Pedi­gree is there for a clas­sic Euro show­down

Bren­dan Gal­lagher looks at epic games in the Euro­pean Cup be­tween Mun­ster and Saracens

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It’s 18 years since Saracens first met Mun­ster in Europe in a dou­ble header that still ranks along­side any clash in the com­pe­ti­tion’s il­lus­tri­ous history. In two matches ei­ther side of Christ­mas Mun­ster won 35-34 with the last kick of the game at Vicarage Road and 31-30 – again with the last kick of the match – at Thomond Park.

For Mun­ster it was the launch­ing pad for their glory years in Europe in which they be­came peren­nial con­tenders. This was the brace of matches that truly es­tab­lished their Euro­pean tra­di­tion. In the next 14 sea­sons they reached the knock-out stages on 13 oc­ca­sions.

For Saracens, at the fore­front of the drive to proper pro­fes­sion­al­ism in Eng­land, it was a huge missed op­por­tu­nity and set­back as well as an eye opener and per­haps some­thing of a wake up call. They weren’t to reach the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for another eight years but the lessons learned stayed with them and, I would ar­gue, un­der­pin, their modern day suc­cess story.

Small mar­gins. There are those who will tell you to this day that Ro­nan O’Gara’s last minute kick at Wat­ford was marginally wide. His clincher at Thomond also looked like it was drift­ing wide un­til at the last mo­ment it came in on the wind and shaved the in­side of the posts.

To set the scene a lit­tle the two matches came in the wake of a 1999 World Cup which had not seen Bri­tish rugby at its best, in­deed only France flew the flag for Europe with any con­vic­tion. The sport in these shores was feel­ing a tad sorry for it­self de­spite all the hype and ex­cite­ment of the World Cup and needed a boost. The Euro­pean Cup that year cer­tainly pro­vided that.

The first match saw Saracens seem­ingly take con­trol with two first half tries be­fore Mun­ster staged one of their soon-to-be­come fa­mil­iar sec­ond half surges to briefly take the lead. Sar­ries hit back with a third try, Thierry Lacroix and a very young Ro­nan O’Gara swapped a load of penal­ties but Mun­ster fin­ished strong­est with tries from An­thony Fo­ley and Jeremy Staunton be­fore Rog ad­min­is­tered the killer blow.

As Saracens cap­tain Fran­cois Peinaar said: “There was one team that came out to play in the sec­ond half, and one that stayed in the dress­ing-room. We were the team in the dress­ing- room.”

Keith Wood was play­ing for Mun­ster on a year’s sab­bat­i­cal from Har­lequins that sea­son – it’s dif­fi­cult to en­vis­age such civilised gen­tle­men’s agree­ments be­ing en­acted these days – and has his own vivid mem­o­ries of both matches.

“For starters I will never ever for­get the team meet­ing we had back in Lim­er­ick that week of the game at Vicarage Road. De­clan Kid­ney got us all into the room and then put on a Fez hat and started putting up the pic­tures and clips on the screen with his pow­erpoint or what­ever it was in those days.

“Af­ter a few rugby shots there were sud­denly pic­tures of all these danc­ing girls wear­ing not a huge amount of cloths and cheer­lead­ers do­ing their stuff. ‘You’d bet­ter get used to all this, it’s com­ing your way on Satur­day’, said Dec­cie. Of all peo­ple! Then he went back to the rugby stuff. It made the point very well in fair­ness.

“Mun­ster were a slightly odd team around this era. We had a de­cent old gnarly pack right enough that was go­ing to make us com­pet­i­tive, but in the backs but we had ab­so­lutely no gas what­so­ever other than a few bursts from An­thony Hor­gan. What we did have was re­ally good foot­ballers ev­ery­where – Eam­mon Hol­land, Kil­lian Keane, Jeremy Staunton, Do­minic Crotty, John Kelly and oth­ers.

“And, of course, we also had two com­pletely un­tired, untested, un­capped and un­afraid pups at half-back in Rog and Peter Stringer. At the start of that Euro­pean cam­paign we had no real idea of the ex­tra­or­di­nary play­ers they were to be­come. We cer­tainly had a pretty good idea by the end though.

“That dou­ble header seemed like the start of some­thing, then and now. Mun­ster fans had be­gun to travel for the Euro­pean games even though suc­cess had been lim­ited, but it’s fair to say that the trip to Vicarage Road was lift-off in that re­spect. Not only did they travel over from Mun­ster but the game ig­nited the Mun­ster di­as­pora in Eng­land. They got be­hind us as well and con­tin­ued to aug­ment the Red Army in big games. Ev­ery­thing be­gan to snow­ball af­ter that.”

The re­turn match was much an­tic­i­pated to say the least. Thomond didn’t quite have the cache for Euro­pean fans then as it does now but Wasps had come back with their tails be­tween their legs a cou­ple of sea­sons ear­lier af­ter a 49-22 spank­ing. The old ground had made the head­lines in the au­tumn when it proved a bril­liant at­mo­spheric venue for Aus­tralia’s World Cup game against the USA.

