Dreams are made of this. If Ulster's emotion-charged triumph in last year's Heineken Cup was inevitably devalued by the politically motivated absence of the best English and Welsh talent, Munster's achievement in reaching this season's final is every bit as outstanding in reality as it looks on paper. The warrior clans of Cork and Limerick outscored Toulouse by three tries to one yesterday, which was astonishing in itself. To have done it in the rugby badlands of south-west France was something else again.
John Hayes, the international tight-head prop who is very nearly as wide as he is tall, struck the first blow of the red-shirted uprising as early as the ninth minute, but it was not until the long-odds outsiders scored two tries in five minutes at the start of the final quarter that possibility became probability. Almost in a twinkling of an Irish eye, Munster had gone from 17-18 down to 31-18 up. There was still work to do as the aristocrats of the French game attempted to storm the barricades, but they could only manage a solitary try from Jerome Cazalbou, their scrum-half, deep in injury time. It was far too little, far too late.
Stade Lescure, a sundappled bear-pit of an arena located in a swish area of downtown Bordeaux, was at its vibrant best yesterday, just as it had been in 1998 when Bath also upset the French form book by famously out-lasting Brive and crowning themselves champions of Europe. The temperature was nudging 80 degrees out in the middle and the rival supporters raised the heat 10-fold with the incalculable depth of their passion. Perhaps only the Heineken can do this; certainly, international rugby, of which there is far too much these days, rarely reaches the parts refreshed in south-west France yesterday.
There was never the slightest doubt that a pumped-up Munster would hit the ground running, and unlike so many one-dimensional Irish sides of the past, they really do run rather than lumber. Keith Wood, for instance, looked every inch a sprinter as he took advantage of an uncharacteristic knock-on from Christian Califano after nine minutes and covered the 40-odd metres into the Toulouse 22 in double-quick time. John Kelly and Dominic Crotty, two outside backs with no obvious fear of the rough and tumble in close, maintained the momentum with some direct running and the over-stretched French defence was in no shape to stop Hayes careering over from a short distance.
For the next half-hour, it looked as though Hayes' contribution might be the highlight of the Irish day. The Toulouse forwards, particularly thebottle-blond flankers Didier Lacroix and Christian Labit, took a strong measure of control and earned Michel Marfaing and Stephane Ougier a quintet of penalties before the break. Yet Ronan O'Gara, growing in stature as a top-flight midfield playmaker virtually by the match, kept Munster in touch with a brace of his own and, taking advantage of Peter Stringer's wonderfully quick passing from the heels of his forwards, kept the French loose forwards honest with a series of angled breaks.
It was the outside-half who broke the game wide open on 61 minutes. Having slotted two third-quarter penalties to Marfaing's one to keep his side within a point - in truth, Toulouse might have had a penalty try during this period when Mike Mullins knocked down a scoring pass from an offside position and went straight to the sin-bin without passing Go - O'Gara found an inspired pass on his own 22 to bring his wide midfield into play. Anthony Horgan beat three men down the left touchline as the ball was worked back across the field and the Munster forwards then drove and recycled so efficiently that O'Gara was able to open up the remnants of the Toulouse defence and score unopposed under the posts.
The conversion gave the Irishmen further breathing space, but not even they could have imagined that five minutes later, they would be breathing in the pure air of a 13-point advantage. That they were able to do so was entirely down to Jason Holland, their inside centre, who gambled everything he possessed to intercept a pass from Cazalbou deep in Toulouse territory and touch down in the spot O'Gara had made his own a short while previously.
Again O'Gara converted, again the Toulouse forwards looked at their backs and wondered what the heck was going on.
While the game was far from dead, Toulouse needed something quickly. Munster were in no mood to give them a single centimetre, let alone any points. Even when Mick Galwey, their fine captain, left the field on the 80-minute mark with blood streaming from his forehead, Donnacha O'Callaghan came steaming off the bench and straight into the heart of his side's forward effort. As efforts go, it was one to remember for ever and a day.
Toulouse: S Ougier; E Ntamack, C Desbrosse (P Bondouy, 67), L Stensness, M Marfaing; A Penaud, J Cazalbou; C Califano (C Soulette, 72), Y Bru, F Tournaire, F Belot (capt), F Pelous, D Lacroix (M Lievremont, 64), C Labit, S Dispagne (H Miorin, 72).
Munster: D Crotty; J Kelly, M Mullins, J Holland, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, K Wood (F Sheehan, h-t), J Hayes (M Horan, 72), M Galwey (capt, D O'Callaghan, 80)), J Langford, E Halvey, D Wallace, A Foley.
Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).
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