“Yeah…,” John Hayes replied with a weary sigh.
A long pause follows before ‘The Bull’ begins his explanation as to what went wrong in south-west London, with the heartbreak of that day 20 years ago still very much inflicting pain despite the two decades which have passed since that groundbreaking 1999/2000 season.
Today is the 20 year anniversary of Munster’s maiden Heineken Cup final. A game they lost 9-8 to Northampton.
That season, the Munster behemoth was born. In the ensuing years, the red horde travelling throughout western Europe in search of the holy grail of European club rugby would become a familiar sight. Yet, in 2000, it was a completely new experience.
This rawness and perhaps, immaturity, to what was going on around them arguably contributed to that one-point loss in the final but it provided some incredible memories. It also forged the connection between the team and its supporters. A bond which still holds strong today as Munster’s brashness, stubbornness and exciting brand of rugby that season saw thousands of rugby fans, not just from the southern province, travel on that journey with the team every step of the way.
The Summer Of 99
It was the early days of professionalism in Ireland at the time. Ulster had just come off their Heineken Cup success the season before and Munster, with some players having “an axe to grind” as Hayes recalls, entered the 1999/2000 campaign where a combination of different circumstances proved to be the perfect ingredients for a shot out of nowhere.
There were the up and coming youngsters – Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Anthony Horgan and David Wallace. The experienced group of Ireland internationals such as Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy and Anthony Foley.
There was Hayes himself alongside a group of players who were instrumental to the cause; John Kelly, John O’Neill, Dominic Crotty, Eddie Halvey, Alan Quinlan, Frankie Sheahan and Marcus Horan to name but a few.
But, as many of this squad will tell you, there were two additions that year which proved to be absolutely crucial – Keith Wood, who signed from Harlequins, and Australian international, John Langford.
How important were they?
“Massive,” Hayes tells Pundit Arena.
“Just absolutely. You didn’t even have to put a measure on it. The experience they brought from outside the environment was the biggest thing of it from what Langford had in Australia and what Woody from England. How those countries and the clubs they played within those countries had moved on. It was still only a couple of years into professionalism but they were driving it on but here, we were still lagging behind a bit.”
This lagging behind as Hayes describes isn’t a dig at anyone, it was merely a reality of the time as Ireland were dragged kicking and screaming into the reality of professional rugby which came to pass just a few years earlier in 1995.
To put it into context, in the years previous, Munster didn’t have a full-time head coach, nor did they have at their disposal a full-time professional fitness coach.
Declan Kidney, who would go on to guide Ireland to their second-ever Grand Slam in 2009, took on the job, in his own words, “that nobody else wanted”, in 1998 but it was also the introduction of a man nicknamed “Foggy”, ahead of the 1999/2000 season, that would be a vital cog in the Munster machine that year and for the subsequent years to follow.
“It all just came together. You just have to remember that in the summer of 1999, Feargal O’Callaghan started as our first full-time professional fitness coach. At that stage (before) it was literally just, you train away and turn up and see what you’re doing. It was so far from what the thinking is nowadays. To go from that position to having a crack at winning it, that’s why it was a big statement to make.”
David Mahedy, the recently retired Director of Sport & Recreation at the University of Limerick, worked part-time on Munster’s conditioning prior to O’Callaghan’s appointment but having someone doing the job day in, day out was absolutely crucial as Munster reaped the rewards throughout that season, especially on that sweltering hot day in Bordeaux against a star-studded Toulouse side.
“The fitness sessions were hard,” Hayes recalls.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t train hard the year or two before that. It was just, they were kind of hit and miss and haphazard. It was Dave Mahedy in UL, there was nothing wrong with was Dave was doing but it just was that he wasn’t there the whole time. You’d get your weights programme and then you’d kind of go into the gym and you’d just work away yourself, like. If you didn’t know, then someone else might know, you’d just ask them.
“Whereas Foggy came in with a full plan for the season so once you turned up on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – everything was there. There was somebody there all the time who had it organised and thought out. He was there all the time to ask for his advice. And then, you had Woody and Langford.
“Everyone remembers Langford when he was doing the long runs and he was burning everybody. Out of sight. It wasn’t just me, like. I wouldn’t take any great offence to being beat in a fitness session but he was leaving backs and everything for dead. Just everything came together. Feargal or ‘Foggy’ as we called him would tell us we need to up our fitness standards. Suddenly then, you had Langford out doing 800s and passing out the backs. You had this big 6’7” second-row showing that what Foggy was saying was true or possible.
“It had to be done if you wanted to get where you wanted to go and not run out of steam in the last 10 minutes. It probably happened to Irish teams over the years.”
With a full pre-season under their belts, Munster started their 1999/2000 season by winning the interprovincial championship. The southern province beat Leinster, Ulster and Connacht home and away while the victory over Ulster at Ravenhill was extra sweet considering Munster had not tasted victory at the Belfast venue in 20 years.
