Sport can be an allegory for life, but this was a metaphor for the times we live in. It was inspirational. An absolute refusal to lie down. A complete rejection of the obvious truth that they were going to lose. An overturning of reality.
One point behind and with two minutes left on the clock, Munster decided to dig in and grind out a result. They put the heads down, they recycled the ball over and over, at one stage going all the way back to the half-way line under pressure from the Saints, but fighting their way on, yard by yard until finally, safe in the pocket, six minutes and 41 phases later, Ronan O Gara slotted as neat a drop goal as you’ll ever see to end Northampton’s hopes.
What a great game, but more importantly, what a great endgame. I don’t know about you, but I have never witnessed such an exhibition of guts, brains, balls and backbone as we saw tonight in Thomond Park. However, in case you think I’m being parochial, let me say that this is aimed as much at Northampton as it is at Munster. They all deserve whatever praise comes their way, although I’d have to admit that I’m a little biased, which is probably forgivable in the circumstances.
It sends out a message: If you want to beat us, you’ll have to produce something out of the ordinary. I’m sure the Northampton lads are sick tonight, though I don’t take any satisfaction from that. They’ve always been tough and honourable opponents, and their supporters have always had a good time here in Limerick. But I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t gloat a tiny bit, if only privately, in my own mind, for a second or two.
This was Munster at its best. At its absolute best. It exemplified the ethos that has sustained the effort all these years, the determination to fight back in the face of almost insuperable odds and more often than not, to win. I couldn’t make it tonight, unfortunately, and I’ll regret that forever because this game surpasses all the miracle matches that I was at. The only Munster performance I can think of that exceeds this was the All Blacks game.
For two minutes before the 80th, and for a further four afterwards, Munster kept the ball in hand, never making a mistake, never knocking on, never conceding a penalty, completely focussed on one objective: an absolute refusal to be beaten in Thomond Park. They did that for 41 phases, and I have to say that full credit is also due to Northampton for not conceding a penalty despite the pressure. Back and forth, east to west, never straying too close to the line, Munster drove it forward, fell back, drove forward again until finally O Gara, the maestro, judged that the moment was right, took his time and slotted the three points, finally allowing Nigel Owens to blow the whistle.
As I said, it was an allegory and a metaphor. These guys showed us that no matter how hard the times, how tough the opposition, with balls, guts, brains and backbone, you can still fight back and win, provided you show enough downright cussedness.
Marvellous. I can say no more.
Update. It’s unfortunate that Saints coach Jim Mallinder is blaming the referee. I thought he would be bigger than that, as his supporters are.