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'Mayhem, absolute mayhem... It was just bedlam in Thomond Park that day'

Declan Kidney’s Munster broke new ground in Europe in the 1999/2000 season.

Updated May 1st 2020, 5:00 PM

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This article is a part of 2000: Revisited, a week-long series of features looking back on some of the headlines and the forgotten stories that filled the sports pages 20 years ago.

In our latest instalment, we dig into Munster’s 1999/2000 Heineken Cup campaign, one that saw them break new ground but ended in bitter disappointment. 

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THE GOAL-SETTING session in UL in the summer of 1999 set the tone for what was to follow. 

When Keith Wood and John Langford suggested that Munster should be aiming to win every one of their games that season, there were giggles from some of their team-mates in the room.

Munster had only notched their first away win in four years of Heineken Cup rugby the season before, winning in Italy against minnows Petrarca, so most of them simply hadn’t considered that their goal should be to claim the trophy.

“I’ve no problem saying it, there were a few of us who sniggered at it,” remembers wing Anthony Horgan, who was 23 at the time and heading into his third season with Munster. “We were just thinking, ‘The lads are being totally unrealistic here.’”

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The presence of Wood – back from Harlequins on loan for one season – and Langford pointed to why Munster could begin to think differently. Declan Kidney was bringing a serious squad together.

keith-wood-and-john-langford-812000 Wood and Langford had huge impacts for Munster. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Wood was a world-class hooker and Langford had four Wallabies caps, while Kiwi centre Mike Mullins arrived from the UK and Jason ‘Dutchy’ Holland, another New Zealander, was plucked from Midleton.

As important was the homegrown core. The likes of Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Horgan, and David Wallace – all 23 or younger – were ready. Grizzled veterans like captain Mick ‘Gaillimh’ Galwey and Peter ‘Claw’ Clohessy were influential figures, while Anthony Foley had first played for Ireland in 1995. 

John Hayes, Dominic Crotty, and John Kelly were unsung but important players, while Eddie Halvey and Alan Quinlan would tussle for the final back row spot. Munster had depth thanks to the likes of Frankie Sheahan, Marcus Horan, Killian Keane, Tom Tierney, Jeremy Staunton, John O’Neill and Donncha O’Callaghan. 

The talent was there, but the mindset and professionalism needed to change.

Craig White, the IRFU’s national fitness advisor, had been scathing about several Munster players in the Ireland squad in an internal report that the Sunday Independent’s Brendan Fanning got hold of in April of 1999.

Some players were “a million miles away from international competition,” said White, while an unnamed Connacht player told Fanning that “the Munster guys laugh at how hard we have to work.”

Being split between two training based in Cork and Limerick obviously wasn’t ideal, but Foley admitted in his book, Axel, that the Munster players hadn’t exactly helped themselves.

“In Limerick, we even had a Monday night drinking club. No kidding,” said Foley. “We didn’t meet every single Monday, and definitely not in the week of a game, but it was regular enough to be called a club.”

john-langford-mick-galwey-and-david-wallace-celebrate-11121999 John Langford, Mick Galwey, and David Wallace after Munster's first-ever win in France in the Heineken Cup against Colomiers. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Dave Mahedy of UL had done his utmost with Munster’s conditioning but he was only part-time, so the province knew they had to step things up. Feargal O’Callaghan, whose background was in rowing, heard the province were looking to make a full-time appointment and convinced Kidney he was the right man.

“We underwent our first proper pre-season as professionals,” remembered Foley. “I had never come across anything like the pain of it, yet it was enjoyable in its own strange way. It was rugby-specific, well thought out, with a definite purpose.”

O’Callaghan recounts how he pushed the players hard on the ’10 Acres’ fields in UL or at ‘The Farm’ down in Cork, combining repeated sprints and longer runs, with O’Callaghan himself often joining the players. Munster started working harder in the gym too.

