And so, Munster find themselves with their backs against the wall yet again. Always enthusiastic about going into a European fixture as underdogs, I doubt many in the current set-up would have dealt themselves this particular hand, had the choice been theirs.
The numbers are stark: 22 players added to the European Cup squad in preparation for this weekend’s game, including five front rows. All of them under 21 years of age. There exists the very real possibility that some youngsters who haven’t come within an ass’ roar of a game of professional rugby yet, will trot out to make their debuts in Coventry on Sunday.
It’s hardly an ideal scenario, is it? Yet rather than having an ominous feeling about the whole thing, I think the stage is being set for this motley crew, of guys that could still holiday in Ayia Napa without being creepy, British & Irish Lions, and everything in between, to do something special and surprise Wasps with a result for the ages.
I’ve often had old-timers tell me that Munster has lost its way over the years. They say the club and the supporters have become detached from one another. That the AIL has been forgotten. They lament the number of home-grown guys that have been forced to search for opportunities elsewhere, and the lack of local talent ready to replace them when they leave.
There is some merit to these arguments. Gone are the days when the squad was roughly a 50/50 split between Limerick and Cork, with a sprinkling of talent from further afield. The number of Limerick players, in particular, has fallen off a cliff, and the sustained success of the county’s hurlers is only going to make the challenge of rectifying that more and more difficult in years to come.
We have to be honest though, and accept this is what happens when an organisation has to navigate the ever-evolving tides of professional sport. And while certain things can be and could have been done better, it’s not possible to please everyone. To try is a fool’s errand.
Despite these shifts in the dynamic of the province and the bones of contention they have created, one thing has remained consistent through the peaks and troughs of Munster’s journey in the professional era: the ability to shock, upset, and do the impossible.
The ‘miracle match’ against Gloucester in January 2003 was a seminal moment in club folklore and instilled a belief in everyone that regardless of how high the odds are stacked against them, a group of men wearing the red jersey are capable of incredible things.
Early on in Rassie Erasmus’ tenure in charge, when things were still waiting to click for the group, someone had advised him to watch the game to better understand why Thomond Park was a unique place to play. Previously, he had lambasted us after someone suggested we should target winning all our home games that season, with away victories being an added bonus.
He didn’t like that at all. ‘It’s a game of rugby, it’s 15 on 15, it doesn’t matter what pitch you’re playing on’ was the essence of what he said. To his credit, having watched the Gloucester game, he announced that he was withdrawing his previous remarks because he got it now. He got what made Thomond Park and Munster special.
We watched a few select clips of what can only be described as the men in red ‘putting the shits up’ the travelling Englishmen. How anyone ever played in jerseys that size is beyond me. They must have weighed the same as a small child that day in the Limerick mud.
If you question the game’s status as the greatest performance in Munster history, you can get a reaction similar to what Galileo experienced when he tried to explain astronomy to the Cardinals in Vatican City. It’s heresy, pure and simple. While the result was obviously a magnificent one, it’s what the miracle match represented rather than the rugby itself that made it legendary.
There have been more impressive rugby performances since, I think. Beating a Harlequins side that had massive notions about themselves at The Stoop in 2013 comes to mind, as does the win against a star studded Toulon in 2018. Coming from 19 points down to beat Clermont this time last year must surely be among the best. Scoring 39 points in any European game is an impressive feat, let alone against a machine that is virtually unstoppable on home turf.
One game, however, stands out above all else. A couple of months ago we marked the fifth anniversary of Anthony Foley’s passing. I was privileged enough to be part of the group that shouldered the responsibility for dusting ourselves off and keeping the show on the road the following weekend. It was a week unlike any other I’ll experience in my life. Had we lost by 50 points against Glasgow, nobody in the country would have held it against us.
People talk about being able to feel emotion in the air. It was everywhere that day. The only way it could have been stronger would be if it manifested into something physical and you could see it standing in front of you. It ebbed and flowed around the hotel, the bus, the changing room and the pitch that day, like the swirling gusts of Storm Barra the country experienced in recent days.
You would see a guy laughing and joking one minute, and crying the next. I remember fighting back tears in between drills in the warm up, a completely alien sensation for any professional athlete to experience. The performance was perfect that day, made even more impressive by the fact we were down to 14 men after 19 minutes. Heart, flair, doggedness — it had everything.
To describe my contribution as a cameo would be overstating it somewhat; I was on at 60 minutes and off again at 65, having ruptured my medial ligament in what would turn out to be my last game in Thomond Park, and last game for Munster. I sat on the physio table at full time, watching the lads sing ‘Stand Up and Fight’ in the middle of the pitch on the little television on the wall.
I knew I was in trouble. I had just come back from one long-term injury and I knew this was going to be another. Rhys Marshall was due to arrive the following week. I was aware that realistically, there was a chance I would never play for Munster again. Despite all of this, weirdly, I felt nothing but complete satisfaction, and pride in the fact that I got to be a part of something so special. Our backs were to the wall and we had pulled it out of the bag. Most importantly, we had given a special and legendary man the best send off we could have hoped for.
Can the current crop add to the list of incredible feats on Sunday? I don’t see why not. It is a cliché, but it’s true to say that Munster have always been at their most dangerous when written off. With this nonsensical, abacus-requiring new format for the Champions Cup, each of the four pool games is of vital importance. There is no room for slip ups. They have no choice but to throw caution to the wind. I’m backing the motley crew to do the job, and I’m looking forward to nursing a pint of Brussels Guinness while I watch them do it.