As the Heineken Cup graduates from the Group stage to the knockout matches, there is general consensus regarding the identity of the team to beat. Several of the usual suspects are in there with Leicester, Leinster and Toulouse in the mix. Bath and Ospreys are no strangers to this stage of the tournament and Cardiff have swept all before them thus far. However, the spectre of one team looms large over the tournament at present: Munster.
After a sticky start when they nearly lost at home to Montauban’s second string, Munster have been ruthlessly efficient. They thumped a hitherto impressive Sale outfit home and away and gained the bonus point they were searching for in Clermont Auvergne. No team in recent years has matched them at making sure that they get nothing less than the bare minimum out of the game. They emerged from a group containing Wasps and Clermont last year purely by being better at the other teams at playing for the full 80 minutes and picking up late bonus points. They truly are the experts at the Heineken Cup.
Apart from taking something from every game, Munster are renowned for really stepping up when it is most needed. The 2 miracle matches against Gloucester and Sale where they needed to win with a bonus point to advance are the most obvious examples. However, they needed none of that this year. They qualified with a game in hand and that game was against the weakest side in the pool. They had already vanquished their main rivals by this stage.
So now they can look forward to home quarter and semi finals (at a neutral venue but still in Ireland) and it would be a brave man to bet against them being there for the final reckoning. Their home record is quite extraordinary. In recent times I have somehow managed to convince myself that Munster’s strength at home is unfair and rather ruins the tournament. Because they have never really been the most exciting team to watch, I decided that they only got as far as they did through underhand methods and the passion of their crowd. I therefore begrudged them their success claiming that they are not as good as their results make out.
I freely admit that this is, of course, ridiculous. Even the most hardened sceptic would have to concede, however reluctantly, that they are really rather a good team. I still would not travel to the ends of the earth to watch them play but what they have achieved demands the greatest of respect. While they have won 2 of the last 3 tournaments, it took some hard graft to get that far with this being their 11th consecutive quarter final. That is an astonishing statistic but there were many who thought that Munster were destined to always be the bridesmaids.
They first reached the final in 2000 and lost to Northampton. They returned 2 years later and were defeated by Leicester. Many Munstermen attributed this to Neil Back’s infamous ‘hand of God’ moment but in truth they were beaten by a better team. When they lost to Wasps in the 2004 semi-final in one of the finest games of club rugby ever played, it was the 5th consecutive year that they had reached the last 4 and failed to collect any silverware. They were an aging side and many thought that their moment had gone.
When they finally won the tournament in 2006 there was unbridled joy in Limerick as the team had finally achieved what many supporters thought was their right. From that peak they have pushed on, reclaiming the crown 2 years later. The strange thing is about Munster is that I cannot remember their team ever noticeably changing. It has gradually evolved but players such as John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, David Wallace, Alan Quinlan, Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara all seem to have been around forever. They have recruited cleverly and in the past couple of years have expanded their tactical options with additions of the likes of Doug Howlett, Rui Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi.
And that is the difference between the current Munster team and that of the past. Once, they relied on passion (as legitimate a strength as any), an abrasive back row, a strong lineout and Ronan O’Gara’s boot. It was simple and effective but limited and they sometimes came unstuck, often when O’Gara was having an off-day. Now however, they have developed an all-court game to augment their fearsome commitment. It makes them a huge challenge for any opponent.
On the evidence of the group stages, the other 7 teams have their work cut out to stop Munster taking a 3rd title in 4 years. They have been here before and know what needs to be done. It is a big jump from being in contention to actually winning the tournament. The past 8 tournaments have been won twice each by Munster, Leicester, Toulouse and Wasps. The last of these teams has fallen and the other 2 have been singularly unconvincing and are significantly different in personnel from their last successes. Someone is going to have to rise up to new levels and negotiate unchartered territory if the Heineken Cup masters of Munster are to be stopped.
By Stuart Peel