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Players applauding their supporters at the end of the game v Perpignan in Stade Aime Giral
Billy Stickland
Positive End To 2009.
1 January 2010, 6:12 pm
By Lily White
Looking back on 2009 can only bring a smile to everyone who supports Irish rugby. Grand Slam, Triple Crown, Churchill Cup, Magners League and Heineken Cup all reside in Irish trophy lockers.
Of course, Munster supporters will never forget the disappointment of that day in Croke Park while Leinster's faithful will never forget it because they'll know, at least the true ones will, that that was the day they won the Heineken Cup.

If there was one group who at the end of a great year should have been indicted for bringing the game into disrepute it has to be those who voted Richie McCaw -fabulous player that he is - the IRB Player of the Year ahead of Brian O'Driscoll.

It shouldn't even have a been a close call.

Keeping the best wine till last is a practice not uncommon in Munster's history and as 2009 passes from our grasp, once again, rugby supporters, no matter what their persuasion or what mast their colours may be nailed to, simply has to revel in Munster's Heineken Cup December exploits.

Not for the first time in the history of the competition Munster turned perceived logic on its head and in the process produced a performance that will rank with the best the Heineken Cup has ever seen.

Very few people outside that tight little group that took up station in the beautifully situated Les Flamants Roses in Canet gave this side any chance of getting anything out of this visit to Stade Aime Giral. In fact, best case scenario suggested Munster would do well to leave the south of France with a losing bonus point (Don't bother eating your tie George, it's your tongue you should try swallowing).

Munster would have none of it. And even as they faced into a second half with a slender one point lead you'd have needed to find a brave bookie who would have given them much chance of improving on the original assumption. They'd have taken the hand off you for a winning bonus point win.

That they did, after blitzing the home side in a second half of pure class and bloody persistence says it all about a group who have graced this competition now for well nigh on 13 seasons.

To put what they achieved in context, Perpignan had only ever lost twice previously at home in the Heineken Cup and their home record stood at 23 games without defeat.

Roared on by their home crowd they looked threatening on more than one occasion in the opening half yet Munster always managed to get a body on the line and in the 23rd minute silenced the home support when Denis Fogarty crashed over to the left of the posts for an 8-3 lead. Ronan O'Gara added the conversion and Munster took that slender lead into the second half.

But no matter what had gone in the opening half no-one, almost no-one could have expected what they were to witness in the second half. Paul O'Connell took the restart and in doing so set the tone for the remainder of the half. And where the skipper dared to thread, his teammates were more than willing to follow.

It's unfair to single out one individual over another because truth is, no one player gave more of themselves than another. But in the lead-up to the game, there were those whose credentials had been questioned and in that regard O'Gara, Jean de Villiers when he came on as a replacement, the man he replaced, Lifeimi Mafi and Paul Warwick produced the perfect riposte.

Up front there were heroes aplenty. John Hayes is simply John Hayes. No further explanation required. Alan Quinlan rolled back the years and ccording to more than one teammate, Munster couldn't have won without Denis Leamy's effort.

Wherever O'Connell went his second row partner Donncha O'Callaghan boldly followed and neither had to look too far to see where Fogarty was. David Wallace had a great afternoon, newcomer Wian du Preez was simply majestically Munster and those who came off the bench all contributed positively.

Of course injury to first Leamy, then Felix Jones and then Nick Williams struck a sobering note to the end of year and reminds us of the precarious profession these lads have chosen. But it was heart-warming to see Marcus Horan back in full training with a January return to Munster action forecast.

The players know nothing has been won yet, but, written off in some quarters just a short few weeks ago, their response has been superb. But maybe not too suprising to those that know them.

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