Following through on Denis Hurley’s marvellous grubber, Doug Howlett scores the match-clinching try which ensured Munster’s path to the European Cup semi-final.
“If you don’t enjoy this, it’s no good. I think that’s the thing that enthused me about today – they were enjoying themselves out there. That’s what sport is, it’s there to be enjoyed. You have good days and you have to enjoy them.”
And what days (and nights) this Munster team has provided fans of the game up and down the country with for over a decade in a competition which shows no signs of losing its lustre.
A European campaign that began at the Ricoh Arena shall return to Coventry on Sunday, April 27th (kick-off 3pm) for a semi-final meeting with Saracens, coached by ex-Munster boss Alan Gaffney.
Munster’s 13-point win in Kingsholm, the only away success recorded last weekend was the province’s third such away win at the quarter-final stage.
In the history of the competition, there have only been 10 away wins in total at this phase, which says all that needs to be said about Munster’s contribution to the ERC story.
The away fans flooded the Kingsholm sod at full-time, as they’ve done on other great days outside of Thomond Park.
On wet nights in Watford, freezing afternoons in Paris or scorching Saturdays in the south of France, the victory drum is one that Munster fans have grown accustomed to beating.
On the march to victory two years ago, Munster enjoyed ‘home’ advantage against Perpignan and, bizarrely if not unexpectedly, against Leinster at Lansdowne Road.
The ‘16th man’ more than played its part on both occasions and while there weren’t nearly as many fans inside Kingsholm as there in Dublin were two years ago, Munster fans sang ‘til their throats were raspy.
The famed ‘Shed’ of Kingsholm was reduced to a marquee as the English Premiership table toppers became the latest side to fall upon the provincial sword.
And while the rain sheeted down upon the fans, not a soul from this side of the channel gave a monkeys about the weather; with celebrations continuing long into the West Country night and following morning.
Whether Munster like it or not, they’re now most observers’ favourites to take a second European Cup in three seasons.
Saracens, who surprisingly but deservedly defeated Wales, apologies, the Ospreys at Vicarage Road on Sunday, will not be underestimated by Declan Kidney.
Average sides rarely if ever progress to this stage of the competition, even if the ERC organisers did their utmost to make that happen this season given the lopsided pool draw.
But as things stand, two English teams, and one French and Irish side in the final four looks just about right when assessing the contributions of the six competing nations.
And of the surviving quartet, no team has had a more difficult path than Munster, having now seen off Llanelli, Wasps, Clermont Auvergne and Gloucester.
Another away day win in the semi-finals might actually see some of the sneering rugby types east of the Severn admit what most observers have long known: that this is an excellent Munster side, commandeered by a great coach.
Of course, much of the talk in recent weeks has been of Declan Kidney’s likely ascension to the Irish job. Among whatever domestic contenders there may be to succeed Eddie O’Sullivan, he is by far and away the outstanding candidate.
The big question, which has yet to be answered, is whether Kidney wants the job or not. And since Kidney is the polar opposite of the rent-a-quote brigade, we’re unlikely to hear anything from him too soon, especially with Munster still chasing European honours.
So let’s assume that Kidney does want the job. Since he makes no secret of being a home bird, one can only imagine that the Irish position is the only one outside of Munster that would interest him.
Were he to mastermind another European Cup success, there would be little left for Kidney to achieve as coach of the province, so the logical step would be a move to 62, Lansdowne Road.
That he has the ‘cojones’ for the job are without question. Just look at last Saturday’s selection alone.
Shaun Payne, Peter Stringer and Anthony Foley, players with a level of experience and quality that few other club coaches could call upon, were left out. It was an enormous call.
While Alan Quinlan hardly ranked as a rookie replacement for Foley, Denis Hurley had only played eight Celtic League matches for the province in two seasons while Tomás O’Leary had only started one previous European Cup match.
Both Hurley and O’Leary were exceptional at Kingsholm and heaped scorn upon those who believe we’ve little quality back-up players in this country. How can you assess the quality of a player if you don’t start him in matches like this?
Coaches see players in training week in, week out and watch the raw material re-cast itself into genuine match quality, worthy of a place in the 22, and in turn, the starting team.
In the high pressure cauldron of an away European Cup quarter-final, Kidney put his trust in the abilities of two young players he knows better than anyone else.
From the outside looking in, picking Hurley and O’Leary looked like a gamble, but one imagines it never felt that way in Kidney’s mind.
Yet Kidney still demonstrated more daring in a single team selection than O’Sullivan ever did as Irish coach, which isn’t to say that O’Sullivan became a bad coach overnight.
And when one looks at Quinlan’s contribution on Saturday, for a man who had only tackle bag carrying duties to contend with at the World Cup, again one sees the measure of Kidney’s acumen in evidence.
Leinster next Saturday is all that Kidney will occupy himself with this week, as Munster hope to put some sort of squeeze on the Celtic League leaders at the RDS.
But there’s little doubt what prize the coach and his players ultimately have their eyes on. Yet there’s still some road to travel yet. Great being on the journey though, you’d have to admit.