Munster 16 Toulouse 13: Munster Cup glory built on base of power before grace

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was nothing shameful about a union aficionado enjoying the way Dean Richards played his rugby, despite the fact that the Great Shambling Bear spent much of his career single-handedly ensuring that the ball never saw the light of day. However, the No 8's own mother might have drawn the line at picking 15 Deanos in the same side, and as Munster, champions of Europe for a second time, give the impression of basing their entire philosophy on the Gospel According to Saint Deano, it cannot be a barrel of laughs watching them every week.

On the other hand, mere fun is a lot less fun than winning – and my, how Munster have mastered the art of winning. When Guy Noves, the coach of Toulouse, sought to explain his side's narrow defeat in the 13th Heineken Cup final by stating that the Irish province had "known exactly what they needed to do", it was not obvious whether he was congratulating the victors on their perspicacity or damning them for the mean-minded narrowness of their vision. Perhaps he was doing both. After all, the French know more than anyone about playing like angels while supping with the devil.

Neither was Noves wholly positive on the subject of the Welsh referee, Nigel Owens, who had controlled no fewer than four of Munster's previous contests in this season's tournament, each and every one of which had gone the way of – er – Munster. These included important pool-stage wins over Clermont Auvergne and Wasps, a thoroughly persuasive quarter-final success at Gloucester and a rather less impressive semi-final victory over Saracens. Owens was not noticeably lopsided in his decision making on Saturday evening, but the Toulouse hierarchy felt justified in raising the issue even so.

Needless to say, a member of Noves' after-match audience then raised it with Declan Kidney, the Munster coach, who suffered something of a sense of humour failure. Kidney accused his interlocutor of "questioning the referee's integrity", which was rather daft in a "let's shoot the messenger" kind of way. Once he had calmed down, he praised his opposite number as "a man I'd look up to, because Toulouse play with a flair and a passion I'd like to bring to a team of mine". There is little doubt that Munster have the passion already. The flair? The good folk of Cork and Limerick would be well advised not to hold their collective breath.

Yet it is far too simplistic to portray events in Cardiff as a triumph of darkness over light, for the Toulouse performance was seriously flawed. They had a desperate time of it at the line-out – even with the Argentine rock Patricio Albacete and the elastic Jean Bouilhou sharing the ball-winning duties, they messed up badly – and having survived the mother and father of a Munster assault by forcing Denis Leamy into a knock-on at the line, they failed to clear their lines from the resulting five-metre scrum and allowed the No 8 to wrestle a try for himself at the second attempt. This, agreed Noves, was a pivotal moment.

And then there was the discipline – or rather, Fabien Pelous and his lack of discipline. The grand old lock has been known to spit his dummy on occasion, and when he responded to some sly aggression from Alan Quinlan by booting him up the jacksie, the inevitable yellow card was not long in coming. While Pelous was off the field, Toulouse scored a blinder of a try through Yves Donguy, courtesy of the spellbinding Cédric Heymans; within five minutes of returning, Pelous plonked himself on the wrong side of a ruck and presented Ronan O'Gara with what proved to be the winning penalty. Well played, Fabien. A captain's knock if ever there was one.

"It was a real shame to react like that at my age," remarked Pelous of his tangle with Quinlan. "He stamped on my foot, and I retaliated. It is true that I lost my head a little." For "a little", read "a lot". People have been queueing to kick Quinlan's backside for many a long year – the blind-side flanker is courageous, effective and profoundly irritating in equal measure – but there is a time and a place. The time is not at the tipping point of an evenly contested Heineken Cup final. The place is not smack in front of a touch judge.

If the most beautiful attacking rugby came from Toulouse – Heymans' chip-and-gather routine in the build-up to Donguy's try was sublime – Munster's ability to win ugly was always evident once they put a scratchy opening 20 minutes behind them.

"People will look at that and say it wasn't the fanciest, but for pure attrition and work rate, our performance was right up there," said the winning captain, Paul O'Connell, whose impersonation of the great Martin Johnson would have been uncannily accurate but for the application of certain skills Johnson never went close to learning.

O'Connell now joins Ryan Jones of Wales as a major contender for the captaincy of the British and Irish Lions in South Africa next summer. Meanwhile, Kidney leaves Munster on the most stratospheric of highs to succeed Eddie O'Sullivan as Ireland's coach.

"You have good days and tough days in sport," he said. "Even Tiger Woods has more second-place finishes than first-place finishes. Mick Galwey [the revered Munster lock of yore] said ages ago that we'd have to lose a Heineken Cup final to win one. As it turned out, we had to lose two to win two."

A third title next year? The odds are against it – only Leicester have staged a successful defence, and the field has strengthened a good deal since 2002 – but as Dean Richards used to say, you'll always have a chance if you stick the ball up your jumper and keep it there.

Munster: Try Leamy; Conversion O'Gara; Penalties O'Gara 3; Toulouse: Try Donguy; Conversion Elissalde; Penalty Elissalde; Drop goal Elissalde.

Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett, R Tipoki. L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan (T Buckley, 67-80), J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt; M O'Driscoll, 60-63), A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy.

Toulouse: C Heymans; M Médard, M Kunavore, Y Jauzion, Y Donguy (M Ahotaeiloa, 78); J-B Elissalde, B Kelleher; D Human, W Servat, S Perugini (J-B Poux, 57), F Pelous (capt), P Albacete (R Millo-Chlusky, 64), J Bouilhou (G Lamboley, 64), T Dusautoir (Y Nyanga, 40), S Sowerby.

Referee: N Owens (Wales).