This “stepping stone” as Hayes describes, in conjunction with a point to prove from some of the Munster players due to their non-inclusion in the 1999 Rugby World Cup squad, proved to be the perfect platform for an assault on Europe.
“Yeah there would have been (a point to prove), there’s no doubt about that. I can only speak for myself. But there would have been other players that were more experienced than me, that would have been close, in and out of the Irish squad, and didn’t get in. So some fellas definitely would have had a bit of an axe to grind maybe that they didn’t get (in). I wouldn’t have had it as such because I hadn’t been in at all that much at that stage anyway.”
Banishing Away Day Hoodoo
Munster began their European campaign with a home win over Welsh side, Pontypridd. In Round 2, they faced a trip to Vicarage Road to take on a Saracens side brimming with world-class talent; World Cup winning South Africa captain Francois Pienaar, French out-half Thierry Lacroix, Danny Grewcock and Richard Hill just some of the names on the English club’s roster.
Prior to this point, Munster had only recorded one away win in Europe which came the season before against Italian side, Petrarca. The southern province would go on to record a one-point win against the much-fancied English side and Hayes admits this was “the start of it.”
“We used to put down, even going back to the goal-setting team meetings at the start of the season. There would have been…because it wasn’t happening very much in the years before, even other teams as well, winning away from home, winning in France and England against these big teams. We know what Ravenhill could be like for Ulster or Thomond Park for us, but to do anything, you have to be able to do it away from home.
“So that was something we knew we had to do. We had to try and get belief and an ability to go away from home and win. To go over there, playing against their superstars over there was a brilliant game to play in. It was a challenge, it was exciting. It was everything at that stage.”
New ground would continue to be broken. In the next round, Munster defeated Colomiers 31-15, the side who knocked them out of the quarter-finals a season before, in France.
“We lost to them a year before in a quarter-final over there. The year they got to the final and Ulster beat them to win it. We probably came back from that. Again, it was before Woody and Langford and stuff like that. We lost over there. They didn’t really hammer us. We came back, there was nearly a bit of a realisation that we could have won that game. This was our chance, a year later, to go over and win there and we did. That was the good thing about it.”
The importance of the win over Colomiers away from home cannot be understated. Irish sides, let alone provincial sides, simply did not win in France.
A year before, Munster faced Perpignan away in the pool stages. They were hammered 41-24 and is known as the ‘Perpignan Massacre’.
“That was the season before, 98/99. We played them down there. I was still green as cabbage learning how to play. To go down there to learn, wouldn’t be the best place to go. That would have been the early days of realising about these French teams but we played them out there that day and we got destroyed.
“I got taken off after about half an hour, Quinny (Alan Quinlan) thinks it’s 28 minutes but I think I made it to half an hour,” Hayes laughs. “We argue over that but it doesn’t matter!
“We played them a week later back in Musgrave Park and we beat them. That was where we had to learn what we had to do. We went down there in what was a ‘Bear Pit’. They beat us, they destroyed us. Then we played them, I’m fairly sure it was a week afterwards in Musgrave Park.
“It was flogging rain, the usual thing, like. And we beat them. We were scrummaging against the same pack. Suddenly, it wasn’t there. That’s where we realised the difference with French teams in France and French teams coming to Ireland and the difference there is.
“It was only 98, it’s still so early in the professional era and the Heineken Cup. (We were) just learning to figure out how to get through a group.”
At this stage, Munster fever was beginning to spread like wildfire.
The penultimate pool match would come with the visit of Saracens to Thomond Park. A win would guarantee top spot in the pool and a home quarter-final. Suffice to say the famous Limerick venue was packed to the rafters that day.
“I think they (Munster) brought out tickets at the start of the season that were, basically, there were three home games and you sell all the tickets. Whatever amount of tickets they could sell, I say they sold them because at that stage they didn’t think there was huge crowds going to turn up.
“So we had Pontypridd or whoever else it was. I think it was them as well. And it wasn’t that packed. So people had this ticket bought and they could use it at any one of the three games that they wanted as far as I could remember. And of course, it came down to the last day and some people hadn’t been to the first two so it was ‘I want to go to this one’. So everybody turned up with what turned out to be valid tickets but they were hoping they would spread them out for the three games but they all turned up on the last day so they had to let them in!”
Munster, who looked dead and buried when Mark Mapletoft went over for a try three minutes from time to give Saracens a 30-24 lead, went right back to the other end of the field from the restart where Keith Wood crossed the whitewash and O’Gara added the match-winning conversion.
“It was some occasion again. You knew at that stage it was possible. It’s a big team coming that we had beaten and we knew they were going to be coming looking for revenge. We were building something at that stage. The World Cup had gone. This was going on into January and things were going well.”
Munster’s form saw plenty of call-ups to Ireland’s Six Nations squad that Spring and when they returned from international duty, they comfortably dispatched Stade Francais in the quarter-final at Thomond Park.
