By Phil Rice
There are few sporting arenas that evoke such emotion as Thomond Park on a European rugby match-day. Last Saturday surpassed even the heights reached on memorable historic European victories of the O’Connell-O’Gara era.
Three-time European Champions Cup winners Toulon appeared to have scored the decisive points as the final whistle approached, but the Thomond faithful had other ideas as they lifted their heroes to a breath-taking crescendo.
Not for the first time in his chequered career French fly half Francois Trinh-Duc made a crucial error by narrowly failing to find touch.
The rest is history. Munster wing Andrew Conway miraculously caught the ball on the half way line, millimetres from touch, before somehow running mesmerically through the French defence, without a finger being laid on him, and touching down by the posts.
The successful conversion gave Munster a one-point winning margin and Thomond Park became a frenzied mad-house as 20,000 ecstatic Munster supporters gave their champions the reception their incredible performance deserved.
These nights in Limerick are very special and whatever happens from here to the end of the Champions Cup, last Saturday will go down in the annals of Munster folklore as an extraordinary occasion.
75th minute ⏱
Trailing at home 😳
Take it away Andrew Conway…
Just listen to the Thomond Park roar 🙌 pic.twitter.com/jMSsLz0MJ0
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 1, 2018
Leinster’s 11-point victory the following day against reigning champions Saracens seemed banal by comparison. Saracens came with a fully loaded team of expensively assembled superstars and Leinster, missing of a number of their regulars, gave a thoroughly professional performance that swept the Londoners aside.
Irish rugby supporters are experiencing a purple patch of success at present and 50,000 fans at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium showed their appreciation, as Leo Cullen’s team moved on to the semi-finals.
The Scarlets’ success over French opponents La Rochelle on Friday, ensured that if Leinster were successful they would play their semi-final at the Aviva, and another full house is guaranteed.
The Welsh team were impressive victors and Leinster will be well aware of the threat they represent. Yet again ex-Leinster academy player Tadhg Beirne was hugely influential in his side’s success. Munster will welcome Beirne with open arms when he joins their ranks next season.
An early try from Garry Ringrose gave Leinster the platform they needed to withstand Saracens’ best efforts, and another class performance from Johnny Sexton saw the home team to victory.
English rugby players will be sick of the sight of Leinster’s fly half, after his exploits at Twickenham a few weeks ago. Yet again he out-performed Owen Farrell and his steadying influence on his team is crucial to Leinster’s prospects of European success.
Last season Leinster were taken by surprise by the unexpected excellence of Scarlets, when the Welsh team knocked Cullen’s men out of the Pro12 play-offs. There will be no such complacency this year as Leinster will be only too aware of the threat posed by the Welshmen.
Eleven of Scarlets starting XV last Friday played for Wales in the recent Six Nations Championship. They are a very well-drilled side who play to their strengths and they will not be overawed by the challenge posed by Leinster.
The possibility of a Munster versus Leinster final in the Champions Cup has looked more likely as each phase of the competition has been completed. It is now just one round away from being a reality.
What a fitting finale it would be to a season in which Irish rugby has reached unprecedented heights.
Over 50,000 voices roared the team on to a #ChampionsCup Semi-Final on Easter Sunday. 💪🗣
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) April 3, 2018
Both Irish teams had more regular players missing at the weekend than their opponents, but despite that they found sufficient strength in depth and sheer determination to overcome their opposition.
One can’t help but wonder if the citizens of peaceful Bilboa have any idea of the potential pandemonium that could lie in wait for them on the second weekend of May, if an all-Ireland European final were to take place in their peaceful city.
Undoubtedly well behaved but frenzied Irishmen invading their normally benign hostelry, could well be something of a culture shock for the locals.
What is noticeable is the goodwill that now exists between the supporters of the Irish provinces. In the past the rivalry between Munster and Leinster, in particular, threatened to derail the national team at times.
But at the weekend Leinster supporters were clearly delighted at the success of Munster at their French rivals’ expense. Perhaps the success of the Ireland team has bonded their supporters and made them less parochial.
Rugby in general has a higher profile in Ireland than at any time in the country’s history. The achievement of Joe Schmidt’s side, followed by the provincial team’s successes, have elevated the sport to unprecedented levels.
Gone are the days of suspicions of foreign influences on Gaelic sports and narrow-minded thinking. The pleasure of enjoying national success at a global sport has superseded the parochial thinking that blighted Irish sport for far too long.
Connacht’s brave efforts in the Challenge Cup were ended on Saturday when Gloucester narrowly overcame the wholehearted challenge from the western province.
Connacht are not far from returning to the success they enjoyed two years ago when they captured the Pro12 league. They have made some important signings for the new season and there is every reason to believe they will be challenging for honours again next season.
European Champions Cup Semi-Finals
Leinster Rugby v Scarlets
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Racing 92 v Munster Rugby
Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux
Matches to be played the weekend of 20/21/22 April