Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Heineken Cup: Munster will do it hard way

Team talk: Paul O'Connell leads the Munster huddle before the Heineken Cup quarter-final clash against Toulouse, which the Red Army went on to win  47-23
Team talk: Paul O'Connell leads the Munster huddle before the Heineken Cup quarter-final clash against Toulouse, which the Red Army went on to win 47-23

When the draw was made for the 2000 Heineken Cup semi-final, the collective groan that emanated from Anthony Foley's house in Killaloe could be heard across the other side of Lough Derg.

A bunch of players were sitting in Foley's kitchen listening to the radio and wondering which one of Llanelli, Northampton or Toulouse would be plucked from the mythical hat.

Of course, it had to be Toulouse. Of course, it had to be in France.

The next day, Declan Kidney gathered his troops together before training. "Well, that was the draw we wanted lads," he told them. Except it wasn't the draw that anyone wanted. But Kidney made them believe that it was.

Three weeks later, Toulouse bodies lay spreadeagled in puddles of sweat upon the sunburned sod of the Stade Chaban Delmas, stunned into submission and subjugation by a crazily defiant red storm.

Munster's Heineken Cup odyssey had begun in earnest...

The story of Munster in Europe has always been about trying to improve on what went before.

Beating the big English teams in the early years was one thing. Beating them on their own patch something else. It was the same with the French. They could beat them at home but winning away would define them in a more favourable light. Every experience hardened them, too. Tomorrow, they play their 11th semi-final; all but two have been away from home.

"We've never had it easy with those draws," says Marcus Horan (below), dead-panning his understatement.

The Red Army of supporters – almost 7,000 are expected to pitch up in and around Marseilles, as there are tickets still on sale – have almost developed a perennial sense of grievance against the seemingly capricious nature of successive draws.

Always – virtually – in France. Always – virtually – on a Sunday.

"It's something that has just added to the whole experience of having our backs to the wall," adds Horan.

"But we've always risen to it, that factor of being against the odds. It all adds to the bitterness and the sense of it being an odyssey. Achieving something the harder way is often sweeter."

And yet, no side has won more Heineken Cup games than Munster – they drew level with Toulouse after thumping the French giants in the last round – and no one can match their number of appearances in the knockout stages of Europe's greatest club competition.

They say most teams must lose a final before they win one; Munster had to lose two. A brace of tournament wins in 2006 and 2008 were preceded by sickening runners-up appearances in 2000 and 2002.

Along the way, though, for every glorious, soaring achievement in the sun, some of the lessons were harshly painful.

Four years before they stunned the sport by trumping Toulouse in Bordeaux, it had all been so different the previous times the team met. It was Munster's second Heineken Cup visit to France, in the heartland of Les Toulousains, and their gaucheness was glaringly obvious.

"They absolutely destroyed us," recalls Mick Galwey. "The worst hiding any of us got. We were hanging in there. I said, 'try to keep it under 50'."

Eventually, he had to desperately exhort his side to keep it under 60; they didn't, losing 60-19. That particular circle was almost completed when they beat the aristocrats to win their second title in '08; when Munster fans jokingly urged their own side to keep it under 50 against them during last month's six-try romp, it may have been suggested that the wheel had turned fully.

In the early days, things turned slowly, though.

Munster had to play five times in France – and lose five times – before they made their first significant breakthrough in 1999; it came on the same very ground upon which they had been humiliated by Toulouse three years earlier.

"It didn't hit me at the time just how significant a win it was," recalls Horan of the 31-15 win against a grizzled, gnarly Colomiers side who had gouged and spat and bossed their way to one of Munster's five previous successive reverses on French soil.

"The same thing will be happening this week," notes Horan. "Nobody expected us to win then. Few expect us to win now."

Who knows how the story may have been scripted had they won their first final?

"Ah, there wouldn't have been all that hurt," says Galwey. "And you might have thought, 'Jaysus it's very easy to win this thing'."

Even this weekend, they revisit a fixture – playing Toulon, away from home, albeit on neutral territory – which re-opens scars of a 2011 trouncing, when Munster failed to emerge from the pool stages for the only time this century.

History tells us Munster can always bounce back. Heineken Cup victories have always been special for them.

And they are even sweeter on French soil.

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