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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 24 July, 2014

Opinion: Where did it all go wrong for mighty Munster?

Once upon a time, a home semi-final for Munster meant guaranteed progress to the final four. Today Ulster arrive in Limerick with winning in mind.

Image: ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

TIME CAN BE a dangerous thing for a man.

It wreaks havoc with the mind, conjuring up regret no matter how much you bat it away.

This week, Jerry Flannery — desperately trying to fill a void in each day — lifted the lid on some regrets held within the Munster camp.

Even before they finally lifted their first European trophy, Ireland’s southern province were the most feared. Their skill levels could not match the flamboyant French sides like Toulouse (not until 2008 anyway) but their heart, soul and every sinew was poured into every knockout fixture.

If you were lucky enough to have a ticket for Thomond Park in those days, you had a ticket that guaranteed happiness on the stroke of 80 minutes or, better still, disbelieving elation — usually against Gloucester.

Today, Munster host Ulster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final and uncertainty is rife. It is in stark contrast to the glory days.

When Munster crashed out of the competition it was usually in southern France or by a cruel twist of fate in England. “You never beat Munster twice,” they would say, and they banished the demons of Wasps’ merciless 37-32 win in 2004 by tearing apart Leinster two years later.

But Leinster would soon exact revenge. Revenge which was the making of the province, vengefulness which rocked Munster to their very core.

“Jesus, this looks really set up here”

That day, Croke Park looked tailor made for Munster. Leinster fans would be moved out of D4 and, having claimed bragging rights twice already that season, the reigning champions looked unstoppable to retain their crown.

Mighty Munster had the measure of Leinster and, when things got tight, they could always depend on Felipe Contepomi to throw a wobbler or two. Then, the Argentine suffered a sickening turn on his right knee. Contepomi was carted off and history was changed forever.

Jonathon Sexton had never before been trusted with responsibility, but he went out to show he wasn’t afraid, icily drilling his first penalty and then taunting his opposite number after Gordon D’Arcy’s pivotal try.

‘I want your place’. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie

Flannery feels that that Munster side was even better than the incarnation which claimed two European crowns.

“That’s the thing I play round with in my head,” lamented the hooker. “2009: kicking on from the three years previous — I’m not talking about the first 15 or the first 17,  I’m talking about the squad depth.”

As he speaks, his right hand is up above head height (a familiar pose) making a layered gesture down to his chest and added:

“David Wallace stepped out and Niall Ronan came in and scored a hat-trick. Donnacha Ryan was coming in, he was playing awesome and I was thinking: ‘Jesus, this really looks set up here.’”

In saying this he realises a contradiction. Previously, he defined a great team with “I think you have to go and win things”. Looking back a second time, greatness is ordained by the smallest of breaks. He’s right on both counts.

Flannery wasn’t keen on discussing the minutiae of the day; time is not necessarily healing the wound. Instead, he would ruefully grumble, “Leinster turned us over.”

Since then, the great province which provided so much romanticism to the competition has been dishing out heartbreak and frustration to match the early chapters in their European odyssey.

They made another semi-final in 2010, but managed only one score in Biarritz when Dimitri Yachvili nailed six penalties. Then came the nadir, crashing out at the group stage with another limp showing in the south of France. So, what went wrong?

“I looked at it and I don’t know,” shrugged the newly-retired Munster man, “We didn’t lose a whole lot of first choice players, we lost Rua Tipoki. Rua had been injured a lot that year and we played with Mafs and Earlsy, signed Jean de Villiers and, just… the two sides flipped.”

“We never kicked on from that semi-final and for the Leinster lads who had lost two times against us, that sort of win just spurred so much belief and they’ve just kicked on on massively from there.”

Had they been overtaken by anyone else, it may have been acceptable. They could stomach Toulouse, Clermont or even Leicester being the best team in Europe. In that case they would simply have circled the wagons and geared up for an annual assault.

But their most fearsome rivals? ‘The “ladyboys” putting them to shame? That was much less palatable.

Suddenly, any slight slip in standards within the UL training base, every chink in Munster’s armour was exacerbated by Leinster. As the eastern province gradually drip-fed new faces into the ranks, injury trouble meant Munster were forced to do likewise with academy kids who were not yet prepared for the step up.

There was no room to flourish. The inter-pros are a proving ground and Leinster stunted the Reds’ growth at every turn. Suddenly, not only could you beat Munster twice, they could be beaten five times.

Ulster were bristling with confidence on the road to Limerick. Thomond Park, holds less fear than ever before and, on paper, they look likely to dominate the game in several areas.

But Munster’s success has never been based on paper, nor on logic. It is based on heart and soul, the raw energy that the incalculable pride in the jersey brings forth.

The winners of today’s quarter-final will be installed as heavy favorites to see off Edinburgh in a partisan Aviva Stadium. With Leinster safely nestled on the more difficult side of the draw, a hard-fought win this afternoon would place Munster on track for the final.

If they make it there, Flannery’s regret may be filed away with Wasps’ demolition job and “the hand of Back” as mere twists in the legendary tale of mighty Munster.

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