again be Munster’s downfall. This apparent weakness was reinforced in just the second minute, when Sareli Bobo scored an opportunistic try to give the French Champions an early lead.
This Munster team however, had final experience and a frenetic fear of defeat on their side, and for the rest of the first half their impressive pack dominated their Biarritz equivalents and ensured that the game was played in the Biarritz half. Moreover, Munster showed a new found adventurous streak and faith in their backs, kicking for the corner twice when an easy 3 point opportunity was the safe choice. The second of these kicks eventually led to Halstead crashing over in the corner for a key score.
As the first half wore on, Munster’s manic aggression continued to give them the upper hand in a forward dominated game,and around the half an hour mark they found themselves in an ideal attacking position, with a scrum just a few yards in from the right touchline inside the Biarritz 22.
Wary of Stringer’s lighting quick pass, both Bobo and Dimitri Yachvili moved infield to provide extra cover to their back-line, leaving the blindside undefended. Stringer, after all, was the worlds most one-dimensional 9. For all his strengths, no-one ever had to worry about him following in the footsteps of William Webb Ellis, and picking up the ball with the intention of running with it. On this one, unique occasion however, the Corkman crammed a career’s worth of sniping runs into one 10 metre burst. The diminutive Stringer shaped to give his usual pass to ROG, before scampering down the outside to score unopposed.
O’Gara’s conversion gave Munster a more than deserved 17-10 lead at the break. No doubt unnerved by impending legendary status, the Munster players did not reach the same heights in the second half, and could only muster a penalty from O’Gara in opposition to 3 from the metronomic boot of Yachvili for a slender 20-19 lead entering the final 10.
There was still time, however, for Sky Sports to inadvertently provide an iconic Heineken Cup moment. With Munster’s resistance wilting, they managed to win a penalty just inside the Biarritz half, and as O’Gara lined up the kick, Munster received just the boost they need to get them over the line.
With the Millennium stadiums big screens portraying whatever Sky told them to, shots of Limerick’s O’Connell street, awash with almost 15,000 supporters, was beamed into the stadium. Seeing themselves upon the screens, those Munster supporters stuck at home proceeded to give a rousing cheer which shook the very foundations of the Treaty city.
Those lucky enough to be in attendance responded in kind, before returning to ritual silence to allow O’Gara to nail the crucial kick which gave Munster a four-point lead heading into the closing stages. Inspired by their manic support, Munster held on and eventually won a penalty inside their own 22 in the 82 minute, which fittingly fell to Stringer to boot into touch, and finally bring the happy ending to Munster’s fairytale.
In the last Heineken Cup game every broadcast on free-to-air television, Ryle Nugent described the events in typically unbiased fashion:
It would be very easy to rank the Munster team of 2006 in the top two or three teams to win the Heineken Cup on the basis of romance alone. Taking into account the build up over the previous six years and the effect Munster’s odyssey had on the competitions surge in popularity, this victory must be viewed as one of the more special wins and one which is most likely to be remembered for decades to come.
On paper however, this was a team which certainly had a number of weaknesses, with a limited back-line being carried by the legendary direction of O’Gara and Stringer. Its stars, Payne and Halstead, relied more on reliability and nous than start quality, while its most exciting player in the form of Barry Murphy missed the knockout stages through injury.
On the plus side, this team was as high on leadership and big game temperament as any to grace the competition, with Flannery, O’Connell, Leamy, Wallace, Foley and the half- backs saving their best for the key games and helping each other and their team-mates over each hurdle to finally bring Northern hemisphere rugby’s most popular saga to an end.
2006 Munster Team For The Heineken Cup Final
15 – Shaun Payne
14 – Anthony Horgan
13 – John Kelly
12 – Trevor Halstead
11 – Ian Dowling
10 – Ronan O’Gara
9- Peter Stringer
8 – Anthony Foley (c)
7 – David Wallace
6 – Denis Leamy
5 – Paul O’Connell
4 – Donncha O’Callaghan
3 – John Hayes
2 – Jerry Flannery
1 – Marcus Horan
16 – Denis Fogarty
17 – Federico Pucciariello
18 – Mick O’Driscoll
19 – Alan Quinlan
20 – Tomas O’Leary
21 – Jeremy Manning
22 – Rob Henderson
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.
Featured Image By Citizenkane_01 [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.