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Page last updated at 06:34 GMT, Sunday, 25 May 2008 07:34 UK
2008 Heineken Cup final
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, 24 May, 1700 BST

By Bryn Palmer
BBC Sport at the Millennium Stadium

Munster got their hands on the Heineken Cup for the second time
Munster got their hands on the Heineken Cup for the second time

They came - for a third time on final day - to Cardiff. They saw off the might of Toulouse. They conquered Europe for a second time in three years.

And in doing so, magnificent Munster joined the Heineken Cup elite.

You might argue they already enjoyed such status, having appeared in three previous finals and won the trophy two years ago.

But just as Sir Alex Ferguson felt that two European Cups were a poor return for a club of Manchester United's stature before their triumph in Moscow last week, a single victory in rugby's version was scant reward for Munster's contribution to the tournament.

The Irish province are synonymous with the Heineken Cup, and a second triumph saw them draw level with English giants Leicester and Wasps on the honours board.

All three remain one behind Toulouse, where the failure to collect a fourth title will burn deeply at a club which prides itself on success beyond its own national borders.

The same approach applies to Munster and their wonderful supporters, the best in Europe, and around 60,000 of them made it another celebration party to savour.

The ferries and flights were full, but they got there anyway, via Paris, Brussels, Birmingham, Manchester, London, anywhere with access to the Welsh capital.

The Cork choristers and Limerick lyricists were in full voice from the moment captain Paul O'Connell led his team out for the warm-up an hour before the game.

Their heroes may have been wearing unfamiliar blue, Toulouse having won the right to choose jerseys, but the red army were clearing their throats for a chorus of "Fields of Athenry", the first of many, as early as the fourth minute.

On the pitch, the initial signs were not so encouraging. A nervy Munster were making errors, while Byron Kelleher, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Yannick Jauzion were stretching their defence with some precision passing and clever tactical kicking.

Yet the French aristocrats had only an Elissalde drop-goal to show for their dominance, the converted fly-half missing with another attempt and an earlier penalty.

Those misses did not appear significant at the time, but as the contest wore on, they proved critical in a match decided by a single score.

Munster had decided beforehand that to engage Toulouse in an expansive game was tantamount to suicide, and who could blame them? They experienced the pain of 'plucky defeat' in the finals of 2000 and 2002, and enjoyed the 2006 version far more.

Instead, as O'Connell explained later, the Munster pack opted to make it "a war".

"We just worked our socks off," he said. "People might say it wasn't the fanciest of finals but for pure attrition, work-rate and heart, it was right up there."

And just as in 2006, at important moments Munster's "16th man" played a vital hand.

During breaks in play, pictures of thousands more supporters shoe-horned into Limerick's O'Connell Street watching on a big screen were relayed to the one in the Millennium Stadium, and again it seemed to galvanise fans and players alike.

The first occasion, after 25 minutes, inspired their first decent passage of play, a stirring seven-minute period that culminated in their only try through Denis Leamy.

It featured four scrums inside the Toulouse 22, the second of them resulting in Leamy's disallowed try after television match official Derek Bevan decided Kelleher had done just enough to dislodge the ball as the number eight touched down.

The third of them, Toulouse coach Guy Noves acknowledged later, changed the momentum of the match, as the Munster eight forced the French back on their own put-in, earning themselves another scrum five metres out.

The crescendo was building to such an extent that referee Nigel Owens was struggling to make himself heard amid the din. "You'll have to bear with me lads, I know it's very loud, I'm shouting as loud as I can" said the Welsh whistler as the scrums packed down again.

Munster fans dominated the day at the Millennium Stadium
Munster fans dominated the day at the Millennium Stadium
This time Munster's persistence was rewarded, Leamy grounding the ball after another series of surges, and thereafter you felt the match was Munster's to lose.

Toulouse were clearly rattled, and never fully recovered their composure, their venerable captain Fabien Pelous finding himself cast in role of villain of the piece.

The 34-year-old lock conceded three penalties, each punished by three points from Ronan O'Gara, including one for a petulant kick, which earned him a yellow card. "It is a real shame that at my age, I still react like that," he said later, suitably apologetic.

Not that it was plain sailing for Munster. Down to 14 men, Toulouse levelled the match at 13-13 in the 54th minute after a moment of genius from Cedric Heymans.

Taking a quick throw-in to himself, the full-back embarked on a chip-and-chase routine up the left touchline before angling a wicked high kick in-field that yielded a try for Yves Donguy, after Jauzion toe-poked the ball out of O'Gara's grasp.

It remained that way until 15 minutes from time, when O'Gara's third penalty, after another Pelous indiscretion, gave Munster a vital lead approaching the closing stages.

They proceeded to spend most of them camped inside the Toulouse half, picking-and-driving, inches at a time, retaining possession, denying their opponents the ball, closing out the match with plenty of savvy, sweat and a hint of swagger.

It was a fitting tribute to the organisation and discipline instilled by departing coaches Declan Kidney and the former Wallaby Jim Williams, and the old captain Anthony Foley as he heads into retirement, all three given the grandest of farewells.

Afterwards Kidney spoke movingly of the special nature of this second triumph, the sense of privilege he felt, and his desire to enjoy this one just that little bit more.

He was not alone. The 60,000 Munster fans who made it such a momentous occasion were already streaming into the cool Cardiff evening air, intent on painting the town red once again.

see also
Munster 16-13 Toulouse
24 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Munster savour Heineken triumph
24 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup final as it happened
24 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup final photos
24 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup final lowdown
22 May 08 |  Rugby Union
The secret of Munster's success
22 May 08 |  Munster
Europe's rugby giants
22 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Saracens 16-18 Munster
27 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
London Irish 15-21 Toulouse
26 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup photos
27 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Gloucester 3-16 Munster
05 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Toulouse 41-17 Blues
06 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Munster 23-19 Biarritz
20 May 06 |  European Club
Stade Francais 12-18 Toulouse
22 May 05 |  European Club
Wasps 27-20 Toulouse
23 May 04 |  European Club
Toulouse regain European crown
24 May 03 |  European Club
Toulouse edge out Munster
26 Apr 03 |  European Club
Tigers retain European Cup
25 May 02 |  European

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