ROG celebrates his winning drop-goal against Northampton in 2011.
a hundred thousand phases

'You didn't need to say anything to him... It was literally just a nod and a high five'

The madness of Munster’s 42nd-phase drop-goal victory over Northampton in 2011 as told by one man in red, one man in green, and one man in the gantry.


WATCHING BACK THE extraordinary endgame of Munster’s 2011 Heineken Cup pool-stage victory over Northampton at Thomond Park, it becomes apparent that Ronan O’Gara’s credit-rolling drop-goal occurred in the 42nd phase. That’s two phases more than was indicated by the on-screen graphic during Sky Sports’ live broadcast of the game, and a phase more than is typically credited to them in Irish rugby lore.

While we’re counting, a more startling fact: it’s been 11 years and three months since the hosts’ momentous heave prevented Northampton from becoming only the second team ever to beat Munster at Thomond Park in European competition. It was also the most recent competitive meeting between two sides in Limerick where, today, they’ll meet again with victory paramount to their respective Champions Cup campaigns.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since their last Thomond showdown: Tony McGahan’s Munster, though by then a slightly deteriorating force on the continent, were still reigning Magners League champions. Jim Mallinder’s Saints, meanwhile, were still smarting from having the Heineken Cup prised from their grasp by Leinster in Cardiff six months earlier.

That titanic November 2011 tussle, a pool curtain-raiser, would not prove the launchpad for that season’s European champions but the feverish drama of its climax remains an instantly recognisable piece of European club rugby’s iconography.

Making sense of that madness more than 11 years later are three men who experienced it first-hand, but through very different prisms.

Wearing Munster red was Tomás O’Leary, who was involved in the majority of those final 42 phases after replacing Heineken Cup debutant Conor Murray at scrum-half.

Wearing Northampton green was James Downey, the Dublin-born Saints centre who starred and scored against his former — and indeed future — club.

And wearing headphones was Michael Corcoran, whose commentary of the “hundred thousand phases” alongside Donal Lenihan on RTÉ Radio added significantly to his legend as an Irish sports broadcaster and led to his television debut in New Zealand.

Tomás O’Leary (Munster): “We had a lot of games with Northampton in that period of time and there was just a bit of bite in the fixture. You’d always remember ROG having a go with [Dylan] Hartley or a few of their back rows. Chris Ashton would come in and give his tuppence as well, and ROG would give it back.

“It’s funny looking back on it but it just illustrates how mentally strong ROG is, like: that no matter what he said, he could back it up. Obviously, he had plenty of protection if it ever got too tasty with the back row that we had! But I think he was underrated physically, as well, in terms of his bravery and his commitment; obviously never the biggest tackler in the world but you also never saw him shirk a tackle.

tomas-oleary Munster scrum-half Tomás O'Leary in action against Northampton in 2011. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“At the time, we had a bit of a rivalry going with the Ospreys as well, and Ireland with Wales. Mike Phillips used to love giving a bit of chat as well. He and ROG would be literally having words going into rucks, coming back from rucks… Just telling each other what they thought of each other’s games — how crap they were, basically, but a bit more creative than that! And even though you’re playing, you’re kind of enjoying it too, like.

“And the Northampton rivalry was a bit like that. ROG, Hartley, Ashton… It’s the verbals and the bite between the teams that sticks in the memory. It was always a special fixture and we always had a buzz around it.”

James Downey (Northampton Saints): “Certainly, there was an air of confidence about us going over to Limerick. I think, obviously, with what had happened in the final against Leinster the season before, we knew we were a strong side. We’d added a bit of depth to that squad as well, realising our previous failings.

The players were confident that we could turn over Munster. I think it helped that with the Irish lads in the Northampton group (Downey, Roger Wilson; Vasily Artemyev had played for Blackrock College and UCD), we could say to the lads who hadn’t played in Thomond Park: ‘It’s a cauldron at the best of times, and on a European night it’s a different place altogether; it’s tough.’

james-downey-scores-a-try James Downey crosses for Northampton against his former and future club Munster at Thomond in 2011. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“I think if players aren’t in awe of that Thomond effect, they can adjust to it.

“Obviously, that didn’t really happen on the night, now… But look, it was close enough.”

Michael Corcoran (RTÉ): “It was a real tight, tense game between two closely matched teams. The lead swung from one side to the other. Munster take an early lead, then they fall behind. Then they take the lead before half-time, then they fall behind in the second half. Then ROG misses a penalty, the chance is nearly gone… And then you have the symmetry of Denis Leamy and where he is now… And you have him throwing, well, I wouldn’t say the greatest pass of all time to ROG, eventually

“It was just sensational the way the game finished. I was trying my best on the radio just to try to portray the drama of the occasion, the whole sense of the occasion.

