Munster magic makes fans of all of us
PA Sport's Andrew Baldock
April 24, 2008
"They have always had a world-class pack and they have always had Ronan O'Gara - on his day is there a better fly-half tactician on the planet? - but they've now got flair behind the scrum." PA Sport's Andrew Baldock reports
I never quite knew what to make of Munster - until this season.
Given they are one win away from reaching a fourth Heineken Cup final, I accept it has taken far too long to forge a clear opinion.
Even though Munster haven't failed to feature in the tournament's quarter-final stage or beyond since 1998, there was something not quite right.
I felt they were often over-rated, over-hyped and occasionally over-bearing, as if the Heineken Cup was all about Munster and nobody else.
I remember a particularly lively dinner debate with some fellow journalists on an England tour six years ago - you couldn't escape Munster, even in down-town Buenos Aires.
One self-confessed Munster worshipper presented a powerful case for embracing them as the greatest thing since sliced bread.
I pointed to successive big European defeats against Colomiers, Northampton, Stade Francais and Leicester, suggesting the most neglected piece of furniture in Ireland was Munster's trophy cabinet.
He then pointed his bread roll in my general direction, and the argument moved on - to how Neil Back's hand robbed Munster in the 2002 Heineken Cup final.
Admittedly, it has taken a while, but I have belatedly joined the Munster fan club.
Perhaps I was persuaded by Gloucester boss Dean Ryan - one of the finest post-match orators around - after Munster knocked his Guinness Premiership leaders out of Europe earlier this month.
''Munster,'' declared Ryan, ''are a team built for European rugby.''
I recall heading back to my car that Saturday night, walking through the red-shirted Munster mass that was once Kingsholm Road, thinking Ryan had got it spot-on.
Here was a team that had pitched up in a true hotbed of English rugby and slowly silenced the Gloucester faithful by delivering a masterclass in mistake-free rugby.
It was clinical, composed and confident, all executed to such a high level of competence that at no stage in the game did you feel Munster would lose.
They have always had a world-class pack and they have always had Ronan O'Gara - on his day is there a better fly-half tactician on the planet? - but they've now got flair behind the scrum.
The influence of All Blacks try machine Doug Howlett, and the inventive midfield presence provided by Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi, make Munster an awesomely-complete package.
Hats off too, to rugby director Declan Kidney - he should be confirmed as Ireland's new head coach next week - for fronting up in selection.
He could have adopted a tried and tested policy when Munster went to Gloucester, but Kidney had the courage of his convictions and fielded two largely untried European campaigners in full-back Denis Hurley and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary.
The game's magnitude did not matter. Both players were in form and deserved to play on merit, so established Munster men Shaun Payne and Peter Stringer missed out.
Coventry's impressive Ricoh Arena now awaits Kidney and company on Sunday, where Saracens, coached by former Munster chief Alan Gaffney, are the semi-final opponents.
As ever, when Munster are in town, a drop of the black stuff always goes down a treat. Who knows, I might even raise a glass to them myself.
They've won me over - and I think they will win the Heineken Cup.
Wales supporters have drawn the Six Nations short straw next season when their 2008 Grand Slam heroes face a ludicrous Friday night clash against France in Paris.
A 9pm (local time) kick-off is television scheduling gone mad, and what a message it would send out if there were empty seats at Stade de France on February 27.
Welsh fans will be there in droves, of course - they are arguably the most committed and loyal in world rugby - but here are a few little tips, having been there and done the dreaded 'St Denis at midnight' experience.
* The last train back to Gare du Nord is usually at 12.30am. Miss it, and you are effectively stuck in an industrial estate with little hope of seeing a taxi, let alone flagging one down.
* Be aware of any transport industrial action. The French seem to go on strike every other day.
* With such a late finish to the game, your hotel preference would clearly be for one near Gare du Nord. The largest hotel in that vicinity though, has already hiked its prices - for February next year - to 200 Euros a night.
When will television executives realise that 9pm kick-offs aren't fun?
They are an ordeal, and those supporters who help make the Six Nations such a great tournament deserve so much better.
The International Rugby Board will mount their latest charm offensive regarding their beloved ELVs (Experimental Law Variations) in south-west London on Saturday morning.
Invited media will be fully briefed on the ELVs, which include considerable - and damaging, in my opinion - adaptations to key areas like the maul, tackle area and lineout.
Some of them are are currently being trialled in the Super 14 - that well-known southern hemisphere touch rugby tournament - but Europe is next on the IRB's agenda, with a distinct possibility ELVs could arrive at a stadium near you by September.
If real rugby is your sport, rather than a 15-a-side version of basketball, just keep fingers crossed the IRB's grand plan is blocked at every turn.