In association with Irish Blood Transfusion Services
For many supporters of the southern province, Munster’s Heineken Cup wins in 2006 and 2008 may seem like a lifetime ago, such has been the absence of European silverware in the intervening years.
The 2006 victory against Biarritz in Cardiff will go down as one of the most memorable days in Irish rugby. At that time, the southern province captured the imaginations of the Irish sporting public as they epitomised all of the qualities we admire; hard-work, doggedness and perseverance – Munster had it in spades.
After the heartbreak of final losses to the Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers in 2000 and 2002, in addition to that semi-final loss to Wasps in 2004 at Lansdowne Road, which to many still stings to this day, the overriding sense of relief was all too evident when Declan Kidney’s side finally reached the promised land, emerging 23-19 victors over Biarritz in 2006.
For Cappamore native, John Hayes, that day in Cardiff will live long in the memory and as he recalls, losing a third final would have been incomprehensible.
“I can remember the presentation and I can clearly remember this, standing on the pitch and I saw the Biarritz fellas going up for their runners-up medals and I was thinking ‘jesus, I don’t know would I have been able to do that’,” Hayes told Pundit Arena. “If we had lost, I don’t know would I have walked up. I just couldn’t face it again.
“They had to do it but it was different for them, it was probably their first time. We were so close for six, seven, eight seasons and it just had to happen. That’s all in the 20 minutes after the final whistle. You get all those kinds of emotions in those few minutes. Afterwards, you meet all the people and you get back home to Shannon Airport, it was such a brilliant day.”
That 2006 victory led to books, documentaries and sporting montages – everyone remembers the scenes of a packed O’Connell Street in Limerick as thousands of supporters who couldn’t secure a ticket watched their heroes on the big screen.
It’s those memories which Hayes cherishes. Arriving back to Shannon Airport that night to be greeted by a packed terminal before the subsequent parade through the streets of Shannonside the next day. Getting a taste and a feeling of the joy he and his teammates provided spurned Munster on to do it again two years later.
“Everybody wants to do it again, you know? You just didn’t want to be one-year wonders. We had the motivation and desire to go back and do it all again. We had so much experience in other years of losing and coming back so determined again. In the summer [when we regrouped] because it was so close, it was easy to get motivated for it again, there was never once that anyone thought ‘it’s not going to happen’.
“It’s just a case of every time we were so close and now we realised with a little bit more, we can actually do it. We eventually did do it but back then we wanted to do it all again, when you finally get something that’s such a good day out, you want more of those days. So definitely at the start of the season, it was, ‘why not do it again?'”
The following season for the 2006/07 campaign, Munster were unable to reclaim their European crown as they fell to the first defeat at Thomond Park in Europe when familiar foes, Leicester Tigers, came to Limerick.
That loss, although it didn’t hamper their progression to the quarter-finals, meant that they had to travel to the Scarlets in the last eight and, as Hayes admits, the Welsh just wanted it more on the day.
“The Scarlets were good as well. They were good back around then. They had a few close calls as well where they had been in quarter-finals and semi-finals. They got us over there and they just wanted it, that was it that day. They knew they were trying to measure themselves up against us that we were the champions. We had gone from being nearly achievers for so many years to now we were the champions and fellas wanted a shot at us.”
The next season, Munster had new talent at their disposal in the form of Rua Tipoki and All Black legend Doug Howlett. The addition of the Kiwi duo, in Hayes’ words, “added little bits” to Munster’s play which was key for the southern province to continuously improve and challenge for the Euopean title again that year.
“Doug Howlett is world class, it was the biggest signing that ever was by any team in Europe at that stage. He was probably the last biggest signing of that kind of world-class performance. Rua Tipoki was the same, he wouldn’t have been as big a name as Dougie but he was a massive player. His defensive organisation and his skills, his ability out in the field as an extra pair of eyes for Rog and drive the side.
“That developed our backline so much more from the ones who had been there a couple of years before. That’s what you have to do all the time, you need to keep improving. If it’s just the same team, it’s not going to work. You need to keep adding little bits to it to make it better and better.”
Munster did lift the Heineken Cup again at the end of that season and in typical style, they had to do it the hard way.
Two losses in the pool stages meant that Munster would have to overcome an away quarter-final and an away semi-final to reach the showpiece event.
“It’s the same thing again! We’re back to familiar territory having to do it the hard way. We never make it easy on ourselves but there was almost an understanding of ‘jesus, this is the way we do things’. Again, it’s the same thing. We had the players, we had experience at that stage, you come back from the Six Nations and you just try to restart it all again and you’ve only a couple of weeks to get the whole focus back again.
“There was some huge experience there at that stage, having been around for so many years and that you had the class like Dougie and them who had come in.”
Munster got the better of Gloucester in Kingsholm and then Saracens at the Richo Arena in Coventry to set up a final clash with French aristocrats Toulouse in the familiar setting of the then Millenium Stadium in Cardiff.
It was a tense battle, to say the least, as Munster held onto the ball in the final minutes to eke out a 16-13 victory to claim their second European title in three years and Hayes admits it was a different feeling winning it a second time.
“When you do it once, you just don’t want that feeling that you were only a team that managed it once. You want to do it again. It’s a better mark of a team if you do it a second time.
“Obviously, back-to-back would have been better or three-in-a-row but we didn’t do that. But to get back and do it again was more satisfying. We had character about us, ambition and drive that we wanted to achieve something and wanted to be a great team rather than a good team.
“When you’ve been that close and finally do it and you see the difference between winning and losing, they’re just not comparable. They’re two different things altogether. We just wanted to get back and do it again.”
‘The Power of One More’, in association with IBTS, is part of an ongoing series that looks to highlight athletes, teams and sporting personalities who have tasted success at the highest level of their sport, and what takes to go after one more victory.
IBTS believes in the ‘Power of One More’ as well, and want to encourage current and potential donors to bring one more person with them when donating blood this year.
For more information on how you can get involved, please visit us at