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Ireland, that great second row forward Willie John McBride once argued, “is a country which passeth understanding”, while linguists say much the same thing about the origins and construction of the Basque language. The two enigmas clash on Saturday at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, as Munster meet Biarritz in the 11th Heineken European Cup Final.
Each represents something distinctive within those two divided nations. Biarritz is defined by a weird mixture of old money and surfies, while Munster’s Limerick heartland is Ireland’s answer to Llanelli or Wigan – a town of radical traditions where rugby spreads across the usual class lines – but their shared passion will be evident across divides of language and culture.
Neither has won the Heineken before but both are at a historic apex. Munster beat New Zealand’s All Blacks in 1978 but that extraordinary single achievement has been matched by the sustained assault conducted on Europe’s commanding heights during the last seven seasons. Like Manchester United in football’s European Cup in the 1950s and 1960s, their long, as yet unrequited, pursuit has become the competition’s compelling narrative.
Biarritz are more like the Arsenal of today. They have the domestic prizes – two French titles in the past four seasons – but need the European championship as the final affirmation of status.
Each has suffered intense disappointment. Munster have lost three semi-finals and two finals, by a combined total of 13 points. Biarritz were beaten semi-finalists in 2004 and 2005.
Each also relies on an immensely powerful set of forwards. There, though, the similarities end. This is a confrontation of fire and ice.
Munster are nothing if not fiery. Their semi-final demolition of Leinster would have been recognised, in spirit if not necessarily technique, by Dave Gallaher and Billy Stead, captain and vice-captain of the first All Black team, who wrote exactly a century ago that: “There is no [sight] finer, none more exhilarating, than that of a pack of Irish forwards sweeping down the field in one combined rush with the ball at their feet and under the most perfect control.”
Yet the demonic fury that immolated Leinster is supplemented by quality. Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan are the best second row pairing in the northern hemisphere and hooker Jerry Flannery was challenged as this year’s best Six Nations newcomer only by back row colleague Denis Leamy.
Ill-luck has limited their attacking potential. Christian Cullen, the former All Black back, is injured, as is centre John Murphy. There are worries over the fitness of outside-half Ronan O’Gara, but deputy Jeremy Manning would be no more fazed by stepping in than he was as a 16-year-old playing in Marlborough’s challenge for New Zealand’s Ranfurly Shield against the great Danny Carter and Canterbury four years ago.
Serge Blanco, Biarritz’s greatest player, proclaimed that “the real rugby” was “instantaneous, spontaneous, spiritual and instinctive”. His team are none of these, but icy control-freaks playing ruthless percentages.
This inhibited style has worked brilliantly for them at times in Europe, notably in conclusive victories at Llanelli and Leicester, but also let them down badly in those two semi-finals. They field two-thirds of France’s legendary national back row – Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy – and some serious attacking quality among their backs, but over-calculation too often constrains them.
Munster’s exploits over the last seven years – marked by humour, resilience and generosity of spirit from both players and fans – would make them popular favourites against any opponents. Even in a disturbing age of glaciers being melted by global warming, there are times for backing the fire against the ice.
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