- Munster 33-6 Gloucester, Heineken Cup
Munster's miracle match
With the battle still raging over the future of the Heineken Cup, the increasingly likelihood of this being the tournament's last season has stirred various memories of epic matches from yesteryear, one being Munster's game against Gloucester in 2003, now labelled the 'miracle match'.
Gloucester, then leading the English Premiership, visited Limerick with their quarter-final place all but sewn up. Munster would have to score four tries and win by a margin of at least 27 points to steal it from them. That they succeeded, when Ronan O'Gara converted a try in the 80th minute to achieve a lead of exactly 27 points, has passed into Munster folklore alongside the day they beat the All Blacks in 1978.
Many teams have come unstuck at Thomond Park down the years. The crowd are tribal and passionate in the extreme, they can get under the skin of opponents like few other crowds, as close to a sixteenth man as any club could wish for. Not even their most faithful supporters gave them a prayer on this occasion. So unlikely was the 27 point target that O'Gara admitted afterwards that neither he, nor any of his team-mates knew that his final kick would decide which of the teams would be dumped out of the Heineken Cup and which would progress.
Gloucester, under the stewardship of Nigel Melville and Dean Ryan, had a shocking, humiliating day. They were utterly undone at the set pieces, their lineout fell to bits and, as the pressure mounted, they began to argue among themselves. Henry Paul, the rugby league convert at full-back, was woeful under the high ball, fluffing his lines badly enough to be removed from the fray on the hour.
By then much of the damage had been done. From the moment Anthony Foley led Munster out to mark his 50th Heineken Cup appearance, the capacity 12,500 crowd, despite a fair sized Gloucester contingent, were deafening in their support. After a bad tempered opening few minutes, O'Gara and Ludovic Mercier traded penalties. Gloucester's capacity to defend across the field made Munster work hard for possession and, when they had the ball, to find any gaps.
Peter Stringer found space on the short side and sent wing John Kelly over for the first try. When Gloucester flanker Peter Buxton was sin-binned for pulling down a maul, Munster immediately pounced. Jason Holland put through a grubber kick for Mossie Lawlor to chase and score the second try just before half-time came, with the score 16-6.
Munster were rampant after the break. In search of tries, they shunned kickable penalties, preferring to hammer away at the Cherry and Whites' defence. O'Gara would have grabbed the third try but for a thunderous tackle by Robert Todd.
Gloucester's game plan, if there was one, looked no more ambitious than getting through the 80 minutes doing as little as possible. They were slow to assemble for set pieces and happy to concede penalties when out of kicking range. Munster's pack sensed vulnerable opponents, powerful rolling mauls sending Gloucester backwards at speed several times. On 54 minutes, with nothing to show from their domination since the break, O'Gara finally kicked a penalty, allowing time for both sides the gather their thoughts. Munster were clearly going to win the match, but they needed 14 more points without reply to reach the quarter-finals.
Three minutes later they had seven of them. Lock Mick O'Driscoll, mysteriously lurking far from the action on the right touchline, caught the attention of Holland, whose cross-field kick bounced favourably for O'Driscoll to score. O'Gara converted.
Mercier's poor decision making gave away what possession Gloucester had, hooker Azam earned himself a yellow card, panic crept in as the Thomond Park crowd bayed for the fourth try. O'Gara's superior kicking from hand was doubly effective with Gloucester's lineout in tatters.
Time was running out when Munster threw long and won a lineout 10 metres out. They drove the maul to the posts, recycled the ball twice before sending it right for Kelly to score his second, the try that would complete the miracle of the 27 point lead if O'Gara could convert it. He did.
Play restarted very briefly before referee Joel Jutge's final whistle sparked a pitch invasion from a previous era. Delight and disbelief for Munster, their magnificent team performance having thwarted the visitors' much vaunted pack and unnerved all of Gloucester. Desolation for Gloucester, whose lack of ambition or structure hinted at a degree of complacency coming into the match with such a huge points advantage.
Munster went on to beat Leicester in the Heineken Cup quarter-final, later losing 13-12 to Toulouse in the semi-final.
Gloucester finished top of the English Premiership table 15 points clear of Wasps, but the final was a game too far for them, Wasps running away with a 39-3 victory and the title. In an otherwise excellent season, they were heavily beaten in their two biggest matches.