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Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Sunday, 25 May 2008 15:55 UK

Skipper O'Connell hails Munster

Paul O'Connell
Munster skipper Paul O'Connell holds aloft the Heineken Cup after a tense tussle with Toulouse

By Bryn Palmer
BBC Sport at the Millennium Stadium

Munster captain Paul O'Connell paid tribute to his team's resilience after being crowned Heineken Cup champions for the second time in three years.

Ten Munster players endured Ireland's demoralising World Cup and Six Nations campaigns only to cap a difficult season with European glory.

"It has been a tough two years and since May 2006 there have not been that many happy days," O'Connell said.

"But there is a mental strength and a desire to prove ourselves."

After beating Biarritz in their third final to win the trophy for the first time two years ago, Munster surprisingly lost to Llanelli Scarlets in last year's quarter-finals.

But this season, after emerging top of a "pool of death" including 2007 champions Wasps and French championship leaders Clermont Auvergne, they have prevailed over Europe's finest again, holding off three-time champions Toulouse 16-13 in an absorbing final of extraordinary intensity in Cardiff.

When referee Nigel Owens blew the final whistle, O'Connell's exhaustion was evident as he stood haunched over the turf for several moments to get his breath.

When you come here you end up putting in a lot more than people bargain for. You end up living it

Paul O'Connell on the Munster experience

He then sportingly helped up Toulouse flanker Yannick Nyanga off the floor before finally raising his arms aloft in triumph.

"For us up front it was a war," he said. "That is what we made it. I remember thinking when I was standing there at the end 'that was a great game to win from a forwards' point of view'. We took the game by the scruff of the neck and closed it down.

"There were a few times when they should have got the ball but we just worked our socks off. People might say it wasn't the fanciest of finals but for pure attrition, work-rate and heart, it was right up there.

"We can bitch with each other out on the pitch sometimes, even if that ends when we come off the field. But there was none of that today, no matter what decisions were made. It was just a great performance all round."

As with their 2006 victory, it was one raucously celebrated by around 60,000 Munster fans who almost completely annexed the Millenium Stadium as their own.

They roared on their home-grown heroes, and the three New Zealanders - Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki and Lefeimi Mafi - who have added a cutting edge to their attacking game from start to finish, even when Toulouse threatened to take control.

"Their support is very important to us," O'Connell acknowledged.

"On the bus to the stadium we spotted people we knew - it is lucky we know a lot of our supporters - and that helps because the more emotion and passion you can bring to your game on these occasions the better.

"I think when you come here, you end up putting in a lot more than people bargain for. You end up living it."

Leading Munster out, and then on to victory, was also a reminder to O'Connell of the passing of the baton that has occurred since their 2006 victory, when veteran number eight Anthony Foley was still captain of the side.

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He has become a peripheral figure this season and now heads into retirement, while head coach Declan Kidney, who will take over the Ireland job, and forwards coach Jim Williams, who is returning to Australia, are also moving on.

"It is testament to all of them that they didn't want to mention about them leaving beforehand, but I think it was in the back of people's minds," O'Connell added.

"It was a strange feeling to see 'Axel' (Foley) walking round in the dressing room in a suit 10 minutes before kick-off. He just looks after us like a babysitter.

"You then realise you have to go out there and do it on your own."

When it came to the trophy presentation, however, O'Connell decided that fly-half Ronan O'Gara, hero of so many of Munster's victories down the years, should be the one handed the silverware initially.

"Paul's gesture for me to pick up the cup speaks volumes for the man," O'Gara said. "It made the greatest day I have ever had with Munster."




see also
Munster 16-13 Toulouse
24 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Munster return to summit
25 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Emotional Kidney savours cup win
25 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup final as it happened
24 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup photos
27 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
The secret of Munster's success
22 May 08 |  Munster


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