I’m back from what has been the best weekend of my life. Munster won the Heineken Cup, and I can say that I was there.
It’s difficult to put into words how amazing the entire weekend was. It started off at 5am on a cold Friday morning and ended at 11pm Sunday night. In between there were bouts of nervousness, awe, joy, anxiety, relief and tiredness. But in the end, this weekend will be remembered for the camaraderie, and the sheer joy of seeing Paul O’Connell lift the Heineken Cup.
I’ll never forget my first view of the inside of the Millennium Stadium. I was awe struck by the size, the noise and the vast sea of red. Thinking back, it still sends a shiver down my spine.
After the lap of honour was completed came the most bitter-sweet image of the day. Declan Kidney approached the fans holding the Cup with Paul O’Connell. He clapped the fans, took a bow and walked back to the rest of the team. The roar from the crowd was unnatural. It reverberated around the stadium and hit me full in the chest. It suddenly dawned on me that this was his goodbye to the Munster Faithful.
Joy tinged with sadness is the most poignant emotion of them all.
The next time the Men in Red run out on to the field, there’ll be no Declan Kidney, Jim Williams or Anthony Foley. The Munster team will continue, and with the current crop of players, there’s certainly more Heineken Cups to be won, but we’ll be without those men that have gone so far to make Munster Rugby what it is.
With the confidence that comes from being a Munster supporter, we booked our trip back in January. So there’s no last minute searching for match tickets or accommodation. Just pack the bags and we’re ready to go.
Munster vs Toulouse – the dream final. Will the dream continue for Munster? Hard to say. Toulouse have an unbelievable Heineken Cup record. But then again so do Munster. We may not have won it as many times, but this is our fourth final, and we have the experience of being here and done that.
The core of the team is the same as that in 2006, but with the added benefit of a much better back line. Mafi, Tipoki, Howlett. These names are enough to strike fear into any team. Then add in the likes of Paul O’Connell, Anthony Foley, Ronan O’Gara, Dennis Leamy, Jerry Flannery. Toulouse will recognise that the Munster squad displays quality in every position.
On the other hand, Toulouse can bring players like Elissalde, Heymans, Pelous, Albacete. All giants of the game.
So it’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be a titanic battle, there is no doubt about that.
After all of that though, I think there are three things that will push the match Munster’s way: 60,000+ Munster supporters, Declan Kidney leaves Munster to take over as Ireland coach, and Anthony Foley plays the last game of his career in a Heineken Cup Final. Sport doesn’t get much more romantic than that. What more could you want?
I can’t wait.
Munster all the way.
It may be a bit premature considering that Munster still have to get past Gloucester and then either Saracens or Ospreys, but I’ve booked my trip to Cardiff for the Heineken Cup Final at the end of May.
The quarter-final against Gloucester is going to be a much tougher game than most people believe – beating Gloucester and winning through to the semi-final will be harder than getting to the final. Though there are no easy games at this stage of the Heineken Cup, I prefer our chances against either Saracens or Ospreys.
No matter what happens next April/ May, I’ll still be in Cardiff come the 24th May. I’ll be much happier if Munster are there too.
As a post-script, this will be my first ever foreign “holiday”. In this age of cheap air fares, most of my friends find it amazing that I’ve made it to the age of 31 without leaving the country.