Munster hit the European heights again
May 24, 2008
A first-half Denis Leamy try and two penalties from Ronan O'Gara were just enough for Munster to nudge a 16-13 victory against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Munster landed their second European title in three seasons to give rugby director Declan Kidney a dream send-off. Kidney, who becomes Ireland head coach later this summer, masterminded a memorable Millennium Stadium victory against three-time Heineken Cup winners Toulouse.
Munster, conquerors of Biarritz at the same venue two years ago, once again dug deep to the accompaniment of a 40,000-strong red army. Number eight Denis Leamy scored their solitary try, while fly-half Ronan O'Gara kicked 11 points from three penalties and a conversion.
Toulouse, Heineken Cup winners in 1996, 2003 and 2005, conjured a try for wing Yves Donguy, with Jean Baptiste-Elissalde adding a drop-goal, penalty and conversion. Munster though, were too streetwise when pressure really came on, closing down the game in impressive fashion.
Skipper Paul O'Connell and flanker Alan Quinlan were at the heart of Munster's effort, ensuring they will arrive in next season's tournament as top seeds and once again the team to beat. It also proved a rich reward for emerging from the so-called pool of death, after Munster finished above Wasps, Clermont Auvergne and Llanelli Scarlets.
Munster were unchanged from the side that edged out semi-final opponents Saracens in Coventry four weeks ago, which meant former Ireland scrum-half Peter Stringer once again playing second fiddle to Tomas O'Leary. Stringer, a try scorer when Munster beat Biarritz to lift the Heineken Cup two years ago, also saw O'Leary's fellow unsung hero Denis Hurley retain full-back duties.
Toulouse recalled centre Maleli Kunavore and flanker Thierry Dusautoir following their semi-final success against London Irish at Twickenham as the atmosphere reached boiling point under a Millennium Stadium closed roof.
Munster though, despite enjoying an overwhelming following, spent the opening quarter in reverse gear as Toulouse dominated. Elissalde opened their account by landing a seventh minute drop-goal and Munster rarely left their own half in opposition to an impressively organised Toulouse defence.
It was hard graft for Munster during the early exchanges, but they gradually grew into the contest through their forwards' collective effort. Leamy went agonisingly close 10 minutes before the break, but video referee Derek Bevan ruled he lost control of possession as he went for the touchdown.
It was a narrow escape for the French side, yet it proved only a temporary reprieve as Leamy touched down after 33 minutes, with O'Gara adding the conversion. Toulouse were rocked by the score, and they lacked sufficient composure to close out a tense first half, a fact underlined when O'Gara booted a penalty to make it 10-3.
Elissalde reduced the gap through a penalty, yet Munster had momentum at the break, leading by four points. And Toulouse only had themselves to blame for falling further behind, courtesy of another O'Gara penalty.
Toulouse captain Fabien Pelous was sin-binned by referee Nigel Owens - on the advice of touch judge Nigel Whitehouse - for stamping, and O'Gara's resulting strike made it 13-6. Toulouse's early promise was in danger of evaporating, and they needed to regroup.
Inevitably, they did it in style.
Full-back Cedric Heymans had the courage to kick and chase from deep, and his vision was rewarded against a disorganised Munster defence, with Donguy rounding off an opportunist attack. Elissalde's successful conversion tied the game at 13-13, giving Munster an emphatic reminder that the trophy was still to be won.
The seven-pointer arrived with Pelous off the field, illustrating terrific Toulouse character under pressure and leaving Munster to recover from a blow they scarcely could have expected. O'Gara hoisted Munster ahead through a 64th minute penalty awarded against Pelous, and there was no sign of the final's attritional nature being disrupted.
Toulouse knew they were up against it as the clock ticked down, and there was nothing they could do to burst Munster's bubble.
Munster finished the contest in territorial control, ending Toulouse's hopes by staying in charge and confirming their place as European top dogs.
Munster (10) 16 Try - Leamy Pens - O'Gara (2) Cons - O'Gara
Toulouse (3) 13 Try - Donguy Pens - Elissalde Cons - Elissalde Drop - Elissalde
Munster: D Hurley; D Howlett, L Mafi, R Tipoki, I Dowling; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy.
Replacements: F Sheahan, T Buckey, M O'Driscoll, D Ryan, P Stringer, P Warwick, K Earls.
Toulouse: C Heymans; M Medard, M Kunavore, Y Jauzion, Y Donguy; J-B Elissalde, B Kelleher; D Human, W Servat, S Perugini, F Pelous (capt), P Albacete, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir, S Sowerby.
Replacements: A Vernet Basualdo, J-B Poux, R Millo-Chlusky, Y Nyanga, F Fritz, M Ahotaeiloa, G Lamboley.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
Touch judges: Nigel Whitehouse and Hugh Watkins (both Wales).