Munster produced a resilient performance to secure their second Heineken Cup triumph in three years, beating Toulouse 16-13 in a pulsating final on Saturday.
Munster produced a resilient performance to secure their second Heineken Cup triumph in three years, beating Toulouse 16-13 in a pulsating final at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
We have waited thirteen years for this very game and it did not disappoint, it was everything we had hoped for and then some. The game ebbed and flowed, the pendulum of momentum swinging back and forth until finally Munster grasped with all their might and ensured it rested with them.
A lesser team may have crumbled in the face of adversity, but Munster are a team unlike any other. They have a steely determination in everything they do, and despite being rocked early on they held their nerve to ensure Toulouse could not capitalise on their near total dominance.
But for a brief sortie into the Toulouse half, Munster spent the opening quarter standing tall, defending not only their line but their right to be crowned Heineken Cup champions. Guy NovÃ¨s had spoken of combat leading into the final, Toulouse's flair would only flow forth when the moment was right.
First and foremost Toulouse would take the physical and pragmatic approach – after all it is points that win finals, the manner in which they are scored is irrelevant. Munster themselves are well aware of that and had no qualms in standing toe-to-toe with Toulouse.
Toulouse's pragmatism yielded just three points – a drop-goal from Jean-Baptiste Elissalde – scant return for such dominance in the opening quarter, and one could not help feel their slender return would never be enough. As it was never a question of if but when Munster would ignite, and the answer was forthcoming soon enough.
French dominance could have equated to so much more but for Elissalde first sending a penalty wide of the uprights before under-cooking a second drop-goal attempt. On such narrow misses games can and are lost.
Having repelled a valiant onslaught from their Gallic opponents, Munster indulged in some devilment of their own, gifted a chance when Byron Kelleher was caught with his hands in the ruck. Clad in an unfamiliar dark blue, Munster indicated their intent with a surging attack that spanned some fourteen phases and had Toulouse on the ropes.
Nothing came of it but the psychological blow had been struck, Munster were easing into their familiar stride and it was now a question of time. Denis Leamy thought he had become just the fourth forward in the tournament's history to score in a final, but the TMO denied him the honour, albeit for a matter of minutes.
Munster don't take failure well, and nor should they given what they have been through over the past thirteen years. It came as no surprise then that from the resulting scrum they physically and mentally destroyed Toulouse's hitherto solid set-piece.
It is the Munster way, never ones to take the easy route – a quick glance at their route to the final will tell you as much. With their hands back on the ball they were not to be relieved of possession until Leamy was driven over the line for a try that raised the decibel level that extra notch. O'Gara added the extras, and then a penalty moments later to give Munster breathing space.
Such was the nature of this absorbing affair Toulouse ensured their continued interest with a Elissalde penalty on the stroke of half time to leave the things entirely in the balance. The question was could the intensity levels continue at such a level after the break? Of course they could, neither of these sides know any different.
If you are looking for where this game was won and lost then look no further than the opening five minutes of the second half. Twice Munster were in a pickle and twice the carrot-topped Paul O'Connell rescued them. First of all he stole a line-out five out from his own line, and then just as Toulouse looked to be marching towards a push over score he emerged from the maul not only with the ball, but with Munster's growing Heineken Cup hopes.
Those hopes grew again when Fabien Pelous – who in truth had a torrid game and was a penalty away from a red card in the end – was sent to the sin-bin. An innocuous kick of Alan Quinlan's backside merited a penalty but never a yellow card.
But touch-judge Nigel Whitehouse convinced Nigel Owens to brandish a yellow card, which he duly did. What's more O'Gara duly kicked the penalty and Munster's lead was back to seven and they had yet to play with the luxury of a numerical advantage.
In the face of adversity greatness is often conjured, and such was the case for Toulouse and CÃ©dric Heymans. A quick line-out throw to himself, deep inside his own half, sparked a move of sweeping brilliance. Feinting to hoist a high kick, Heymans instead opted for a deft chip, which he gathered before escaping two defenders. Again he kicked for the jittery Yves Donguy to chase, O'Gara could not defuse the matter and Donguy pounced for a stunning try.
As we had expected there was nothing to separate these two giants of the game, that was until O'Gara edged Munster into the narrowest of leads and allowed his forwards to assume total control in the final fifteen minutes.
For Toulouse they are left with the metal that never shines, another losers' medal. While Munster, having taken so long to break their duck in 2006, are left to saviour the taste of a second title in three years. The perfect leaving present for Declan Kidney and Jim Williams, the two men who have molded this group into outright winners.
Man of the match: There was the majestic CÃ©dric Heymans for Toulouse who produced one of the most dazzling pieces of skill to create a try for Yves Donguy, there was the tireless Shaun Sowerby and the creative skills of Yannick Jauzion. And then there were fifteen men in blue, not all brilliant but everyone committed to the end. Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi were superb in midfield. Ronan O'Gara was solid in guiding his side around the field but it was the forwards who stole the show. Paul O'Connell was, as you expect, outstanding but Alan Quinlan stole the show at blindside. We have come to expect these sorts of performances from him but he surpassed anything that has gone before with this effort.
Moment of the match: In such a game there were so many but there is one that presents itself above the rest. Denis Leamy had been denied a try by the television match official and Toulouse had seemingly escaped a torrid period of pressure. That was until Munster produced a monster effort in the scrum to win the ball back. Ten phases later and Leamy had his try and Munster were on their way to victory.
Villain of the match: Yes, Fabien Pelous's kick was without thought but it didn't warrant a yellow card. So for his part in the affair Nigel Whitehouse takes this gong for recommending Nigel Owens send the Toulouse captain to the sin-bin.