Colm Kinsella remembers the Munster v Saracens game in 2000 when a late Ronan O’Gara conversion sent Thomond Park wild and kick-started Munster’s great European adventure
IT was a day which helped define a team. Munster, hard-nosed, raw and unyielding against a Saracens side brimful of international stars and led by South Africa’s World Cup winning captain, Francois Pienaar.
As the mist and fog rolled in on a bleak January afternoon with qualification for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup on the line, Thomond Park expected.
Munster had ambushed Sarries the previous month at Vicarage Road in the most dramatic fashion by a single point.
The English aristocrats came to Limerick with a point to prove. Their star-studded line-up included French out-half Thierry Lacroix at out-half and a formidable pack, boasting top internationals names in Julian White, Scott Murray, Danny Grewcock and Richard Hill. Surely another giant-killing act couldn’t be on the cards. What followed was an afternoon of breathless excitement.
A SEASON OF FIRSTS
When Munster secured their first win away to Ulster in almost 20 years in September 1999, the achievement went almost un-noticed by majority of the province’s growing band of supporters. But this was a highly significant achievement in the development of the young side.
On the night of the match as the players celebrated in a Belfast pub, team manager Brian O’Brien introduced them to ‘Stand Up and Fight’,. The players liked what they heard and adopted it as their anthem.
Two early Heineken Cup wins that season, including a routine 32-10 home success against Pontypridd followed by a nail-biting 35-34 success over Sarries in a try-fest at Vicarage Road, provided a hint of better times ahead.
But Munster’s players could only dare to dream after their trip to Toulouse to face Colomiers was complete. Beforehand, in the Munster dressing room, three words were written up on the walls on A4 sheets, ‘Attitude, Discipline, Possession’. The players responded to Declan Kidney’s urgings in the best possible manner to register a first ever win by an Irish side on French soil, a 31-15 success at the Stade Selery. Something was stirring.
Munster trailed 5-10 after 34 minutes, 8-17 at half-time and were 24-30 down heading into injury time. But Munster refused to die. The men in red drive forward. Former Wallaby John Langford plucked a line-out ball from the heavens, his forwards drive him on. Then hooker Keith Wood seized possession and barged his way over the tryline. Sarries led by a single point, 30-29. Silence enveloped the ground. The European Rugby Cup website estimate there were 10,000 people inside the ground that day, but the actual attendance was significantly higher. O’Gara placed the ball on the appointed spot, about 30 yards out from goal, and midway between the posts and touchline.
BROTHERS AND RIVALS
While David Wallace was enhancing his reputation as a quality back-row forward with Munster, older brother Paul, an already established international prop, was a key member of the Saracens squad. The 1999/2000 Heineken Cup draw would bring the siblings into opposition.
David Wallace explained: “In the game at Vicarage Road against Saracens, Paul had come on as a replacement. Himself and Claw were having a bit of a tussle at one stage and I arrived on the scene first. You don’t really know what to do in that situation when you need to jump in!
“I umpired a bit I think from memory! It was the first season I played against Paul. The bragging rights were something you were going to hold onto, though.
“Sarries scored near the end to go in front. We had to work our way down field from near our own goal-line, picking and jamming. With the last play of the game we got down there and (Keith Wood) Woody scored his try. Then Rog converted.
“It was funny because we were training at Thomond Park the following week. For the laugh we got Rog to try and land the kick from the exact same spot again. The result was exactly the same. The ball hit off the post and went over.
“It felt like there were 25,000 people there. “The atmosphere was one of the very best I ever felt in Thomond Park.”
A STADIUM IS TRANSFIXED
O’Gara announced himself as a cool customer when duly landing the conversion, going over with the help of an upright. The kick preserved Munster’s four-year unbeaten record at Thomond Park as well as also assuring the province of a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup.
O’Gara revealed: “I was half hoping we wouldn’t get a try in the first place. There were 15,014 hoping for a try and I was thinking `knock it on!
“The thought cropped into my head as I put the ball down. `What have I got myself into here?’ You’re the hero or you’re the villain. So far I’ve got two out of two, but one day I’m going to be on the other side of the fence. Today Limerick was on my side and the gods above were looking down on me. Jesus, there’s a good story for you there now lads.” Ironically, O’Gara didn’t need to land the conversion for Munster to make the quarter-finals. The province was assured of finishing above Sarries in the final pecking order by virtue of outscoring them by seven tries to six in the two clashes. But O’Gara didn’t know that at the tme.
TRY-scoring hero Keith Wood added: “Days are rare in rugby when you get a ground full of absolutely manic supporters.
“It’s different when you’re on the opposition line and you’re attacking, but when you’re on your own line deep in doodoo, and suddenly there’s 15,000 people shouting `Munster’, Jesus, you get out of there pretty quickly. A big day for rugby in this particular region.”
Sarries’ captain Francois Pienaar admitted that the two defeats to Munster had a profound effect on him, depsite all he achieved in rugby
Pienaar later said: “I played a lot of rugby matches in my career and was fortunate to have many notable highs: Super 10, World Cup, great club occasions.
“But the two games I played for Saracens against Munster back in 1999 have always stood out in my memory. That may seem strange but they had a profound effect on me. Munster are never ordinary opponents to face.”
MUNSTER - D Crotty, J Kelly, J Holland (try), M Mullins, A Horgan, R O’Gara (four pens, two cons), P Stringer, P Clohessy, K Wood (try), J Hayes, M Galwey (Capt) (try), J Langford, A Quinlan, D Wallace, A Foley, Replacements: J O’Neill, T Tierney, M Horan.
SARACENS - M Mapletoft (two tries), R Constable, J Thomson, K Sorrell, D O’Mahony (try); T Lacroix (three pens, three cons), N Walshe, D Flatman, G Chuter, J White, S Murray, D Grewcock, R Hill, F Pienaar (capt), T Diprose. Replacements: B Johnston, M Cairns, P Wallace.