So near and yet so far
April 29, 2009
Munster's fans celebrate Trevor Halstead's try against Leinster at Lansdowne Road in 2006 © Getty Images
The Heineken Cup semi-finals roll around this weekend, with Europe's premier club competition looking set to serve up another classic round of action as Munster take on Leinster at Croke Park and Cardiff welcome Leicester Tigers to the Millennium Stadium.
The Munster legend is writ large across the history of the Heineken Cup and as they attempt to get a positive result from their eighth appearance in the last four we take a look back at the greatest semi-finals in the history of the competition.
Leinster 6-30 Munster, Lansdowne Road - 2006
Leinster's big players will have all the ammunition they need for this weekend's Heineken Cup semi if they think back three years to a gloriously sunny Lansdowne Road. In front of a rabid crowd of 48,000, Leinster had the momentum following their stunning quarter-final victory away to Toulouse but the now famous Munster juggernaut left them shocked and beaten after a late surge.
In a game dismissed by many due to the one-sided scoreline, Munster exploded in to life and finally realised their potential after years of near misses in semi-finals and agonising defeats in finals. Ronan O'Gara, who finished the game with 20 of his team's points, orchestrated one of the most belligerent performances from the men in red, their power and desire altogether too dangerous against a Leinster side whose key players were thwarted from the off. Brian O'Driscoll, Felipe Contempomi, Denis Hickie and Gordon D'Arcy all floundered in the face of the Munster onslaught as first O'Gara and then Denis Leamy and Trevor Halstead crossed their try-line. Bring on the re-match.
Northampton 31-28 Llanelli, Madejski Stadium - 2000
Northampton, to this point English rugby's perennial underachievers, won a classic ebb and flow semi-final 31-28 against a gallant Llanelli side. Paul Grayson was summoned from the bench to win the game, his penalty in the final stages was all that separated the sides at the final whistle.
The Saints had earlier scored tries through Ben Cohen and Allan Bateman while scrum-half Matt Dawson landed six penalties prior to Grayson's introduction. The men from Stradey had their own metronomic presence however, Wales fly-half Stephen Jones landing seven penalties and converting Dafydd James' try.
Leicester 13-12 Llanelli, City Ground - 2002
Déjà vu. Leicester fullback Tim Stimpson's 60-metre injury-time penalty is one of the most heart-breaking images in the grand history of Llanelli rugby. Stimpson's kick secured a 13-12 victory for the eventual champions, while Harry Ellis scored the only try of a match watched by 29,849 at Nottingham's City Ground.
Llanelli, clear underdogs, had stolen an unlikely lead thanks to four penalties from Jones and were on course for a dream final at the Millennium Stadium until the unassuming Stimpson landed a nerveless, colossal final blow.
"How those gods enjoy making merry sport of Llanelli," wrote Mick Cleary in the Daily Telegraph. "If sadism is your thing, then Nottingham was the place to be. The misery of others makes for great drama, painful as it was for the spirited Scarlets. The Marquis de Sade must be a Tigers fan."
Munster 32-37 Wasps, Lansdowne Road - 2004
Wasps' win in the 2004 Heineken Cup is often remembered solely for the dramatic conclusion in the final at Twickenham, when Toulouse fullback Clement Poitrenaud had his pocket picked by Rob Howley in one of the most infamous mistakes in the history of the game.
Several weeks earlier however, Warren Gatland's men had been through the wringer in a classic encounter against Munster at Lansdowne Road. Munster had lead early on thanks to Ronan O'Gara before the talismanic fly-half limped off, watching from the sidelines as his side set up a ten-point lead thanks to a try from skipper Jim Williams.
Soon after all had changed. With Rob Henderson and lock Donncha O'Callaghan sent to the sin-bin Munster's lead was eroded step-by-step. Alex King landed a penalty to draw his side to within a score before Tom Voyce scythed through the Munster defence to score under the posts. Their dramatic comeback was complete when giant hooker Trevor Leota scored a famous winning try with some help from the TMO. Munster had been denied yet again.
Toulouse 13-12 Munster, Stade Toulouse - 2003
A year earlier, Munster had again been within minutes of the final. Against Toulouse, their 12-6 lead looked to be enough to take them in to the Promised Land. Toulouse's Xavier Garbajosa was denied by a tackle from Peter Stringer after 65 minutes, the scrum-half dropping the ball over the line. Munster's let-off was not capitalised on however, and with only six minutes left on the clock Freddie Michalak broke provincial hearts with a try, scored out wide and converted by Jean-Baptiste Elissalde.
O'Gara, who had scored all of Munster's points with two penalties and two drop-goals, set up position as the game winked out, but on two occasions he saw drop-goals inch past the post. Toulouse went on to win the tournament, Munster went back to the drawing board.
Stade Francais 20-17 Biarritz, Parc des Princes - 2005
A moment of brilliance from diminutive France wing Christophe Dominici sent Stade Francais in to the 2005 final at Murrayfield, his late burst through a tired Biarritz defence securing a nail-biting 20-17 victory.
The all-French semi-final at the Parc des Princes had looked set to go the way of Biarritz, with Damien Traille starring with a superb solo try from 40m out and Dimitri Yachvili landing four penalties for a 17-13 lead as the clock ticked in to injury time.
Jerome Fillol had kept Stade in touch with a controversial converted try and three penalties before Dominici provided an elusive spark for a Stade side that had struggled early on. Collecting the ball at the base of a ruck Dominici cut through the Biarritz line before fending off a despairing final tackle to win the game. "Christophe is one of those brilliant players who can always come up with things like that," Stade scrum-half Agustin Pichot told the BBC after the final whistle.
Ulster 33-27 Stade Francais, Ravenhill - 1999
Ulster's march to the Heineken Cup in 1999 was a unique one. With the English clubs having boycotted the tournament due to a row between the RFU and tournament organisers the remaining clubs were faced with a slightly easier path to glory - unless you were Ulster that is.
Led by the inspirational David Humphreys, Ulster's reward for twice defeating Toulouse (in the group stages and again in the quarter-finals) was a simple semi-final against Stade Francais. Unfashionable and unfancied, Ulster welcomed the Parisian aristocrats to a jam-packed Ravenhill and the latest chapter in their storied season unfolded in thrilling fashion, Humphreys and points-machine fullback Simon Mason orchestrating a 33-27 victory.
Mason finished the game with 20 points thanks to five penalties, a drop-goal and a conversion while Humphreys scored one of two tries, the other going to flanker Stephen McKinty, and a drop-goal.