Foley's Munster machine ready to paint Cardiff red
Passionate supporters put long-held dream in sight
If support - red, raucous and rampant support at that - can be converted into points, the Heineken Cup belongs to Munster. The 11th final in the history of the competition will present the most one-sided picture yet. At the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday Irish travellers will outnumber the French by up to 15 to one.
As far as Biarritz (population 30,000) are concerned, their final arrived last month when they filled a football stadium in Santander and knocked out Bath in the semi-final. That evening the streets of Biarritz were commandeered by their supporters who drank, sang and danced until the early hours. At various intervals they were joined by the players of Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque who supplied the fans with beer, conversation and cigarettes. Yes, a lot of the Biarritz heroes like a smoke. It is a rugby town down to its laces but they do not like travelling further than the Pyrenees.
When Leicester beat Munster to win the Heineken Cup at the Millennium Stadium in 2002, the attendance was 74,600 and the Tigers' fans gave as good as they got. Biarritz have busted a gut to sell 3,000 tickets and those surplus to requirements have been snapped up by Munster fans. Nearly all the hotel rooms in Cardiff were booked by Irish voices weeks ago.
Does this mean that Munster's time has finally arrived? Winning this thing has been their Grail but it doesn't mean their name is written on the trophy. "Forget destiny," Paul O'Connell said, after his province had beaten Leinster in the all-Ireland semi-final at Lansdowne Road. "It's about playing well and winning a rugby match on the day."
None the less, there is something heroic and fanatical about Munster's quest to win the European championship and they now have an outstanding chance. For a start they are fitter and fresher than their opponents, who play 10 matches more a season. Biarritz are top of the French championship but were in action again on Friday night.
Munster have been here before, and although they have not done it they came mighty close. At Twickenham in 2000, after beating Toulouse in the semi-finals in Bordeaux, they lost 9-8 to Northampton. Paul Grayson kicked three penalties and Ronan O'Gara did not. The following season, after beating Biarritz in the quarter-finals, they lost 16-15 to Stade Français in Lille after having a good try disallowed. In 2002 O'Gara kicked three penalties but they lost in the final to the Tigers 15-9. When they were hammering away at the Leicester line Neil Back knocked the ball out of Peter Stringer's hands and got away with it.
It has been Munster's story and Anthony Foley has been at the heart of the narrative. At 32 and out of the Ireland set-up this season and out of contract at the end of next, Foley, the Munster captain, is running out of campaigns. The semi-final triumph over Brian O'Driscoll's Leinster was his 75th Heineken match, a record, which says a lot about his team's refusal to go away.
Munster have the forwards to dog it out and win plenty of ball, as they showed against Leinster, but they can be too predictable. They have got O'Gara but they have never had a magician. This season they unearthed that rarity, a Munster threequarter with pace and imagination, but Barry Murphy, who scored a memorable solo try against Sale, broke an ankle. Christian Cullen, the former New Zealand wonder boy who was signed to provide a cutting edge, has struggled for fitness and is expected to be on the bench on Saturday.
Biarritz have not been here before. This is their first final and nobody is quite sure how they are going to play it. They beat Bath 18-9 with five penalties from Dimitri Yachvili and a drop goal by Damien Traille and looked as if they were prepared to do so much and no more to win. They will have to do a lot more to match Munster up front but if they can do that they have the means to play it wide. The remarkable Yachvili, a matchwinner for club and country, is the key.
Foley said that Munster were prepared to "cut off their right arm" to get to Cardiff. "I grew up watching Munster play cup rugby and I've seen teams hammered 6-3. At times that's what you need to do. Performances don't matter. We want to win that cup."
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