“Those who were fortunate enough to be there were almost holding their breath in anticipation of something special — and hoping to God that something special could happen. And it was one of those days where ROG stepped up and it did.”

michael-corcoran RTÉ Radio commentator Michael Corcoran on Six Nations duty in 2020. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO


In the 56th minute, Munster held a 20-16 lead, tries by hooker Damien Varley and right wing Doug Howlett bookending the first half. In the 57th minute, the already outstanding Downey collected a pass from Saints out-half Ryan Lamb wide left in the hosts’ 22′. Exploiting an overlap, he ghosted past the scrambling Howlett to crash over near the corner. Lamb’s conversion was wide of the mark but Northampton led by one approaching the final quarter. Tomás O’Leary entered the fray for Munster on the hour mark, replacing Conor Murray at scrum-half.

Downey: “My dad’s from Limerick and to be honest, even as an Irish person generally, scoring against any of the provinces does mean a little bit more. And of course, I’d played for Munster before (in 2006) so that might have been there a little bit as well.

“But I mean, you might look at all of that afterwards: ‘Jeez, it was nice to get over the line, there, Thomond Park…’ But when I actually scored, I’m not thinking of that. I’m literally just thinking of doing the best for Northampton and doing whatever I can do to get us over the line.

“Going into that last 20, I was pretty confident given how we’d managed to turn things around a little bit. I wouldn’t say we were comfortable but I was confident that we’d be able to see it out, y’know? I still expected a little bit of madness, ha! But I thought we’d have the pack to come out the other side of it, which again we might not have had the year before.”

james-downey-is-congratulated-by-chris-ashton James Downey and Chris Ashton celebrate Downey's try at Thomond. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

O’Leary: “When I came on, I just had it in my head that I was going to carry hard. I wanted to bring a bit of tempo, a bit of impetus.

“Obviously, you carry straight into Jimmy Downey and a few more: probably not the best idea in the world! But you’re just hoping for a bit of front-foot ball.”

With the scoreline remaining 21-20 to the visitors and just under 10 minutes left on the clock, Munster won a penalty and a chance to retake the lead. O’Gara, four from four with the boot to that point, pushed his effort fractionally left of the posts. Northampton continued to hold their own — and their advantage — for a further seven minutes.

The first of phase of what would transpire to be a grandstand finish came in the 78th minute from an under-pressure Munster scrum on Northampton’s 10-metre line. From the back of it, Denis Leamy managed to claw the ball away to O’Leary who made decent inroads with a strong raid up the middle.

O’Leary: “I had to watch the 41 phases back to be honest with you because I didn’t remember too much about it, just with how tired I was on the day.

I always thought I hit 20 rucks but when I watched it back, I only hit four — and two of them are definitely illegal.

“I had four carries and I counted 25 passes but they might not have been entirely accurate.

“I can just remember being absolutely gassed, really. It was hectic but, at the same time, there was always that composure and belief that, somehow — without any kind of a coherent plan that all teams would have these days — we’d get there.”

tomas-oleary O'Leary on the charge. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Corcoran: “The game was obviously hanging in the balance going into those last couple of minutes.

The way I commentate, it’s almost like a rollercoaster in my head. If you think of Johnny Sexton’s drop goal at the Stade de France in 2018, it was a similar kind of thing. It’s really almost like I say to myself, ‘I’m getting on a rollercoaster here, now, and I’ve no idea which way it’s going to go. I better strap myself in!’

“There are two possible eventualities heading towards the end of the game, but if you prepare things to say in the event of ‘A’ or ‘B’, you might trip yourself up. In terms of the description of what happens on the pitch, from kick-off until I shut up, I kind of just shoot from the hip, really, to be fair about it.

“Sometimes I might get a bit carried away in terms of the loudness of what I say or the passion I put into it. But it’s a bit like a jigsaw and it falls together most of the time.

“And it’s kind of an experience thing, to be honest, where some days you do just get the feeling, ‘Ooh, this could be… [special].’”

O’Leary: “At this point in the game, clock ticking towards red, you actually have no choice as a player but to stay composed.

“When I’m in that moment, I’m just trying to think of what the best options are: are they on the openside or blindside? Where are you gonna go? How are you going to actually try and create momentum? Are you going to, maybe, start talking to Nigel Owens and see if he’ll give us a penalty for hands on the ball or not releasing or whatever?

