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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK
Munster's mission
By Bryn Palmer

Donncha O'Callaghan (left) celebrates as Ronan O'Gara scores for Munster
Will Munster be celebrating victory in Cardiff on Saturday?
From Castres to Cardiff, Bath to Bourgoin, Toulouse to Twickenham and most points in between, Munster's red army has been on the march for 11 years now.

There was no hint when they lost their first Heineken Cup match at Castres' Stade Pierre-Antoine in 1995 that their quest for European club rugby's biggest prize would become such a Holy Grail.

But after making little impression in the competition's formative years, the fortunes of the Irish province have become inextricably linked to the tournament.

Only Toulouse have reached the knockout stages on more occasions but unlike the three-time champions, the sponsor's brew has yet to refresh Munster in the final reckoning.

This is the eighth year in a row they have reached the last eight or better, since losing to Colomiers in the quarter-finals in 1999. We retrace the highs and lows of their journey.

2000: TWICKENHAM TORTURE (Northampton 9-8 Munster)

Munster announced themselves as a major European force with a gripping 31-25 semi-final victory over Toulouse at a sun-bathed Stade Lescure in Bordeaux.

Despite trailing 18-17 in the final quarter, a stunning length-of-field try, finished off by Ronan O'Gara, turned the tide and Jason Holland's interception score completed the job.

But three weeks later at Twickenham, the wild celebrations turned to silent contemplation after an agonising one-point defeat to Northampton in an epic final collision.

Munster led 8-6 at half-time after David Wallace scored the only try of the game, but the Saints pack and Paul Grayson's third penalty - the only score of the second half - prevailed.

2001: WHITE-OUT IN LILLE (Stade Francais 16-15 Munster)

After beating Biarritz 38-29 at their Thomond Park fortress in the quarter-finals, Munster went 11 weeks without a competitive game before travelling to northern France.

But despite being ring-rusty, the red marauders might have pulled off another upset victory but for a controversial decision by English referee Chris White.

Trailing 16-9 in the second half, Munster were denied a try when wing John O'Neill chased a Peter Stringer kick and appeared to score in the corner before crashing out of play.

White ruled O'Neill hit the corner flag before touching down, but TV replays proved otherwise, and Stade's defence held out in a frantic finale to deny Munster victory.

2002: BACK-HANDER IN CARDIFF (Leicester 15-9 Munster)

After avenging their 2001 loss to Stade with a nail-biting 16-14 quarter-final victory in Paris, Munster also triumphed on French soil in the semis, beating Castres 25-17 in Beziers.

Munster wing John O'Neill is denied a try in the 2002 Heineken Cup final
Austin Healey's tackle denied O'Neill
But a blatant piece of 'professionalism' by England flanker Neil Back - "I did what I had to do, to get a win for Leicester," he said - denied Munster a final fling in Cardiff.

Trailing to tries from Geordan Murphy and Austin Healey, they had just been denied a try in the corner for John O'Neill by the video referee when the crucial moment arrived.

At a scrum five metres from the Leicester line, Back knocked the ball from scrum-half Stringer's grasp as he threw it in and flipped it straight back to his own second row. Game over.

2003: EVERYTHING TOU-LOUSE (Toulouse 13-12 Munster)

Revenge was sweet as Munster stormed Welford Road to beat Leicester 20-7 in the quarter-finals, with Ronan O'Gara scoring one try and setting up another for Stringer.

But they could not repeat their 2000 semi-final win over Toulouse, despite leading until the 74th minute with two dropped goals and a brace of penalties from O'Gara.

Toulouse snatched victory at the death, a Frederic Michalak try bringing them to within a point before Jean Baptiste Elissalde's conversion delivered the coup de grâce.

2004: WASPS' EXTRA-TIME STING (Munster 32-37 Wasps)

After beating Stade Francais 37-32 in the last eight, their third win over the Parisians in the knockout stages, a 'home' semi-final at Lansdowne Road looked tailor-made for Munster.

Wasps hooker Trevor Leota scores the winning try for Wasps in the 2004 semi-final
Leota's try denied Munster in 2004
But in one of the greatest ever games of club rugby, Wasps first sent the match into extra-time and then claimed a controversial injury-time winning try.

Munster trailed 15-17 at half-time but led by 10 points with 15 minutes left after tries by Anthony Foley and Jim Williams.

But with seconds left Alex King converted Tom Voyce's try to level it and six minutes into injury-time, Wasps hooker Trevor Leota burrowed over, the video referee deciding he had grounded the ball despite some inconclusive replays.

2006: DELIRIOUS IN DUBLIN (Leinster 6-30 Munster)

In 2005 Munster succumbed to Saturday's final opponents, Biarritz, at the quarter-final stage in San Sebastian, a second-half rally insufficient to undo a poor opening quarter.

But this year they have returned to barnstorming form, thrashing English league leaders Sale to secure a home quarter-final, and dispatching Perpignan in the last eight.

They arrived at Lansdowne Road as underdogs for an all-Ireland semi-final with Leinster, but totally dominated their capital colleagues, scoring three tries-to-nil.

Late scores from O'Gara and Trevor Halstead embellished the victory margin, and now another final beckons, against the Basques of Biarritz. Can Munster make it third time lucky?




SEE ALSO
Leinster 6-30 Munster
23 Apr 06 |  European Club
Munster 19-10 Perpignan
01 Apr 06 |  European Club
Munster 31-9 Sale
21 Jan 06 |  European Club
Biarritz 19-10 Munster
03 Apr 05 |  European Club
Munster 32-37 Wasps
25 Apr 04 |  European Club
Munster 37-32 Stade Français
10 Apr 04 |  European Club
Toulouse edge out Munster
26 Apr 03 |  European Club
Munster end Leicester dream
13 Apr 03 |  European Club
Tigers retain European Cup
25 May 02 |  European
O'Gara leads Munster to victory
27 Apr 02 |  European
Munster earn sweet revenge
26 Jan 02 |  European
Munster edged out by Stade
21 Apr 01 |  Heineken Cup


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