Belfast Telegraph

Munster sense they are ready for another great Euro conquest

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Munster are unrecognisable from the outfit that hoisted the Heineken Cup for the second time in three years in 2008. Of the match-day 22 involved in Cardiff that day, only Keith Earls remains at the province.

Four coaches have come and gone with just one Celtic League title in 2011 to show for their efforts, while one after another the legends who delivered unprecedented success retired.

The organisation has modernised off the pitch with its state-of-the-art base at the University of Limerick, endured tragic loss and some controversy while always remaining competitive on the field. Sunday will be their fifth European semi-final since Paul O'Connell lifted the trophy beneath the Millennium Stadium roof.

Leinster stunned them in 2009 to end their title defence and tip the balance of power, while against Clermont Auvergne in 2013 and Toulon in 2014, they went out on their shields on French soil. Last season they met an unstoppable force in Saracens at the Aviva Stadium.

The Munster story has always been framed as something of a fight against the odds, sound-tracked by their anthem 'Stand up and Fight' which the players take quite literally.

For fans of the province growing up who attended the Heineken Cup successes of the 2000s, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony are the keepers of the flame.

Aided and abetted by a South African who has bought into the club like a local in CJ Stander, veterans Earls and Billy Holland and the rest of the cast of characters that makes up the Munster dressing-room, they have managed to keep the competitive spirit alive despite a relative decline.

There have been tough days along the way, a couple of seasons when they exited Europe with barely a whimper and struggled for traction on the domestic front, but as long as the province could get their internationals on to the field they always had a chance.

They have worked tirelessly to get to this point this season, managing a coaching transition that might have derailed a more fragile bunch and bunkering down during the controversy that reigned over the signing of Gerbrandt Grobler.

In captain O'Mahony they have a spiritual leader and the man who sets the tone on and off the park.

In Murray, they have arguably Europe's most influential player, a decision-maker par excellence who has been operating on another level for two seasons.

And in Zebo, their X-factor man, they have a departing hero who has, at most, six games left in the red jersey before he joins Sunday's opponents Racing 92.

Firm friends off the pitch, they have soldiered together through lean times and promising moments, but this has been their team for a few seasons now and they'll know that what stands before them is a very real opportunity.

It may be their best shot at European glory.

Murray outlined that this group had created their own identity.

"It definitely was a burden, because you were playing with the older lads and we weren't winning," he said.

"At times you were playing with those lads and you're not enjoying the success they had. But then again, they had 10 years of not winning things and then two European titles in three years, that's their history.

"That's what we want, but nobody's burdened by it (now). You want to emulate it."

Nobody sums up the current generation like Zebo, Murray and O'Mahony. All three are 28, all three have seen opportunities come and go. They'll know that the time has come to seize one before it is too late.

Racing 92 vs Munster

European Rugby Champions Cup Semi-Final

Stade Chaban-Delmas, Sunday, 4.15pm

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