“There’s kind of so much going through your head all at once, that you don’t even have the space to panic or throw in the towel.”

Downey: “You’re so aware of not giving away a penalty in that situation and being so smart. I thought we were defending extremely well and, I guess, if you look back, there may have been a few interesting calls made… Ha!

“If someone had said beforehand, ‘Look, you’re going to have…’ — I dunno, how many phases did it go to before the drop goal? Did it go to 32 phases or something like that?

“…41?!? Well, there you go. You don’t normally get that far and manage not to make an error. So, I think we did everything right. Except… we didn’t do everything right, unfortunately. Everything but, I suppose!

“We did drive them back in a few phases and when you push them that far back towards halfway like we did, you do kind of feel like you’re in control and you just need to be squeaky clean. But I think that might have cost us: we were too squeaky clean! We felt at the time that Munster were looking for a penalty and, of course, ROG isn’t going to miss [again], y’know?

It’s just: ‘tackle, roll away, get out of the way, don’t touch the ball, wait for an error.’ I remember everyone shouting: ‘If you’re going for a poach, go for it quickly. If you don’t get it quickly,’ — especially with Nigel Owens — ‘just leave it, leave it.’ Because he’s not going to give it. ‘Don’t be stupid.’

general-view-of-a-ruck Paul O'Connell protects Munster's ball. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Corcoran: “It’s certainly nothing against Nigel Owens — but there were a lot of dramatic finishes to games refereed by Nigel around that time. It was incredible! Even afterwards, when Ireland lost to New Zealand down in Christchurch [in 2012] with a Dan Carter drop-goal late in the game, Nigel Owens was the referee that day. And when we lost to New Zealand at the Aviva in 2013 when they got the try and conversion at the end, Nigel Owens was the referee that day as well.

“I’ve the height of respect for Nigel Owens, I know him personally quite well and I wouldn’t have a bad word said about him. But he just had a lot of those high-drama matches over the years, ha… in fairness to the man!”

Downey: “But I think we may have become overly cautious. I think it slipped into our psyche. Munster were starting to make a bit of progress and we conceded a bit more ground than maybe we should have.”

donal-lenihan-and-michael-corcoran Michael Corcoran and his long-time RTÉ commentary partner Donal Lenihan. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO


O’Leary: “We’re just going to next phase, next phase… And you know that that might not create momentum but you’re just hoping that after two or three more phases, something might open up.

“It was probably by accident more than design that a few of the momentum-builders actually happened… Like Dougie [Howlett]‘s half-break, ha! That was off a crap pass back to ROG who wasn’t in a position to drop at goal, and then he shoves it to the right and all of sudden there’s half a hole and Dougie’s through it…

“…But then Northampton wrestle back momentum briefly and it’s looking like your chance is gone again.

“Everything was frenetic, unstructured… It was just about reacting to whatever happened next, y’know? Just hanging on at rucks at different times, the odd pass going a bit awry, the odd player having no support.”

niall-ronan Niall Ronan on the move for Munster. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Corcoran: “Donal [Lenihan, co-commentator] is itching to get in at this point but he knows that he can’t, in fairness… Like, we’ve been working together an awfully long time and he knows he can’t because there is the possibility that if he does, and then if the ball is knocked on or Munster’s chance is lost, then the moment of drama is lost on the radio too.

“That’s where we work together well as a team. He understands the role of a co-commentator very well.

“He’s got to be ready with a turn of phrase — but what he might say after five or six phases could be completely different to what he might have to say after 41 phases. He’s watching and thinking all the time. That’s the magic of radio, to be honest with you. That’s why I love it so much.

“Now, I’m running on adrenaline at this stage, really. You know you’re onto either a sensational finish to a game, or some fella knocks the ball on and the match is all over.

“And because it could go either way, you’re trying to get the pitch of it right. You don’t want to be getting too excited early on and then leave yourself exhausted after 30 phases when there’s still 11 to go, ha! Obviously, at the time, you don’t know there will be, but you also don’t know that there won’t be. So you’re trying to pace yourself.

“Like, 41 is a lot without Donal coming in… It’s a lot, like.”

donal-lenihan-and-michael-corcoran Donal Lenihan and Michael Corcoran at Twickenham. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

O’Leary: “Northampton’s defence were so well organised and when the ball is absolutely slow, it’s obviously harder to set up a drop-goal situation without too much pressure.

