Ronan O’Gara dives over Saracens captain Neil de Cock to score Munster’s opening try.

Ronan O’Gara dives over Saracens captain Neil de Cock to score Munster’s opening try.

What a glorious habit these cup final trips to Cardiff have become over the years. What a glorious tournament the European Cup of Rugby has become – and to think it’s still in its adolescence.
And what a glorious contribution Munster continues to make to the best knock-out cup competition in the club game.

But by God, how the province was made to fight every inch of the way by a Saracens side which came within a whisker of out-Munstering Munster.

It’s to Alan Gaffney’s enormous credit that a team that’s lost as many league games as it’s won this season produced such a barnstorming display in Coventry on Sunday.

That Irish rugby will benefit from Gaffney’s return (be it at Leinster or within the new Irish management structure) is undoubted.

He’s a top class coach and, as it was when he left Munster, there was a justified tear in the eye of the Saracens boss. Like most of the sides he’s selected for white-hot battle, Gaffney’s team had done him proud.

Spearheaded by captain Neil de Cock, Saracens made life incredibly tough for the 2006 winners – almost unbearably so.

This was chewed down to the knuckle stuff, the sort of tension that almost makes matches like this endurable rather than enjoyable. Munster slammed body after body into the contact zone as Saracens tried to engineer a drop goal position for the excellent Glen Jackson.

That Declan Kidney’s side defended with such discipline in the final moments of this gripping encounter owed much to the coach’s acumen.

Taking Donncha O’Callaghan off was a brave but just call – the Cork man has been conceding one too many penalties of late and removing him from the fray was the right thing to do. Denis Leamy will need to take his enthusiasm down a few notches too come the final.

Had the roles been reversed for those final frantic minutes on Sunday, and Munster were chasing a drop goal, the men in red would have recycled the ball and got it back to Ronan O’Gara.

Saracens’ lack of experience of big game rugby ultimately undid them as Glen Jackson waited for a ball that never emerged from the mass of black-jerseyed bodies in front of him.

Nigel Owens ruled that the lionhearted Richard Hill, in his last game of significance, hadn’t released the ball after he’d run into a brick wall named David Wallace. The ball was dispatched to touch. Munster, this miracle of a team, had reached another European final.

The contrast between this semi-final success and the victory over Leinster two years ago could hardly have been starker. There was no opportunity for jumping hoardings to celebrate with the fans on Sunday.

This was one of the most attritional matches ever played in this competition. Both teams gave as good as they got in the hits department. As the rain fell harder and the ground grew heavier, the ferocity of the tackles cranked up a few notches.

And once again, the magnificent travelling support saw the benefit of having three top class Kiwis within this teak-tough group.

The midfield pairing of Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi (the latter may well end up an Irish international) is surely the best the province has ever boasted.

Boasting brains and brawn in equal measure and a tremendous ability to link up and draw the back three into less conventional attacking lines, Tipoki and Mafi have blossomed magnificently.

That Tipoki has brought the best out of Mafi is undisputed. How Tipoki never won a full New Zealand cap, considering the problems the Kiwis have had in that position for several years remains a mystery.

But how glad Munster are to have both, with the class and experience that All Black legend Doug Howlett has brought to the table difficult to adequately quantify.

Again on Sunday, both in defence and attack, Howlett proved his worth; further underlining the remarkable impact he’s made in the short time he’s been with the province.

And while it was hardly a case of hanging on given how brilliantly Munster defended, the province was made to sweat in a way that no previous European battle had wrung from them this term.

That all this has been set against the backdrop of Declan Kidney’s imminent ascension to the Irish post has merely added to the drama of Munster’s reaching another rugby showpiece.

“Without wishing to be rude, as I said earlier on, it’s been tough getting to the final as it is, without thinking about anything else,” said Kidney when asked about his future career plans on Sunday.

Given that Gaffney is returning to the IRFU’s employ (putatively to Leinster) and that Mick Galwey is departing his coaching job at Shannon, the theorising about who’ll be where next season is fascinating.

But between now and May 24th, we’ll just concern ourselves with what colours will adorn the European Cup that evening.

And now there’s the matter of Toulouse, the greatest European Cup team of all, the only team that’s played more ERC games than Munster, to be dealt with at the Millennium Stadium.

No one outside Toulouse will wish the Kidney era to end in defeat. And the magnificent red army that will once again make Cardiff its own will urge their team to achieve what would undoubtedly represent the province’s greatest achievement yet. What a final awaits.