Their reward? A trip to Bordeaux in 35C+ heat to take on an immense Toulouse side.
“Toulouse were superstars at that stage. So we’re off again, there was huge confidence blowing through the team from what we started with Munster, we carried it into Ireland a bit and now we were back with Munster again, going well and going off down there to play them in scorching hot weather. There was huge excitement. Confidence was growing in the team with what was possible and that maybe we could do it.”
Hayes would score one of his four tries in his entire Munster career in that game as the southern province claimed a famous 31-25 win. Kidney’s side played an incredible brand of rugby which came to the fore in tremendously trying conditions on that day with a length of the field team effort finished by O’Gara proving to be the highlight.
“Ah, it was stinking hot. But I suppose if that had happened 12 months before that, would we have had the fitness for it? But it’s back to what we spoke about at the start of the conversation, Woody, Langford and the standards. And Foggy coming in with the fitness that we probably didn’t have 12 months before that. Irish teams wouldn’t have been able to last for that length of time and possibly we had a bit more fitness because it was roasting hot.”
So now for the difficult part, discussing the final where Munster lost by a solitary point to Northampton.
Autobiographies, columns, books, articles – the famous team meeting on the eve of the final has been dissected and discussed thoroughly. That night, the entire squad spoke about what the occasion meant to them and to their families, opening up to teammates in a male-dominated environment that was long before the social conversations which currently take place with men’s emotions.
The outpouring of feeling and sentiment that night can lead to two things as Hayes describes, it can provide inspiration or it can have negative consequences.
“Yeah…,” Hayes pauses before continuing.
“I know a lot was made about the night before. I say some people will say that it’s something that can overwhelm you or inspire you. Maybe we did let it get on top of us a little bit. Maybe we were just cruising along as a young enough team with not an awful lot of experience of getting huge days or great days and maybe now the reality was beginning to set in of where we actually were or what we could achieve the day after. Maybe we did get a little bit too wound up by it.”
The former tighthead prop doesn’t completely buy into this explanation, however. Teams all over the world, particularly the British and Irish Lions, often bring in past players or other sources of inspiration to motivate a team on the eve of a game. In the Bulls’ view, they were simply beaten on the day by a better team.
“That was big but we met a good team the day after at Twickenham. 9-8. We didn’t collapse, we didn’t go out to get bate out the gate. I still think Rog’s last kick, it just faded off at the last second when it should have been put over. It wasn’t like we went down and failed to fire and got hammered by 20 points. We didn’t. We lost by a point. Maybe if we had played a little better, we could have won the game but Wally scored a good try if I remember.
“So yeah…we maybe didn’t play as freely as we had done in the semi-final against Toulouse but we still didn’t fail either, we just got beaten by a good solid team who knew what they were at.”
In Hayes’ autobiography, he describes that day as the worst feeling he’s ever had on a rugby pitch. Does he still stand by that?
“Yeah. Because of the year that had gone before. It had been so good. It was all an upward curve from going so far with Munster, getting capped by Ireland, everything was just going so great and then we just lost at the end in front of a full Twickenham. It was just a horrible, horrible feeling. It’s still up there as one of the worst days and the couple of days after that too.”
In the immediate aftermath of that, the thousands of Munster supporters in the home of English rugby remained in the stadium. ‘The Fields Of Athenry’ was belted out in full voice as the fans offered a metaphorical shoulder to cry on while also saying thank you to the players for the remarkable journey that took place that season.
The bond was cast in stone.
“It does (hurt) yeah because you’re part of something. If everybody just walked out and left and didn’t care, you’d know. I know from my own family, my friends and neighbours how they organised a bus to go and all that. So did thousands of others. You realise what it had become and then you lost. So they’re all disappointed as well.
“It would have been for a lot of us the start of being on a team that really affected the mood of people. I would have played before, played for club with Shannon and that. There was a certain amount of crowd following whether you win or lose but this was just the first time where we played where all these people were following you.
“If you won they were up and if you lost they would be disappointed. You’d realise how big the support was and what you were doing was affecting people. It was the start of it for a lot of us.”
Of course, this story has a happy ending. After subsequent narrow losses in semi-finals and finals in the next couple of years, Munster would finally lift the trophy in Cardiff in 2006.
But the foundations were laid in that 1999/00 season. The quest and the obsession with the European Cup had begun in earnest.
“It did (contribute to 2006 win). When you get that close. We had a few one-pointers, I think the year after was it a semi-final? That was the John O’Neill try that wasn’t a try, if there was a TMO, there probably would have been a try. I think the 02, you remember Neil Back.
“We were never hammered in these finals or semi-finals, it was always so close. We knew we weren’t that far away, that’s what drives you and keeps you going. Even against Northampton, if we failed against them in 2000 and got hammered out the gate, we would have been, ‘Alright, we just got a rude awakening there’.
“But we didn’t, we knew we were that close. It was always just little bits, you had to keep finding that little bit more.
“And when it happened, it was all the better.”