A Fitting Record Of A Magical Rugby Journey
10th October 2006 By Munster Rugby
“At times humorous, at times emotional, it is, at all times, thoroughly compelling,” says Dermot Keyes a reporter with The Munster Express, about Our Road To Glory as told by Alan English
Munster’s European Cup victory looks set to be recalled as the single greatest achievement of the Irish sporting year. For anyone inside the Millennium Stadium on May 20, there’s simply no contest when it comes to selecting such a poll topper.
After the gut-wrenching final defeats of 2000 and 2002, not forgetting semi final heartache in three other seasons, the province’s win over Biarritz was all the sweeter. The red flag had, at last, been planted on the mountain top.
And now, thanks to author Alan English and the superb photography of Billy Stickland and his Inpho team, the definitive record of Munster’s journey to glory has been produced.
‘Munster – Our Road To Glory’ is the players’ account of what it took to reach the summit of European club rugby.
Through extensive interviewing, English has compiled the thoughts of players past and present about Munster’s involvement in a tournament that has quickly become part of the rugby furniture.
Thanks to the author’s approach, it almost feels as if we’re eavesdropping in on conversations shared by men whose friendships have been forged through wearing the red jersey. At times humorous, at times emotional, it is, at all times, thoroughly compelling.
English sets the scene at the outset of each chapter and in doing so lays out the canvas which the players subsequently fill with their inner most thoughts and ambitions.
By utilising the best source at his disposal, English foregoes the ego which lesser writers would surely have succumbed to on such a project by literally letting the players do the talking. And what a story they tell.
The book begins and ends in the Millennium Stadium on May 20th 2006. The in-between traces Munster’s opening forays in European rugby and subsequent emergence as one of the tournament’s greatest competitors.
And, every step of the way, the book features imagery which recalls so many of those great occasions, from home and abroad. Be it the thumping of Wasps in 1996, the epic victories over Saracens, Toulouse and Gloucester or John O’Neill’s try that never was against Stade Francais in 2001, it’s all in here.
The fusion of commentary and photography really stirs the senses such is the packaging of the province’s past decade inside this book’s covers.
Each and every time I’ve been to Thomond Park, I’ve never felt let down by the occasion, the atmosphere or the performance on the pitch. It really does feel like we’re all in it together. The Limerick rugby experience on a European Cup weekend is never anything other than full-blooded. By God, this team’s colours were chosen wisely.
Watching Munster stirs something tribal inside you that most of us ‘down this end of the country’ don’t experience following any other team, even Ireland. It’s hard to put into words what and how this team emotionally engages its following.
Mick Galwey referred to that quality as the “X-factor”. Former Munster coach Alan Gaffney asked ‘Gaillimh’ to elaborate on what he meant. “I haven’t a clue,” replied Galwey.
My two cents on the X-factor? I think it comes from pride; pride in yourself, pride in your team-mates, pride in your colours and pride in your support.
The pride that we as observers of Munster, as supporters of Munster, feel when they’re in action resonates into how they play. Both player and fan draw from each other. It’s a special mix, a magical elixir that opponents envy and respect.
You only have to cast your eyes over some of the players’ comments to see what sets Munster apart from the other Irish provinces. And that’s not parish pump speak.
However hard the guys wearing the colours of our other provinces grit their teeth, it’s difficult to avoid the sense that Munster’s contingent grit that little bit harder.
It goes with the territory; it comes with the knowledge that you never own the jersey on your back, because you as a player are just that jersey’s tenant. Someone else will wear it one day.
“Playing for Munster is different,” said Rob Henderson. “It reminds me of my early days in the game, before we started getting paid. The reason you were playing rugby for each other and for the club and for the people who came and supported us. And that is exactly the same ethos that Munster have now.”
Even in the midst of the 2000 final defeat in Twickenham, Keith Wood drew inspiration. That X-factor comes to mind again.
“The end of the match was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had – and it was one of the highlights of my career. Within thirty seconds of the final whistle, the whole 40,000 Munster supporters started singing. It was the best display of empathy I have ever experienced, the most extraordinary, spontaneous response.
“I thought it was startling. For the simple reason that you had 40,000 people there who said, ‘Yeah, you lost, and you didn’t play as well as you could or should have – but we thank you for it anyway. And we are with you.’ That day, the bond between the supporters and the team was forged. The deal was that they would get to the end of the road together. That they would get that trophy.”
Six years later, both Munster and their growing legion of supporters had reached the end of that road they’d been walking for so long. Only that’s not the end of the story. With guys like Paul O’Connell, Jerry Flannery and Donncha O’Callaghan around to name but three, there’s lots of winning to be done yet.
“Everyone could see the bond between the team and the supporters that day in Cardiff, and I’m glad they all dined on it – but they can’t let their expectations slide now that we’ve won one European Cup,” states O’Connell.
“We have a lot more to achieve, and the beauty of the relationship between the players and the supporters is the pressure they put us under. If that expectation goes – if the supporters settle for having won it once, if they start dwelling on past glories, then we won’t be half of what we were.
“I want to see them raise their ambitions for us. If the players don’t feel that pressure, small things will creep in and hurt us. The foot will go off the pedal a little bit. You only need to drop from one hundred per cent to ninety-nine to start losing your footing. We achieved something special, but it’s time to move on, to keep driving on as if we’ve never won it. That’s what winners do.”
In his acknowledgments, Alan English writes that “the challenge of this book was doing justice to an extraordinary story and a team that has come to mean so much to so many”.
Well, the author can rest easy. Just like the players and management who have provided us with so many wonderful days (and nights), both he, Billy Stickland and Inpho have magnificently risen to the challenge. Stand up and fight? Of course, Sit down and read? You betcha.
Dermot Keyes is a reporter with The Munster Express and is PRO of Carrick on Suir RFC.