Enough. No more. Heart and mind have taken all they can stand. It is five months almost to the day since England subdued 15 do-or-die Wallabies and a one-eyed South African referee to win the most relentlessly compelling of the five World Cup finals played since 1987, yet still this season of seasons insists on shredding the emotions of the rugby public. The Heineken Cup has always produced matches that knock 99 per cent of international fixtures into a cocked hat. Here at Lansdowne Road this wonderful tournament duly accounted for the remaining one per cent.
Wasps, the English champions, scored five tries yesterday, all of them minor classics of their kind. Their brand of all-purpose, top-of-the-ground attacking rugby bordered on the irresistible; the "black wall" of their defence was, for long periods, utterly unscaleable. Yet deep in the final quarter they found themselves 10 points adrift and up to their eyebrows in quicksand. The story of their salvation will live long in the memories of those 49,000 souls who witnessed it.
With eight minutes of normal time left on the clock, Alex King kicked a penalty after Tom Voyce, one of the less celebrated Wasps but playing at something close to Test pitch, had dismantled the Munster barricades with a long infield run off the left wing. In the first minute of stoppage time, this same Voyce flummoxed the covering scrum-half Peter Stringer with a Duckham-esque sidestep and zipped in behind the sticks. When King converted for 32-all, the great wave of noise from almost 46,000 Munster supporters was drowned out by the sound of nerve-endings pinging into the stratosphere.
Three minutes later, Voyce worked his way free again, slipping away from Christian Cullen - not only an All Black full-back, but one of the outstanding players of the professional era - and forcing Mike Mullins into a try-saving tackle. Paul Volley, a try-scorer from some earlier, half-forgotten epoch of the contest, was first up in support, with Rob Howley on his shoulder. Both men disappeared into the Munster mincer, but King, materialising in the scrum-half position, spotted Trevor Leota lurking in the narrowest of channels and sent him ploughing through the overmatched Stringer en route to the left corner.
Even now, there were minutes left - minutes filled by the sight of Cullen cutting loose, of Paul O'Connell rampaging around the paddock like Martin Johnson incarnate, of Jim Williams, the ancient Australian who captains Munster, dragging his body from one tackle to the next in an increasingly desperate effort to make something, anything, happen for his side.
If he failed, it was not for the want of trying. And if, as seems likely, he has made his final appearance for the province, he can head home easy in the knowledge that he exhausted his reserves of competitive energy.
Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, talked afterwards about the "bearpit atmosphere", and the red-shirted hordes from Limerick and Cork did indeed transform the old stadium into a cacophonous corner of southern Ireland. Shaun Edwards, one of the greatest rugby league players ever to play for Great Britain and now the English champions' defensive strategist, offered other thoughts that will be considered unforgiveably heretical in Wigan, Widnes and Bradford.
"You wouldn't rub that game off your video, would you?" he said. "I think maybe that was the best game of rugby I've ever seen, in either code." Yes, it was as good as that. And it was good from the very start. Three points down to a Ronan O'Gara penalty, Wasps responded with a try of such majesty that the Munster die-hards must have feared a rout. Josh Lewsey was the eventual soloist, but King was both composer and conductor.
The Londoners, playing a first European semi-final against opponents making a fifth successive appearance in the last four, then scored two tries while Joe Worsley, their international flanker, was incarcerated in the sin-bin. Volley claimed the first from a Howley charge-down, Mark Van Gisbergen the second after the first of Voyce's decisive thrusts.
Yet Munster were still in touch. O'Gara was in dead-eye mood when it came to the marksmanship duties, and when he disappeared from view to nurse a ravaged hamstring, Jason Holland was equally accurate. Once Wasps lost a second player, Fraser Waters, to the cooler, those Munster kicks turned to tries. The Irishmen scored 17 points during the centre's absence, including close-range touchdowns from Anthony Foley and the tireless Williams.
"We were in a hole, for sure," Dallaglio confessed. "But we still thought what we'd been thinking from the start - that if we could keep the ball through three phases, gaps would appear in their defence. They were tiring; you could hear it in their breathing and see it in their eyes. I said to the team: 'There are 20 minutes left, and if we show some courage and some discipline, we can do this."
And they did. If Voyce's try hurt Munster badly, the outstanding Leota brought them to their knees. They were too proud to be counted out - "Irish by birth, Munster by the grace of God" goes the saying - but they knew in their hearts when the Samoan hooker barrelled his way over at the flag that they were destined to lose on points. "This," admitted their coach, Alan Gaffney, "is a hard one to take. But I'll tell you this. It was one hell of an occasion."
Munster: Tries Foley, Williams; Conversions Holland 2; Penalties O'Gara 3, Holland 3. Wasps: Tries Lewsey, Volley, Van Gisbergen, Voyce, Leota; Conversions King 3; Penalties King 2.
Munster: C Cullen; J Kelly, M Mullins, R Henderson, S Payne; R O'Gara (J Holland, 28), P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Keogh (A Horgan, 87), J Williams (capt), A Foley.
Wasps: M Van Gisbergen; J Lewsey (A Erinle, 87), F Waters, S Abbott, T Voyce; A King, R Howley (P Richards, 89); C Dowd, T Leota, W Green, S Shaw, R Birkett, J Worsley, P Volley, L Dallaglio (capt).
Referee: N Williams (Wales).Reuse content