A series of powerful, mature performances proved too much for their provincial opponents, with the competition played for the first time on a home and away basis. With 17 tries to their credit, and only two in the debit column, the Munster outfit were good value for their title.
Coach, Brian Hyland, says that all the credit for the province s success should go to the players: This team deserved to win the championship. They worked fantastically hard, conceded only two tries in the whole tournament.
They were a great group to work with. All the credit for the win must go to them. We were training every Tuesday and Thursday for three months with 30 players. From an initial seventy the management team looked at early in the year, we whittled it down. What s amazing, of course, is that while we used 25 players, this meant that 5 guys who trained all the time, for 12 weeks, didn t get games. It s a huge compliment to them that they stuck with it. Without that sort of spirit and pride in the jersey, we d never have got anywhere.
The whole squad must take credit for the effort and commitment, but most importantly for the desire. A management team can do all it wants with gameplans and strategies, but without the desire, you won t do it.
At the end of sultry August, Munster kicked off their campaign against Leinster, in Donnybrook. The final score there was 25-5, a victory which flattered Munster a little. Essentially, it being our first game, Hyland said, it was the one game we went into with a bit of trepidation and nervousness, because we didn t know how we d perform. We hoped we d prepared well, but you never know. The fact that it was away, and that it was against Leinster, added more pressure.
We didn t play terribly well, but in the first half, Tomas O Leary got an intercept try from our own 22 when they had a four to two overlap and he touched down under the posts. That was a fourteen pointer and settled us down.
Barry Keeshan had a fantastic day with the boot and the defence was extremely impressive. When we got into attack, we got penalties, and Barry rattled them over. The important thing was, we knew that we were capable of better. We hadn t played to our potential, yet we still won and that s always encouraging.
A physical Connacht side were up next at home, but Munster found the going tough in that game, with Connacht outhalf, David Connellan, in fine form with the boot. With time running out, the underdogs were within four points of the home side, only for winger Andrew Finn to put the seal on Munster s 26-15 win with a late try.
Then, it was back-to-back clashes with a physically strong Ulster side. Munster s dominance out of touch, and their defensive strength were to prove the critical factors in doing the double over the Northerners. The first tussle, in Musgrave Park, saw Munster run out comfortable winners, on a scoreline of 27-6. Our lineout worked extremely well in this game, Hyland said, both on our own throw and on theirs. So we had a lot of ball to work with, and scored three good tries. We were a little disappointed not to get the fourth try and a bonus point. Again, we created a lot and defended well.
The squad made the long trek North the following week, and emerged victorious by 21-6 a fifteen minute spell where Munster scored two good tries. The first came off a lineout move which saw Anthony Kavanagh get over in the corner and the other was from open play, with UCC s Donncha Ryan eventually touching down. For the third game in a row, the Munster line had refused to yield, and Hyland was justifiably delighted: It was a very pleasing performance. We took the right decisions at the right time it was a thoroughly professional performance.
Minnows Connacht were humbled in the next game, as Munster ran in 7 tries in the course of a comprehensive 45-9 victory. Again, Hyland was pleased: This performance was different from the first game against Connacht in that we finished what we created and ended up with seven tries. We dictated the pace of the game, essentially.
That win set up an intriguing Munster-Leinster clash in Thomond Park. In a scenario reminiscent of the legendary Munster-Gloucester Heineken Cup tie last year, a momentous 40-point plus winning performance from Leinster was required to give them the title. Hyland explains: Because of what we might call a dropped point in the second game against Ulster, we could have been caught by Leinster in this game. The format, in that sense, added an extra excitement to events. It was a final, essentially. These lads deserve a final, a big occasion in front of a big crowd in Thomond Park, playing for the championship.
Both sides served up a cracking game of rugby, but for much of it, Munster s 100% record seemed in jeopardy, until number eight, Brendan O Connor, crossed the Leinster line twice in the last quarter. It wasn t Munster s best game of the championship, but Hyland was still pleased: We created quite a bit again, but didn t finish we took some wrong decisions. In a sort of reversal of what happened in the first game, we had a five to two overlap at one stage, but we spilled the ball and Leinster got a scrum, a penalty and scored a try soon after.
So, we were down with 20 minutes to go, but the players stuck with the gameplan and the systems and Brendan O Connor got over for two tries to win the game. The new home and away format gave the Munster coaches, Hyland and Philip Danagher, and manager, Niall O Shea, plenty of time to work with their players.
Firstly, it puts a lot of strain on the squad, with lads picking up knocks, so we used 25 players over the 6 games, Hyland explains. The advantage is that it gives guys a chance to settle in, gives them a chance to play for Munster, which is a big step in their development and their careers. Six games allows them to have a bad game early on without being terrified of losing their place after a poor performance. It allows the entire team to settle and we certainly benefited.
With the emphasis that Munster place on youth development, u-21 is a critical level, something Hyland is acutely aware of: At Munster u-21 level, our primary objective is to supply players to the senior side. We look to give guys exposure in terms of possible selection for the senior side, and give them an opportunity to get into the Irish u-21 setup.
In terms of back-up from the Munster branch, Hyland notes that his coaching team and players were treated superbly: It s fair to say we wanted for nothing. I mean, we ve become more organised year after year, and our demands are increasing all the time, but they ve all been met. We had great facility support from clubs and technical support from the Branch s development officers, Ultan O Callaghan and Ian Sherwin.
Also, the senior management team of Alan Gaffney, Brian Hickey and Jerry Holland showed genuine interest all the way through. It wasn t just support from the back offices, in administration, it was moral support from the senior management. That s a huge boost to the morale of the players, knowing that they re being monitored like that. It tells them that the gap between senior rugby and u-21 level is closing all the time, and this is a massive boost.
In terms of progression from u-21 level a la, most recently, Denis Leamy, Frank Murphy and Stephen Keogh, some of the current crop have already tasted action with the senior side. Winger/full-back, Richard Lane, was included in the squad for the game against Gwent Dragons last week. Outhalf Barry Keeshan, currently at UCC, was Munster s top scorer during the competition with 79 points, while his half-back partner, Tomas O Leary, also attracted praise. Another UCC man, winger, Paul Hurley, also enjoyed a distinguished campaign. In the forwards, the accurate throwing of hooker, Robert Quinn, may see him tasting senior action before long, while line-out expert, Shane O Connor, is well on the way to progression. However, it is Dolphin full-back/wing, Andrew Finn, who is tipped by insiders to be the next big star to emerge from the u-21 set-up
Nobody in Munster is resting on their laurels at the moment, though. The selection process for next year s u-21 set-up began on the Monday after the game against Leinster on the Friday night. The names of the players from the current squad who are underage again next year, as well as the names of the u-19 squad were put together, with 30-35 players already falling into the picture.
That s not where it ends, though, as Hyland is quick to point out: After Christmas, probably, we ll be touring the province watching u-20 league matches. We ll be trying to take in as many games as possible, in as many counties as possible. We want to go to Tipperary, Clare, Kerry, Waterford. The more matches the management are at, the more chance that players will say Hey, I ve got a chance of making the team , which means more interest, which means guys will push themselves even harder in the first place. And that s what we ve got to do.