There’s communication between myself and ROG as we’re trying to figure out when he should drop back into the pocket but a lot of it is actually just body language. A lot of it is your eyes, a lot of it is knowing when he wants the ball. It’s all natural: most of it is done through body language and knowing where he is and why he’s there.

“There weren’t too many opportunities for us to drop at goal because Northampton were very, very comfortable for the majority of those 41 phases.

“Eventually, it ended up whereby, I don’t know was it Niall Ronan or Wian du Preez or who it was, but they ended up getting an inside ball on the 41st phase and they were left isolated. I just had to hit that ruck. A couple more came in and hit it as well and we were probably lucky not to get a pen against us.

“And then, as you know, Leams (Denis Leamy) comes in.”

ronan-ogara O'Gara passes right. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Downey: “I was behind that ruck, absolutely out on my feet. I’d seen ROG drop back and I wasn’t the only one: I think a few of us did shout, ‘He’s in the pocket! He’s in the pocket!’

“But it kind of happens quickly enough where, yeah, you’ve been keeping an eye on whether he’s dropping back while Munster have kept moving forward — but because it’s Denis Leamy who ends up playing the pass… You almost don’t expect that to be ‘the moment’. If it had been Tomás at the base of the ruck, it would have been more obvious.”

O’Leary: And when Leams passes it back to ROG, it’s shit or bust. We weren’t going to be able to go through another 41 phases of absolute chaos.

But my thing in that final ruck had been literally just to make sure we didn’t lose the ball. So, I’m on the ground, kind of looking back from below. I can see the ball going back. I can see ROG about to strike it. I’m just looking: I can’t affect it; and for a moment, you just become almost as much a spectator as the supporters in the stadium.

ronan-ogara-scores-a-drop-goal-after-41-phases-to-win-the-game O'Gara with the drop at goal... Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

ronan-ogara-celebrates-after-scoring-a-drop-goal-after-41-phases-to-win-the-game That's all she wrote. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“It goes straight over… And I’m too shattered to do anything to be honest with you, ha! It’s not too often you go through that many phases as a scrum-half and I’d obviously already struggled to get to a few of the breakdowns as well, so…”

Downey: “I just remember watching the ball going over… Pffff.

“Ah, it’s just heartbreaking. You feel like you’ve done everything possible in your power… And yeah, look, it’s taken away from you.

“That’s sport. That’s the way it is.

“You just have to take your hat off to the quality of ROG. After that number of phases, it needed to be someone like ROG; that quality of player, of character, to nail it.”

O’Leary: “If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be him.

“In reality it’s a 50-50 from where he kicks it but you know with ROG that there’s a big chance it goes over. You’re not thinking of percentages in the moment — you just know there’s a big chance when he’s there. His technique was so sound, his confidence was so sound.

“I just felt shattered and relieved, relieved to see it go through. Unbelievable.

That’s my abiding memory of the emotion at the end of it: I think it was actually the relief that we hadn’t lost a home game more so than joy that we had produced something pretty special in the last few minutes.

Corcoran: “I was losing it at that stage. I think I said ROG had dropped the goal after ‘a hundred thousand phases’ and it certainly felt like there had been a hundred thousand. Obviously, I’m not ticking them off — I can’t afford to take my eyes off what’s happening in front of me.

“There’s actually a line in the midst of what I said, there, which kind of got lost in that the whole thing was clearly a ‘ROG moment’, but that day was John Hayes’ 100th appearance in the Heineken Cup.

I actually said that about Hayes’ 100th appearance in the middle but I’m not sure if it landed. I was babbling on so much at that stage, it was like I was… nearly out of control with emotion to be perfectly honest about it. I was in freefall, really, to be fair.

john-hayes 'The Bull' made his 100th European appearance for Munster during the same game. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“You’ve gotten to the very top of the rollercoaster and you’re just coming down the other side. Eventually, thank God, I can stop. And Donal can start talking!”


O’Leary: “With ROG, it was just a case of go over, smack him on the back or give him a high five and that’s it, like, y’know? You didn’t need to say anything to him. He’s always the fella that delivers and he certainly didn’t need praise from me, anyway. It was literally just a nod and a high five.”

Downey: It’s a bit of a blur for me after the final whistle. We were out on our feet, Munster were celebrating. I think I was slow enough to join the line [to shake hands].

“Wait — from what I do recall… I’m nearly sure that Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe punched a hole in the wall in the away dressing-room in Thomond?

“I swear to God, I’m nearly sure he put his fist through it. I think it was that game?”