“I was the first one in so no matter what I did, even if it was bad, it was going to be better,” says O’Callaghan, who became part of a three-man coaching staff along with head coach Kidney and his assistant, Niall O’Donovan. Brian O’Brien was manager, and Mark McManus was a part-time fitness coach in Cork.

“I was lucky John Langford came in that year,” continues O’Callaghan. “He had an engine on him that was unbelievable. He would win most of the runs. He was just such a pro.”

Langford “blew us away with his fitness levels,” said Foley, as the Aussie lock set the standards that most of his team-mates looked to match.

“I think the guys in Munster thought everyone in Australia was like that so it might have been a wake-up call for them that way,” said Langford himself, while underlining how important Wood’s return was:

“You talk about people being 100% all the time, he was 300% into everything, so to have Woody there was great.”

john-langford-812000 Langford celebrates Munster's victory over Saracens in Thomond Park. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Wood brought the highest standards for his homecoming. Hayes later said in his autobiography, The Bull, that the hooker “was one of the principal reasons why everything about us took a quantam leap forward that season.”

Fitter than ever before, with their squad vastly improved, and their ambition growing, Munster were ready.

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The season began with a home win over Leinster at Temple Hill to kick-start a superb Inter-Provincial Championship campaign that saw Munster win all six of their games, including their first victory in Belfast for 20 years against reigning European champions Ulster.

Wood, Clohessy, David Corkery, Tierney, and Mullins were the small contingent of Munster men who were at the 1999 World Cup with Ireland in October, meaning cohesion had remained high in the province’s squad.

Unfortunately for Corkery, he returned only to rupture his rupture his Achilles tendon in the final inter-pro win over Connacht, an injury that ultimately ended his career.

Kidney’s men opened the Heineken Cup pool stages in November with a commanding 32-10 win over Pontypridd at Thomond Park, teeing them up for a crack at Saracens the following weekend, the English clubs having returned to the competition after their hiatus in 1998/99.

Hayes called Munster’s dramatic 35-34 win away to Sarries “a landmark result for us” and Foley felt it was “a real lift off point for our European quest”.

Up against stars like 1995 World Cup-winning captain François Pienaar and French out-half Thierry Lacroix, Munster pulled off an unforgettable feat.

In the build-up, Kidney had shown his class by blaring music over the tannoy at training in Thomond Park, wearing a fez to team meetings, and even bring a remote control car with a tee on it to training, all in a bid to prepare his players for Vicarage Road.

“Declan was brilliant at getting the most out of people, including myself,” recalls O’Callaghan, adding that O’Donovan – or Niallo as he’s know – “could be closer to the players as the assistant and the guys loved him.”

Having trailed 21-9 at half-time and then 34-23 with less then 10 minutes left, late tries from Foley and Staunton brought them back and O’Gara’s last-gasp conversion ensured delight for the 400 travelling Munster supporters, who charged onto the pitch despite the PA announcer pleading with them not to.

anthony-foley-and-alan-quinlan-28111999 Anthony Foley and Alan Quinlan following the win over Sarries in Vicarage Road. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

It was the first time an Irish province had won in England in the Heineken Cup and Munster became the first to do it in France just two weeks later when they beat Colomiers 31-15, avenging their quarter-final defeat to the same opposition the previous season.

“That was another massive step,” recalls Horgan of a game in which Wood played the closing stages at tighthead prop due to injuries. “It was a huge confidence builder.”

Munster would go on to a much bigger win in France and – coincidentally or not – this was the first season they teamed up with Vincent Lacrampe-Camus, a logistics manager who would go on to help the province on all their French trips.

Munster used to bring their own baked beans with them to France as they were a favourite food in the squad and weren’t available over there, while Lacrampe-Camus always delighted the players by making their pre-match pancakes.

“He was brilliant because he was able to communicate with the chefs and he would do some cooking too,” says O’Callaghan, while Horgan adds that “we never had any idea what we were going to get food-wise in France before that!”

