The madcap travel arrangements are well in place. Trawler skippers on either side of Saint George’s Channel will be making doubly sure that their vessels are moored and secured this weekend. It’s European Rugby Cup final time, and Cardiff beckons again. Great, isn’t it?
Over the course of the decade, travelling around Europe after this Munster team has become a hobby, if not a way of life for many.
There’s been wine sampling in Viadana, rain-soaked evenings in Bath (oh, the irony), sunning it in San Sebastian and more than a few wit-filled trips into the Welsh heartlands.
It’s been a wonderful adventure. And while Declan Kidney leaves the province for physically greener pastures after Saturday’s final, who’s to say the fun won’t continue into next season and beyond?
Yes, things are different now from what they were in Munster’s opening salvos in the competition, an infamous 60-19 reversal in Toulouse in 1996 springing to mind.
The team of today is sprinkled with more than a hint of Southern Hemisphere brains and brawn, a far cry from the days when the only Kiwi you were likely to see in Thomond Park was getting railroaded by Moss Keane.
But ask the fans what they think of Messrs Howlett, Tipoki and Mafi (shouldn’t that be Murphy? – Ed) and you’ll have your ears reddened with praise for the Kiwis. They’ve bought into the idea that playing for Munster is that little bit different. And that’s because it is.
Retired Munster winger John Kelly once spoke of the GAA-like sense of community ownership that comes with supporting this team, and how that impacts on the players.
Every time the men in red hit the fray, it’s difficult to avoid the notion that each and every one of them genuinely doesn’t want to let the fans down. It resonates of the notion that the province is just one big parish when it comes to this team.
Now that might well sound like romantic old tosh and I’ve no problem being described as a romanticist when it comes to either this team or Waterford’s hurlers for that matter.
Both have given so much enjoyment to so many fans that it’s hard not to get a little protective about them and I will defend either to the last.
It’s very difficult to be completely dispassionate about a group of men who’ve raised so many hearts and lifted so many spirits for so many years. But, of course, not everyone feels that way.
“Some of Munster would not make Toulouse’s social drinkers XV” according to Sunday Times rugby scribe Stephen Jones. What a load of baloney.
For a team containing the European Cup’s all-time leading points scorer and the most prolific try scorer in All Blacks history to be described in such a manner is grossly unjust.
To describe the second-most successful ERC team ever in such terms is probably a literary device aimed to generate reaction and press a few fans’ buttons.
If so, Mr Jones has once again succeeded – forget not he picked Imanol Harinordoquy as man of the match from Munster’s 2006 final victory.
But given the writer in question, who has written a fair share of pieces that can only be described as anti-Irish over the years, I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised.
“Munster’s progress this season has been touched by fortune,” he adds. A bunch of four-leaf clovers in their arse pockets is all that got them through a group containing the defending champions, Clermont Auvernge and an ultimately disappointing Llanelli. I think not.
Did he watch Munster’s victory in the Limerick mud against Wasps when they wore the visitors down with a magnificently controlled display of rugby?
Did he watch when their sheer will and refusal to lie down (exemplified by Lifeimi Mafi’s tackle under the posts) hauled them back from the abyss of elimination in France?
Did he watch how they completed phase after phase in the wind and rain of Stradey Park, despite the fact that they had already secured the win over the Scarlets? Evidently not.
Did Munster get some lucky breaks along the way? Of course they did, but to label a team which came through the ‘pool of treacle’ as well as two knock-out games in England as jammy just doesn’t sit with me.
Chris Paterson leaving his shooting boots at home for the quarter-final was undoubtedly to Munster’s benefit, as was Clermont’s decision to select a far from full-strength team for the season opener in Limerick.
And a cuter team than Saracens proved in the semi-final could well have seen the province of. Yet it’s Munster who prevailed – due to the courage of their convictions, enormous tackling power and lionhearted self-belief.
Try telling me that Toulouse didn’t benefit from a few breaks along the way, including a semi-final which London Irish could just as easily have won? While I’m on the soapbox, what team reaches a final without some luck?
Munster will be the fresher team, a little like Kilkenny are when it comes to the business end of the Hurling Championship. But, as it is with Brian Cody’s team, that’s not Munster’s fault.
And if playing less high-octane matches was such an enormous playing advantage, how come only two Irish provinces have won the European Cup to date?
Toulouse are full of household names, players who’ve written themselves into the lore of the game. Three European titles to their name and now seeking a fourth, only Guy Noves as a coach has left a deeper imprint on the ERC than Declan Kidney.
Just look through the following list: Byron Kelleher, Yannick Nyanga, Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde, Thierry Dusatoir, Yannick Jauzion, Cedric Heymans, Finau Maka, Clement Poitrenaud and the legendary Fabien Pelous. It’s a team packed with match-winners and game breakers.
Toulouse have reached the semi-finals of the French Championship with four matches to spare and will certainly not be overawed by the red hoard that will dominate the Millennium Stadium – though maybe not to 2006 proportions.
Theirs is the more expansive game plan, even if Kidney has clearly brought about a stylistic shift in Munster’s approach over the past season.
Munster’s defensive strength makes them a match for any side, one that can certainly repel and withstand waves of Toulouse attack.
Disrupting the French at the breakdown and keeping it tight will probably leave Munster opting for a cautious approach in the opening quarter. Mafi, Tipoki and, inevitably, Ronan O’Gara will be key components of such an early tactic.
In Declan Kidney’s last match in charge, perhaps bucking a trend he’s slowly tried to reverse in the past two seasons, a classic Munster performance might serve the province best this Saturday.
But with such danger in his back line, Kidney has a trump card he didn’t even have two years ago and if he needs to shake things up, he knows he’s got the personnel to make it happen. Once again it should be both fascinating and nerve wracking to watch.
* Over 3,000 rugby fans will travel through Cork Airport next weekend en route to Cardiff. Cork Airport is advising supporters to arrive a minimum of 90 minutes before their scheduled flight’s departure time. And fans are advised to make sure they pack their passport for check-in.