They have waited so long, and it means so much to them, it would have been cruel had Munster and their magnificent supporters not taken possession of the Heineken Cup. So close to it in the past they could smell the hops, yesterday the Irish province tasted nectar and toasted the most glorious moment in their history. Well, maybe the second most glorious.
Will plays be written about their victory over Biarritz that gave them the title of European champions? They are still being performed to sustain and glorify Munster's achievement at Thomond Park in Limerick in 1978, when they and they alone beat the mighty All Blacks. This comes close and there were a lot more Irishmen in Cardiff to witness their triumph. Thomond Park accommodates 12,000 people, although 100,000 claimed they were there. Yesterday there were twice as many red jerseys here than there are when Wales are playing a Test. It is as well the roof was closed because more of them would have probably arrived by abseil, parachute and hot air balloon. Biarritz knew what to expect but they were still engulfed.
Munster, beaten finalists in 2000 and 2002 when they were denied by Northampton at Twickenham and Leicester here, got home by two goals and three penalties to a goal and four penalties. And it must have felt like home. This was Thomond Park, where they have never lost a Heineken Cup match, on the wide screen and in full colour. Nevertheless, Biarritz made them stand up and fight for it and in the end the decisive score, an outrageous try by Peter Stringer, was almost a limerick in motion. Talk about poetic justice.
The score was locked at 10-10 when the little Munster scrum-half stole away from a scrum and ran 10 yards, unopposed, for a try that suggested he had been coached by Fagin. A sucker punch but beautifully delivered and Biarritz fell for it. Anthony Horgan moved from the right wing to the left and Sereli Bobo followed his example. When Stringer picked up from the base of the scrum he looked to his left but darted around the blindside where Serge Betsen was caught cold and, of course, Bobo had deserted his post. Stringer, named man of the match, was the player who, against Leicester here, had the ball knocked out of his hands by Neil Back at a scrum when Munster were going for the jugular.
The first half alone was better than many of the previous finals. Biarritz showed more flair in the opening minutes than they had displayed in the dour, grinding victories over Sale and Bath in the quarter- and semi-finals. The match was only two minutes old when Dimitri Yachvili launched an attack on the short side close to the Munster 22, but it looked attacker against defender until Philippe Bidabé created panic by shrugging off John Kelly. Bidabé released Bobo down the left flank and all the big wing had to do was run for the corner. He made it, although he almost put his foot in it.
Bobo's left boot brushed the touchline en route to the tryline. The referee, Chris White, had no reason to disallow the score because the touch judge Dave Pearson, positioned perfectly, had monitored Bobo's progress with what appeared to be a forensic eye. However, when the move was shown on the giant screens in slow motion the crowd let White know exactly what they thought of Bobo's boot.
There is no point having such massive superiority in the stands without making the presence felt and the sea of red did just that. It would be a very strong referee who would remain totally immune to such pressures. Munster won a string of penalties and after seven minutes Ronan O'Gara was relieved not only to kick one of them but to get a reprieve. Seconds earlier the stand-off had put in a cross kick that went straight to Bobo and but for an earlier infringement, Biarritz would have scored from long range.
O'Gara looked like the stationmaster at Grand Central. For a spell almost nothing moved without his influence. Munster, so confident in their line-out that they spurned a couple of kicks at goal, mounted attack after attack until it came to O'Gara. In a great position, close to the Biarritz line and with men on his left, O'Gara put in such a useless chip that it enabled the French to get off the ropes. But not for long.
A minute later O'Gara, this time from midfield, again opted for the little chip and this one worked. It threw Biarritz into confusion and Munster exploited it, finally creating a clear overlap on the left where O'Gara sent Trevor Halstead crashing over from short range between Bidabé and Jean-Baptiste Gobelet. Halstead may be a South African but as long as he lives he will never have to put his hand in his pocket in Limerick.
Munster now had the lead although Yachvili, with a penalty in the 22nd minute, levelled after the Munster scrum had been mashed. It looked ominous but Biarritz's advantage was not half as conclusive as Munster's in the line-out where Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, Lions both, reigned supreme. At half-time Munster were fortified by one of their battle anthems, "Stand Up and Fight", from Carmen, which to Biarritz's bemusement was penned by a Frenchman, Bizet.
There is a smoking ban here which would have done nothing for the nerves of half of the Biarritz team but in a tryless second half O'Gara's two penalties to Yachvili's three were just enough. The will of the people would not have tolerated anything less.
MAN FOR MAN MARKING IN CARDIFF
Star performer: Imanol Harinordoquy 9
Moving to Biarritz has revitalised this exceptional back-row forward's form. His line-out performance was stellar and he is back to his best in the loose.
Nicolas Brusque 7
A high-class full-back with plenty of time to counterattack, but prone to occasional moments of panic. Came into the game more after the break.