Lobbe had called time with Northampton the previous year, so this alleged incident may have instead happened after Munster knocked Northampton out at the Heineken Cup quarter-final stage at Thomond two seasons prior.

Downey: “Well, that was Nacho if anyone asks, anyway!

“But [in 2011] I do remember just that frustration walking in: ‘I can’t believe it.’

“Nobody was saying we were robbed or anything; it was just, ‘I can’t believe we lost that’ — as opposed to, ‘I can’t believe the ref didn’t give us anything.’

roger-wilson-after-the-game Northampton's Roger Wilson leaves the field at full-time. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I’ve been in quiet dressing-rooms and… Yeah. Just disbelief. To go into that caldron where they’d only lost once; to be on the verge of a historical victory where, if we’d done it, we’d be getting the plaudits for going over there and breaking that fortress in Europe…

“Just head in hands, y’know? Head in hands…”

Corcoran: “I like winding James up about it! ‘Which is your favourite game: the final against Leinster in Cardiff or the Munster game in Thomond Park?’”

Downey: “Classic European moments, alright… ha! I wish I had better moments. But look, it’s kind of nice to have been part of these big European nights.

“What a game it was in Thomond Park, what an occasion. It’s heart-wrenching when it gets taken from you in the last play of the game — but again, it was testament to that Munster pack and, of course, to ROG.”

doug-howlett-and-james-downey Downey competes with Dougie Howlett for a high ball. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

O’Leary: “To be honest with you, I can’t really remember what our dressing room was like, so it obviously wasn’t too significant a moment when we were actually in there. It was great afterwards on the pitch and I’m sure it was a bit of craic inside, too — it always was. But at the end of the day, we’d just won a home game in the European Cup — at Thomond Park, like. Job done.

“And then it’s onto the next thing. It’s still the group stages. We’ve won nothing. You’re thinking, ‘Jeez, that was close. We probably left that a bit tight.’ You’re aware it was a nice moment to be a part of but you’re also thinking, ‘We need to be better than that, like.’”

Corcoran: “As a commentator, I find sometimes after a match that I’m just totally emotionally drained, and that was certainly one of those emotionally draining occasions.

I’m sat in the car and I’m driving back to Dublin from Limerick. I’m in the car on me own. And I’m sort of… ‘God, I’m on the Portlaoise bypass. How did I get here?’ Y’know what I mean? You’re thinking back over the game all the way home.

“The commentary that day certainly got a lot of mileage, for want of a better phrase. It kind of went viral, like, which was bizarre for a bit of radio commentary. I ended up doing a piece on The Breakdown which is the rugby show on Sky in New Zealand: they played it and then had me on talking about it. So that’s how far it travelled.

And then you had somebody who put together the thing with the Cookie Monster and all of that kind of carry on, y’know? Ha!

There were two versions of a video going around: one with me and Donal Lenihan as the Cookie Monster and Kermit the Frog, and then there was the other plain one from the good old days where somebody put the radio commentary over the TV footage. They were both stuck up on YouTube and there were hundreds of thousands of hits between them.

ronan-ogara-after-the-game Ronan O'Gara and Conor Murray in the Munster dressing room post-match. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO


Incredibly, the following week, away to Castres in Munster’s second pool game, O’Gara again struck a drop goal from the 10-metre line to seize victory with the clock red. This time around, after another herculean effort by Munster’s pack to fashion the opportunity, it was O’Leary who supplied the final pass to his out-half. For Corcoran, Munster’s next two European fixtures — beginning with Northampton at Thomond today — make for quite the dose of deja vu.

Corcoran: “It’s bizarre because I did that Castres game as well and Castres actually moved the match to the Stade Ernest-Wallon in Toulouse.

“Munster do it again, ROG does it again, and I think I actually said on commentary, ‘I can’t believe it!’

“But what’s bizarre is you look at the match on Saturday: Northampton in Limerick. And then where are Munster playing the following week? In Toulouse, at the Stade Ernest-Wallon. Eleven and a half years later, it’s kind of come around again, basically.”

O’Leary: “It’s mad, alright. I think with those Northampton and Castres games, they were an illustration of that group having that self-belief; believing that, when it comes to D-Day, we have the ability to execute.

“And it was an illustration to our supporters, an illustration to our families, an illustration to our opposition, as well, that this Munster team is still something to be reckoned with.

“The drama of that competition at that time, just the whole buzz around Munster… It was a cool thing to be a part of, definitely.”

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