It was so close to being another potentially epic all-Ireland Heineken Champions Cup semi-final.
At the Aviva Stadium in last Saturday’s quarter-final in Dublin, Munster came from 14-7 down to lead by 24-14 and, though Toulouse managed to restore parity, some incredible defending ensured that the game went to extra time.
Indeed, Ben Healy might even have won it for the “home” side at the end of normal time and extra time but a long-range penalty and a drop-goal attempt respectively were off-target.
It was cruel then that Healy should miss two of the three place-kicks – the hardest to nail, close to each sideline – in the tie-breaker to find a winner after 100 minutes couldn’t separate the sides. The Tipperary native will come back stronger for the experience and so too, one hopes, will Munster.
After a frustrating season, they were once again able to pull out a performance when it was needed most and the atmosphere in Dublin 4 was of the highest order. One might wonder if the Thomond Park factor would have made a difference, but Munster couldn’t have given it any more.
The province’s history in European competition has been about miracle moments interspersed with gut-wrenching defeats but the latter can have a unifying effect that generates future success. The key thing for them is to use this platform to build upon next season under new head coach Graham Rowntree.
Had Munster prevailed, they would be gearing up for another trip to Ballsbridge this weekend against Leinster in a semi-final. If anything, the short turnaround wouldn’t have been enough in terms of a build-up to such an occasion, but that’s moot for this year.
Leinster faced a tricky assignment away to Leicester Tigers last weekend but a superb first half put them in a strong enough position that they were able to win by 23-14 in the end.
Their quest for that elusive fifth star above their crest remains alive and they will surely take encouragement from the fact that Munster went so close to winning.
A loud and large home crowd will surely get them over the line.
If there is one quibble, it’s the fact that these matches are locked away on subscription television, away from the casual fan.
When Munster were reaching three Heineken Cup finals in seven years between 2000 and 2006, the games were shown free-to-air and their journey was almost like a national pilgrimage. Now, the hardcore rugby fans will seek the matches out but otherwise the wider audience will only catch up with the highlights shown on the news.
It’s a similar story with Saturday evening GAA championship matches. Obviously, a free market exists and the money that Sky Sports are giving the GAA flows down to the grassroots levels, but the association must be careful not to be seen to be putting too much behind the curtain, especially when the players themselves are not professional. There are of course options to watch games for a one-off €10 fee but the viewing figures show that terrestrial will always trump satellite – people will watch something if it’s there in front of them; make them jump through a few hoops and it’s not as enticing.
In bacon and eggs, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed – while the committed GAA fan can always be relied upon, there are many more men and women who are simply involved and it’s important that they are not alienated.
In years to come, those Munster fans who ventured to Dublin on Saturday will still remember they ended up losing out to Toulouse but the feeling of being part of a community as they cheered the team on will be a stronger, we’d venture.
No matter what team sport you give your time to as a player or a volunteer, it’s that sense of a joint effort that pushes us on and it can be seen with off-field matters also. Mick Cronin suffered life-changing injuries a day before his 52nd birthday on 18 November last year, leaving him with no movement from the shoulders down. A native of Kiskeam on the Cork-Kerry border, Mick has been a member of Bishopstown for 13 years and has been a coach and volunteer in that time.
Just three days after his accident, the U16 side of which he was a selector won the county Premier 2 football title – with his son Seán the goalkeeper and captain. Seán turned 16 the following day, while Ailbhe, a Leaving Certificate student, was 18 in January.
Mick, his wife Karen and the children have had to adapt to a completely new set of circumstances but it is in such situations that the GAA family comes together.
On 17 and 18 March, a two-day fundraiser – #matchesformick – was held at Bishopstown GAA Club, with hurling, football, camogie and ladies’ football games of all ages taking place against various opposition, while last weekend saw a golf classic in Kanturk. In addition, Mick’s friend Ray O’Mahony walked to all of the GAA clubs in Cork city, an undertaking christened #milesformick. All have been hugely supported.
Mick is currently at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire in preparation for a return home in the near future. While it won’t be easy for him or his family, they are safe in the knowledge that they have a massive support structure behind them.