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Dawn of January 18th, 2003
Welcome to one of the great tales in the history of Rugby, let's get you caught up. Here's the plot: Munster is an Irish Union Rugby Club founded in 1879, their motto is "To the brave and faithful, nothing is impossible," and their team exemplifies this to the fullest, playing host to dozens of stories of mythical matches played by larger than life heroes of the past, under floodlights and cloudy skies. Perhaps no match illustrates this down-and-out, fighting spirit more than a match-up which The Guardian described at the time as one which "belongs among the greatest rugby tales in history;" - The 6th and final match in the 2nd Pool of the Heineken Cup Qualifiers: Munster v Gloucester, 2003... 'The Miracle Match'.
What is the Heineken Cup?
Now retired and replaced by the Heineken "European Rugby Champions Cup Trophy" (still presented by Heineken), the cup is best described by the organization's own words:
This magnificent trophy is a beautiful piece, deep cup and long handles, a solid silver chalice shape, combining platinum and gold on the edifice.
The front of the cup conveys the map of Europe with its constituent playing counties mapped into a ball shape delivery of the European continent nations in gold.
The lid is lifted by the circular ring of European stars embedded in it for symbolism and to give context for where, geographically this trophy will be competed for and won.
The trophy stands 28 inches in height and stands on a solid marble base.
Garrard London was established in 1735, Founded by a master silversmith, the skill of the Garrard craftsmen continues to be second to none.
The competition itself can be best described as similar to the UEFA Champions and Europa Leagues in football, and all the glory that comes with.
The Stakes; The Challenge
Munster needed to win by a margin of at least 27 points and score a minimum of four tries to earn a quarter-final berth by point and try differential - all against a Gloucester side that was the cream of the English Union crop: top of the Gallagher Premiership, 4-1 coming onto ground, and looking the clear favorites to clinch the playoff spot and top of the table. Munster had other ideas.
The First Half
The match starts fairly evenly, the sides exchange penalty kicks and the game is tied going into the 17th minute. But Munster capitalize on a scrum within spitting distance of the Gloucester try line. The legendary call: "8 to 14, Kelly? Kelly!" as John Kelly grounds his first try of the afternoon, but they need more, a lot more.
Gloucester hit back with another penalty to reel the Irishmen in 8-6. Munster trade blow for blow; it's now 11-6. Minutes later it seems like it might be deja'vu, as a similar scrum near the Gloucester try line passes out in the opposite direction. O'Gara goes to ground, and the rucks start coming hard and fast as Munster attempt to keep possession under referee's advantage. An audacious chip into the corner falls perfectly for Mossie Lawlor to secure Munster's second try and extend their lead out to 16-6 as half time looms.
The Second Half
As the second half commences it's Mick O'Driscoll who nets Munster's third try as a large ruck produces a bouncing ball which Mike Mullins scoops up and kicks beautifully into open space; bread and butter for the forward to finish. An absolutely absurd angle conversion takes Munster closer to the realms of legend - the score now 26-6.
Time is running out though, they've put in a battling performance, but 20 points isn't good enough. In the FINAL MINUTE of the match Munster need one last miracle, and it comes in the form of a lineout that goes in favor of the 'Red Army', a few quick passes and they pull out one last unlikely tactic - an almost unheard of play, a Hail Mary to end all Hail Marys - the live ball maul. The man in possession turns his back to the try line and his forwards file in one by one to form one deadly mass of humanity. It's now illegal to take the Munster man to ground, but the maul must continue to progress towards the goal line or a scrum will result. The maul is coming to a stop and the ball gets thrown back into play; one more ruck; two more passes; and who else, but John Kelly? He steps out to net his second and final try of the match, screaming and pumping his fists as his teammates surround him.
O'Gara; One Last Conversion, and into the History Books
But once again, 31-6 isn't good enough. Ronan O'Gara steps forward to take the final conversion - make it, and they're through to the knockout stage; miss, and all the blood sweat and tears have been for nothing... Dead center, the flags are up, but there's still about 20 seconds left on the clock - more than enough time for a side like Gloucester to kick and force a penalty within shooting range. The kick goes down the pitch and almost immediately to ruck - we're now into injury time - but O'Gara is deep and waiting for the long lob back, and box kicks it cleanly out of play. The whistle goes. It's over. 33-6 final score; EXACTLY 27 points and 4 tries; EXACTLY what Munster needed.
The best part? O'Gara claimed in the post-match that no one on the squad knew they needed 27 points to qualify on top of the win, they had just assumed the margin needed was insurmountable and no one had time to do the maths on the fly when they did take the lead. It wasn't until the crowd went wild and stormed the pitch that O'Gara realized the significance of his bonus point conversion. And that's that. Certainly one of the greatest stories in Continental Club - let alone, Irish - Rugby!