A 23-5 win against Colomiers back in Limerick left Munster sitting with four wins from four at Christmas and beautifully set up for one of the great occasions at Thomond Park on 8 January 2000.

Anticipation levels were off the charts for the visit of Saracens. It’s unclear exactly how many people were in Thomond Park that day, with estimates ranging as high as 18,000, but it was certainly a hell of a lot more people than were supposed to allowed in at once. This was only a few years on from crowds of just hundreds at Munster matches. 

Foley wrote later that it was “the last ‘over the wall’ game, those days when stewards turned blind eyes to young fellas being hooshed up and over by their mates.”

Horgan remembers being blown away by the huge, hostile Munster crowd.

“Mayhem, absolute mayhem,” says the seven-times capped former Ireland wing.

ronan-ogara-812000 O'Gara kicked match-winning conversion in both Saracens games. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

“Sometimes when you’re playing, you’re concentrating so much that you don’t take in the crowd but you couldn’t ignore this.

“It was just bedlam in Thomond Park that day.”

Again, it was a nip-and-tuck game with a late, late try from close-range by Wood allowing O’Gara to kick another clinching conversion – after Saracens had charged early initially – for a 31-30 win.

“It was a squad that would go so far for each other,” says Horgan of the late victories. “We expected it of each other, to go that little bit extra. If you didn’t, you’d have Claw and Gaillimh and Woody up your arse. You didn’t want to leave anyone down.”

Funnily enough, Kidney had known, but not told his players, that Munster didn’t need O’Gara’s conversion, as a one-point defeat would have been enough to guarantee them top spot in the pool regardless of how Saracens did in their final group-stage game.

Munster botched their perfect record in their closing pool match, losing 38-36 away to Pontypridd but they still secured a home quarter-final – a first at Thomond Park – against Stade Français, the reigning French champions.

While the Six Nations broke up the Munster squad as many players returned to AIL action, they came back together smoothly in April to record a 27-10 win over Stade, who didn’t really turn up. 

Munster’s reward? Foley put it succinctly in his book:

“Toulouse. Away. Bollocks.”

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Imaginations firmly captured, a horde of around 3,000 Munster fans travelled to Bordeaux for the semi-final in Stade Chaban Delmas. 

6 May 2000 was a sweltering day, seemingly more suited to the Toulousains aristocrats rather than the pasty Irishmen from Munster. Back in 1996, Munster had travelled to play Toulouse and been hammered 60-19.

keith-wood-mick-galwey-and-peter-clohessy-652000 Wood, Galwey, and Clohessy celebrate in Bordeaux. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“We were huge underdogs,” says Horgan. “From 1 to 15, they had world-class players and loads of guys on big money.”

Ntamack, Califano, Bru, Pelous, Labit, Penaud – Toulouse had class acts everywhere.

But Munster brought the game to the favourites, with Hayes the unlikely scorer of the first try, one that also ensured years of slagging for the amount of time he spent on the ground before rising to take an offload from Crotty and crash over the line.

“Like all good strikers, I was in the right place at the right time; that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it,” said Hayes in his book. 

Munster lost Wood to injury at half-time, while Mullins was sin-binned in the second half but they added another two tries after the break, with O’Gara finishing a sensational team score from deep in their own half, as well as Holland picking off an intercept try.

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jerry-holland-scores-a-try Holland runs in his try with Horgan and Mullins in support. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“That ROG try, I don’t think you’ll see as good a team try scored by Munster – Toulouse didn’t expect it from us either,” says Horgan, who was involved in the build-up before another superb Crotty offload sent O’Gara over.

Toulouse kept coming back at Munster and the visitors “had to tap into all that fitness work we’d done with Feargal throughout the year,” according to Foley. 

The 31-25 final scoreline was thoroughly deserved and sparked wild celebrations, with captain Galwey even taking a phonecall from Richard Harris in Mexico as the party got started. Munster flew back to a huge reception in Shannon Airport that night.