Jean-Baptiste Gobelet 7
With his floppy hair and cavalier forays into midfield, this dashing wing looks like a young Gérard Depardieu. Never found the gaps he was seeking.
Philippe Bidabé 8
Perhaps the pick of the Biarritz back line. Looked dangerous whenever he had the ball in space and played a key role in setting up Bobo's suspect try.
Damien Traille 6
A muted showing from one of French rugby's outstanding backs. Eventually substituted, suggesting he was not fully fit. Seemed to lack pace and edge.
Sereli Bobo 5
A mixed bag from a player with pace to burn but limited tactical nous. His early try should not have been allowed and errors gradually crept into his game.
Julien Peyrelongue 7
His first instinct was to kick for much of the match, often not to any great effect, but he was surprisingly elusive when he darted forward with the ball.
Dimitri Yachvili 8
It seems a shame this assured scrum-half, who also impeccably shouldered his side's place-kicking duties, should have ended a loser. Artful in all he did.
Petru Vladimir Balan 7
Gave Hayes a thorough examination at the coalface, and hit a rich seam of scrummaging form. The game's intensity ultimately took its toll of him
Benoît August 7
Seemed at times to be going through the motions. Discharged his set-piece responsibilities with aplomb, but was relatively uninfluential in the loose.
Census Johnson 6
Another Polynesian man mountain who gives ordinary props the vapours. Went off, returned, then conceded a silly penalty. Senseless Johnson, more like.
Jérôme Thion 8
The match-up between France's finest lock and Munster's dynamic duo was worth the admission money alone. Never took a backwards step.
David Couzinet 6
Had a hesitant manner about him for much of his hour on the pitch, and gave away quite a few penalties as a consequence. No surprise he went off.
Serge Betsen 5
The veteran flanker's detractors will have enjoyed his embarrassment at conceding Stringer's try. It was one of many faux pas in an oafish display.
Thomas Lièvremont 6
The captain was another who was short of peak fitness. His positioning and reading of the game were as astute as ever, but it was a struggle.
Benjamin Noirot 5
Had little time to make an impact.
Benoît Lecouls 6
Brought on to add avoirdupois.
Olivier Olibeau 7
Lively lock who lit up the line-outs.
Thierry Dusautoir 7
Quicksilver flanker but inexperienced.
Federico Martin-Arramburu 7
On for Traille and keen to impress.
Star performer: Peter Stringer 10
A faultless display by the most influential player on the pitch. His passes hit the mark, his reactions were razor sharp, and what a try!
Shaun Payne 5
Nerves got the better of him during the first half when he was guilty of some silly errors, but his defence was much more reliable after the break.
Anthony Horgan 8
Lived on scraps with O'Gara opting to kick a lot of the time, but he kept his concentration superbly throughout. Acutely aware of space, and danger.
John Kelly 6
Often missed out by O'Gara when the ball was spun out. Used mainly to carry the ball into the breakdown, run as a decoy and tackle his socks off.
Trevor Halstead 7
Needed all his strength to barge over for his try even though he had less than five yards to negotiate. Usually broke the gain line when fed by O'Gara.
Ian Dowling 6
Saw very little of the ball before the interval but stayed alert and covered well when Biarritz attacked. Ran out of defence effectively when required.
Ronan O'Gara 9
The self-belief that suffuses his game, especially when kicking for touch, helped to steady Munster. Flawless place-kicking kept the score ticking.
Marcus Horan 7
Was expected to struggle in the front-row battle, and so it proved. But his courageous contributions when carrying the ball into contact were vital.
Jerry Flannery 7
Had a consistent day with his line-out throwing, and was always available in the loose. Should perhaps angle his runs more back towards his pack.
John Hayes 7
An old pro who has learned to overcome his set-piece limitations with a canny approach in broken play. One tackle on Traille was especially crucial.
Donncha O'Callaghan 9
Stepped up to take charge of the lineouts when O'Connell struggled in the second half. Was at the heart of every forward drive as the tension mounted.
Paul O'Connell 8
Munster's iconic second-row colossus may not have been 100 per cent fit, but he has a lion's heart and the example he sets his team-mates is inspirational.
Denis Leamy 8
Clearly has a good rugby brain on his young shoulders. His angles of running and the support he gave to his colleagues were cleverly worked out.
David Wallace 8
Must be the most dangerous open-side flanker in the British Isles. Sharp in the line-outs and threatened continuously to burst through in midfield.
Anthony Foley 7
The sight of the man who has played more Heineken Cup games than anyone else lifting the trophy at last after so many campaigns said it all.
Federico Pucciariello 6
Gave much needed respite to Horan.
Mick O'Driscoll 7
Late tour of duty for tiring Foley.
Alan Quinlan 6
Had four minutes to shore things up.