The Grizzled European Campaigners

31st March 2019

Before this season, over the 22-year period in which Scottish sides have competed in the premier European competition (for what is now the Heineken Champions Cup), Edinburgh Rugby had progressed from the pool stages to the quarter-finals on exactly two occasions. In 2003-04, they lost in that round away to Toulouse, whilst in 2011-12 they beat the same opponents – when I was part of the near-39,000 crowd at Murrayfield, Edinburgh’s largest home attendance to date – before losing to Ulster in the semi-final.

In some years, Edinburgh have not even qualified for the Heineken/Champions Cup because of their low position in the previous season’s PRO12 League (in which they competed with the Welsh and Irish regional/provincial sides), leaving their Glasgow Warriors rivals as Scotland’s only representatives. Edinburgh had to settle for the second-tier European Challenge Cup (now called the Rugby Challenge Cup), in which they were runners-up to Gloucester in 2014-15.

All in all, this has added up to a performance over two decades on the European stage that can be charitably described as modest, given the significant resources ploughed into Edinburgh Rugby by the Scottish Rugby Union, especially on a series of high-profile coaches: Todd Blackadder, Andy Robinson, Alan Solomons et al.

The 2018-19 season has seen a notable upturn in Edinburgh ’s European fortunes under the former Leicester coach Richard Cockerill, who took over the reins at the beginning of last season. Edinburgh came top of a demanding Champions Cup pool – which also contained Montpellier , Toulon and Newcastle Falcons – winning five matches out of six. Their reward was a home quarter-final against Munster , which was played at Murrayfield yesterday.

The Irish provinces have an excellent record in the Heineken/Champions Cup. Leinster have won the competition four times, Munster twice and Ulster once and, between them, these sides have also been runners-up on three other occasions. Munster entered yesterday’s encounter having reached at least the quarter-final stage no fewer than 18 times since 1998-99 and, whilst their more recent trophy win was in 2007-08, they have reached the semi-finals in four of the last six years. They have a deserved reputation as experienced and grizzled campaigners on the European front.

Munster’s proud rugby traditions long pre-date the European competitions, of course. Inter-provincial matches have been played in Ireland since 1875, whilst Munster have been challenging touring sides since the first All Blacks visit of 1905. Since then, they have defeated Australia four times and, on a famous occasion in 1978, New Zealand once, thereby lowering the All Black colours almost 40 years before the Ireland national side first managed to do so.

Munster have contributed a total of 35 players to the British and Irish Lions over the years, the most recent – for the 2017 tour to New Zealand – being Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony (who captained the Lions in the first test). All three played yesterday, along with Keith Earls, a veteran of the 2009 tour to South Africa .

O’Mahony’s appearance represented something of an echo for me, as I had previously seen him play for Ireland in a Six Nations Under 18 tournament that was held in Glasgow in 2007, on that occasion against England at the West of Scotland club’s ground at Burnbrae. I remember him then as a hard, aggressive competitor who, packing down in the Number 8 position, would launch himself into the set scrums with what was effectively an (illegal) mini-charge. Even at that stage, it was not difficult to envisage him graduating through the Munster ranks.

Munster edged yesterday’s game 17-13. It was a compelling match of (predictably) unremitting confrontation and physical intensity, in which the 36,000 crowd – at least half of whom wore the visitors’ red – were fully absorbed. Edinburgh had the bulk of the territorial advantage and there were several occasions when Munster had to defend desperately on their own try line but, as the match progressed – and even when the home side took a 13-10 lead – I did wonder if Munster’s years of accumulating their European nous might be of consequence.

All four Lions played significant roles. Stander and O’Mahony (again predictably) were at the heart of the Munster effort in repelling Edinburgh’s determined forward drives, Earls revealed his alert rugby brain by taking a quick tap penalty to score the opening try (on Munster’s first visit to the Edinburgh 22, after nearly 20 minutes) and it was Murray’s half-break that created the opportunity from which, following some skilful handling, Earls scored his second try with 10 minutes remaining.

As that try gave Munster a two-point lead, the conversion attempt was clearly going to be crucial, as the resultant four-point margin would mean that Edinburgh would need to score a try, rather than a single penalty goal, to rescue the match. When the replacement fly-half Tyler Bleyendaal struck a majestic kick from the right-hand touchline, the Munster roar was the loudest of the afternoon. It was duly followed by a spirited rendition of The Fields of Athenry.

Edinburgh were still in the fight, of course. The replacements came on for the exhausted front-line combatants – who had been impressively led by the captain Stuart McInally – to supplement the dangerous attacking threat continually posed from full-back by Darcy Graham. The last home attack saw Munster having to defend through no fewer than 29 phases of play over 4½ minutes of uninterrupted action (as I registered later on watching my television recording) before an infringement occurred and the visitors’ arms could be raised in weary triumph.

Earlier, before the match, I spent some time at the memorial to the Scottish international rugby players who have been killed in wartime, the first of whom was DB Monypenny in the Boer War. It takes the form of an elegant arch below which is a plaque with the names of the 46 fallen. A young steward came over and asked me if I recognised the best-known of those listed. I knew, of course, that he was referring to Eric Liddell, who won seven caps in 1922 and 1923 and died in a Japanese internment camp in China in 1945.

In return, I was able to point to the name of Roy Kinnear, who won three caps in 1926. Drawing on my recent article for the Rugby League Journal, I mentioned that he had been the father of the late Roy Kinnear and grandfather of Rory Kinnear, both distinguished actors. The older Roy Kinnear had turned professional and scored a try for Wigan in the first Challenge Cup final played at Wembley in 1929; he was serving in the RAF when died of a heart attack in 1942.

The memorial is set on a prominent site in the Murrayfield grounds, neatly shaded by a couple of trees, to the left of the main turnstiles on Roseburn Crescent . I was only a few yards from the main thoroughfare of incoming supporters on their way to the stands or the beer tents or fast food stalls, but it was strangely – and pleasantly – peaceful.

Rugby in Munster has a long and proud history. So does rugby in Scotland.

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