The connection Munster developed with their supporters was magical that season. After home games, the squad would head to the Steamboat Quay in Limerick and mingle with fans, building those bonds. The night after winning in Bordeaux was riotous. 

“That day against Toulouse, in my view, is one of the best Munster away wins ever,” says Horgan and no one can dispute that.

peter-stringer-652000 Peter Stringer and co. salute the travelling Munster fans. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

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At first, Munster felt they had something of an advantage in their three-week wait between beating Toulouse and the final against Northampton, who played two Premiership games in that time.

“We initially thought we were going in fresh and they’d be a bit beaten up, but maybe being battle-hardened from games was better,” says O’Callaghan.

There was a sense afterwards from the likes of Foley, Hayes and O’Gara that Munster had got their build-up wrong, failing to deal with the unfamiliar position of favouritism. 

“To be honest, I don’t think we handled the hype well at all,” said Hayes. “It was new to us; we’d never experienced anything like it before. We’d gone from being no-hopers against Toulouse to favourites against Northampton.”

Horgan recalls how everything about the final “was all just so new to us” and there were certainly lessons learned about managing the big occasion.

munster-fans-2752000 The Munster support at Twickenham was huge. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Some players in the squad feel the infamous team meeting the night before the game was among the key factors for losing. Galwey and a few other senior players stood up and explained what playing for Munster in the final meant to them. It quickly, and unexpectedly, turned into every single player in the room – including traveling reserves and injured players – contributing. Tears were shed.

“It got very emotional,” says Horgan. “Whether that had anything to do with our performance, I don’t know.

“We lost by a point and could have won it. Whatever about the night before, we were in the game in the last five minutes. Hindsight is a great thing.”

Munster didn’t match their performance levels from the Toulouse game but that is often the case with teams in finals, which are regularly cagey affairs. They were roared on by a truly remarkable Munster crowd of somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 in Twickenham on 27 May, these fans having become as big a part of the story as the men on the pitch.

Kidney’s side went into half-time 8-6 ahead thanks to a Holland drop-goal and Wallace’s finish of an excellent team try that involved Wood breaking down the right before slick handling from O’Gara, Holland and Crotty freed the openside flanker out in the left.

But Paul Grayson’s third penalty nudged the Saints in front in the second half and 22-year-old O’Gara then missed penalty shots at goal from similar positions out on the left in the 59th and 79th minutes, his third and fourth misses off the tee on the day.

john-langford-with-peter-clohessy-2752000 The dejected Langford and Clohessy. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

O’Gara said later that he felt he should have kicked two of the four, and most Munster fans in the stadium thought the last of them was going over until a late, late bluster of wind took it left of the posts and just wide.

“I was right behind Ronan and the kick started well but just faded to the left,” said Langford. “It was heartbreaking.

“But I don’t blame him for that at all because we wouldn’t have got to where we got without ROG.”

O’Gara was harder on himself in his 2008 autobiography:

“The bottom line is that goal-kicking cost us the fucking game.

“I had to take the lessons of the day head on. In terms of my mental development I was essentially a boy. That experience probably made a man out of me.”

Minutes after the final whistle, Kidney had the Munster players huddled around him out on the pitch, reminding them that the season had been a genuine achievement, as The Fields of Athenry boomed out around Twickenham in a hair-raising moment.

Already, Munster were vowing to come back.

“When you get so close to winning something, it makes you want it even more,” says Horgan.

“That started a six-year journey to finally get there. Losing that final certainly left a bitter taste in our mouths and it was something we wanted to rectify.” 

ronan-ogara-and-mick-galwey-2752000 O'Gara and captain Galwey after Munster's defeat. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

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Munster were back in UL for a goal-setting meeting ahead of the 2000/01 season.

The players were posed a simple question: ‘Who thinks we can win the Heineken Cup?”

Langford remembers looking around at a very different scene to the year before.

“Every hand in the room went up! I wish I had a video of that.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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