On the day Saracens turned up de­ter­mined to play an ex­pan­sive game and Mark Mapletoft, en­joy­ing his best game for the club, scored two tries and Dar­ragh O’Ma­hony added another. But Mun­ster were on a mis­sion and with O’Gara again pulling the strings and kick­ing his goals af­ter half time while Ja­son Hol­land added a try to Gal­way’s ear­lier ef­fort. At the death it all got very fran­tic with a 71st minute Mapeltoft try tilt­ing the game Saracens way again but the day was far from done. “We could eas­ily have lost and I would never have for­given my­self be­cause I nearly blew it for Mun­ster,” re­calls Wood. “It was me who stepped up too quick from the de­fen­sive line and let Toftie in for a try un­der the posts which put them six points clear. I re­mem­ber to this day Micky Gal­wey gather­ing us un­der the post and very slowly and very de­lib­er­ately telling us what was go­ing to hap­pen next. “We were go­ing to win the ball from the restart and force a penalty. We would kick for touch win the line out, move for­ward and win another penalty, then we would go for another line-out and rum­ble it over for a try. It took a bit of time to get or­gan­ised, it didn’t hap­pen straight from the restart, but in essence that is ex­actly what we did in the fi­nal pas­sage of play and I was very re­lieved to be the try scorer.

“But we still needed Rog to kick the con­ver­sion, on the left, 10-15 yards from touch with a strong wind right to left. Had I known then what I know now I would never have doubted him for a sec­ond – no bet­ter man – but he hadn’t even played for Ire­land at this stage. He nailed it, judg­ing the wind per­fectly.

“I might be wrong but my mem­ory is that was the first time they put

Stand up and fight on the loud­speaker and we had a good old ren­di­tion of it out on the pitch af­ter­wards. Our man­ager Brian O’Brien had cer­tainly been teach­ing us it that week.

“That match at Thomond was one of the best games of rugby I ever played in. It was a humdinger, very high qual­ity. The build-up was amaz­ing, the first Euro­pean match I can re­mem­ber that felt al­most as a big as a Test.

“Saracens were com­ing with their full stat stud­ded team look­ing for re­venge and surely light­en­ing wouldn’t strike twice. This time Mun­ster were go­ing to get their come tup­pence surely. Well it didn’t work out like that but I have to con­cede they played in­cred­i­bly well. You don’t of­ten play that well and lose.”

Down in the tun­nel your cor­re­spon­dent re­calls bump­ing into Nigel Wray

straight af­ter the match and pulling him over for a word ex­pect­ing all sorts of bit­ter pangs of re­gret as we lis­tened to yet another cho­rus of Stand up and

Fight out­side. He was dis­ap­pointed al­right but Wray is a dign­fied loser and that even­ing his eyes were also ablaze with mes­sianic fer­vour.

If not ex­actly a Da­m­as­cus mo­ment – that had surely come five years ear­lier when he made his ini­tial fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment to Saracens – the Thomond ex­pe­ri­ence was a timely re-af­fir­ma­tion for Wray of the po­ten­tial of club rugby he had al­ready in­vested in so gen­er­ously

“Look at, this it’s in­cred­i­ble,” he kept say­ing shak­ing his head in won­der as he pointed in the di­rec­tion of the massed ranks out­side still singing. “This is what we can build with a club struc­ture in Bri­tain and Europe, we can have days like this ev­ery sea­son. We need to build a pas­sion for the club and a con­nec­tion with the com­mu­nity like this at Saracens. I am just so im­pressed with ev­ery­thing I’ve seen here at Mun­ster to­day. This is the fu­ture.”

It took a while for Wray’s dream to come true and there were plenty of bumps in the road but when Saracens fi­nally landed the Euro­pean Cup last sea­son one of the first thoughts that flashed through my mind was that snatched con­ver­sa­tion with Wray at Thomond Park. Saracens are, of course, their own team and club, with their own in­di­vid­ual traits, but to these eyes there are huge dol­lops of Mun­ster in their make-up as well. Im­i­ta­tion re­mains the sin­cer­est com­pli­ment of all.

There wasn’t quite the fairy-tale end­ing to that sea­son for Mun­ster that such a tri­umph seemed to de­mand. They dealt with the for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge of Stade Fran­cais in the quar­ter-fi­nal at Thomond and recorded an his­toric win over mighty Toulouse in Bordeaux in the semi­fi­nal but come the fi­nal it­self – when the Red Army has swelled to an es­ti­mated 40,000 strong at Twick­en­ham the magic ran out and Northampton squeezed home. The ge­nie was out of the bot­tle though and Mun­ster have never been the same since.

PIC­TURE: Getty Images

Match-win­ner Ro­nan O’Gara was deadly at Vicarage Road

Stand up and fight: Keith Wood

Livewire: Mun­ster’s Peter Stringer takes on Saracens’ Thierry Lacroix and Kevin Sor­rell, left

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