Double-O Heaven: Munster’s Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara hoist the European Cup in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

Double-O Heaven: Munster’s Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara hoist the European Cup in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

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The lights dimmed in this magnificent stadium as the team in navy strode towards the podium where their glittering prize awaited.

The vast majority of this 74,000-plus throng, by then relievingly dispossessed of bated breath following Nigel Owens’ final whistle, just wanted their heroes’ mitts on the grail once more.

Paul O’Connell, who’d featured in only three European Cup games this season evidently felt himself unworthy of lifting the trophy all on his lonesome.

And it was only fitting that while he clasped one handle of the cup, Ronan O’Gara took hold of the other; this victory copper-fastening a remarkable turnaround for the outhalf given what went on in France last autumn.   

To the deafening din made by men from Mallow, women from Waterville and children from Carrick-on-Suir, O’Connell and O’Gara held aloft the most coveted prize in club rugby.

For the second time in three seasons, Munster were champions of Europe – and deservedly so.

As usual, the province wrung every available drop of sweat from those inside the stadium along with the tens of thousands watching back home.

The emotional fillip provided two years ago by the stadium screen capturing the scenes in Limerick’s O’Connell Street were replicated – but equal opportunity was rightly offered to the men of Toulouse on this occasion.

Their travelling support, considerably greater than that which followed Biarritz here two years ago, added tremendously to the raucous atmosphere generated inside the cauldron by the Taff.

This competition’s ‘dream final’, contested by the two teams which have done most in making it such a success, was a compelling affair.

It rarely produced free-flowing, sexy rugby – then again, finals in any code rarely do nowadays. And while this decider didn’t fray the nerves in the manner that 2006 did, it was hardly take out the deckchairs stuff either. 

But what it had by the bucketload was ferocity from both packs, sumptuous high kicking from the boot of Jean Baptiste Ellisalde and a stunning demonstration of blindside play from Clanwilliam’s Alan Quinlan.

Like O’Gara, Quinlan had his own World Cup disappointment to put behind him; Trevor Brennan’s ‘Bobby Boucher’ reference lingered, if only humourously in the Cardiff sky last weekend.

Since dispensing of the tackle bag handed to him by Eddie O’Sullivan in the anything but la belle France of last autumn, Quinlan has played like a man possessed.

The ground he’s covered over the course of this victorious season defies his rugby playing mileage and offered a reminder that he surely merited more Irish caps than what the future record will surely testify to. 

That Fabien Pelous saw fit to give Quinlan a kick in the derriere (leading to the Toulouse captain’s yellow card) indicated what a pain the arse Quinlan proved throughout this absorbing affair.

Both he and O’Connell led by example as the much-maligned Munster pack more than stood up to the challenge posed by Guy Noves’ forwards, who were visibly shattered in this game’s closing stages.

Once again, when the call had to be answered, the all-action Jerry Flannery, the upwardly mobile Marcus Horan and the walking human miracle that is John Hayes, let no-one down.

Long may they be mercilessly slagged by those of supposed greater rugby knowledge than this press card carrier!

In his final game in charge of this remarkable group, the faith which Declan Kidney demonstrated in sticking with Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley was justified, albeit just about in the latter’s case.

Hurley was severely tested by Ellisalde’s booming Garryowens, but he joined the attacking line to good effect when called upon and has surely laid the foundations for a long and successful career in the number 15 shirt. 

O’Leary, his cause greatly assisted by the resolve of the Munster scrum, was a great deal more comfortable than he was for vast periods of the semi-final win over Saracens.

Yes, much of the ball he fed to Ronan O’Gara was a good deal slower than what Peter Stringer would probably have offered – but in a game as tightly contested as this, that mattered little.

When one considers that his opposite number Byron Kelleher has long been considered deficient in his passing despite winning 50-plus caps for the All Blacks, one sees the quandary presented by compare and contrast-type analysis.

And while both Hurley and O’Leary were fortunate to see two blocked kicks veer clear of danger inside their own twenty-two, name me a player that hasn’t benefited from the odd lucky break?

Had Toulouse converted the territory they enjoyed in the opening quarter into points, Munster could have been left with quite the mountain to climb.

It took the province 25 minutes to produce a maul of substance and that coincided with the stadium screens flashing over to the streets of Limerick.

And, as it did two years ago, Munster shoulders broadened, chests visibly puffed out that little bit more and it was as if the players to a man remembered what was at stake under the closed Millennium Stadium roof. They seized the initiative after Denis Leamy’s 33rd minute try and never trailed thereafter. 

Teams rarely, if ever, set out to seek the mantle of greatness; their on-field achievements look after that bit of legacy building.

Yet it was difficult to avoid the sentiment that the men of Munster knew what was truly at stake last weekend: they now stand alone not only in Irish rugby history, but in Irish sporting lore.

No Irish field sports team, to the best of this scribbler’s knowledge, has ever won the same international title more than once.

And in that context, it would be difficult to identify a greater Irish team in our sporting history than the Munster side of the past decade.

They’ve matched walk with talk twice in the space of three years. They’ve climbed Everest again and returned to stick a shiny new flag at the summit of their sport. They’ve got the silverware to match the mystique.  

While the manner in which they headlocked this talented Toulouse side will hardly have set neutral hearts hopping, only a philistine could ignore Munster’s absolute professionalism. 

Yes, they’ve had some luck along the way but the heartbreak they’ve endured over the years in the ERC leaves the province’s debit and credit account looking pretty even..

But the manner in which they stopped Toulouse dead in their tracks in the final 20 minutes was a chest-beating pleasure to watch. 

And while Declan Kidney now moves onto an even greater task – to emulate Ireland’s Grand Slammers of 1948, the Munster phenomenon will undoubtedly move on without him.

His successor, whoever that may be, faces a mighty task to equal the achievements recorded during the outgoing coach’s two remarkable terms in office.

But if the future contains more of the passion, power and pride of Saturday last, consider the stories that remain to be told about the best rugby team in Europe.

Munster: champions of Europe again. Boy, that sounds good.