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The X Factor

The X Factor

So what the hell is it with this Munster “X factor”? Ronan O’Gara, the calm at the centre of their storming Heineken Cup performance, could not say.

So what the hell is it with this Munster “X factor”? Ronan O’Gara, the calm at the centre of their storming Heineken Cup performance, could not say. “The X factor, I don’t know, but it is typical of us to perform best when we have been criticised and our backs are to the wall,” the fly-half said.

Maybe it is the snarling role of the underdog that brings the best out of them. Certainly they gave Gloucester, the English champions-elect and mongrel kings of the Zurich Premiership scene, a mauling. The Cherry and Whites are renowned scrappers but the word on the street in the days leading up to the game in Limerick was that this was a pedigree team from across the sea.

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Simmering antagonism brings you somewhere near to the inspirational heart of Munster. They don’t like Leinster – the doctors of Dublin opposed to the dockers of Munster – and they are none too wild about the English. Gloucester walked into more than a rugby game and they were not ready for the onslaught. By full time the mongrels were more like poodles, ripped to pieces by a set of more than averagely aggressive pit bulls.,p>But this X factor is too intangible to nail down with any confidence. It is easier to say what it is not. It is certainly not something that money can buy and that is important. There are lessons to be learned for clubs. Jim Williams apart, this was a no-nonsense, local team. With a side made up of men of Cork and Limerick, who have grown up in the province and are not just idols but also mates of the fanatical supporters, there is total empathy between the fans and players.

It is little to do with branding either, or if it is branding it is a raw and elemental type that faithfully represents the province and not some marketing man’s clever plan. There is no wannabe Radio One disc jockey slurring his words as he announces: “Let’s hear it for the whoever.” In Munster, the pre-match pumping up of the crowd is a man with a microphone singing: ‘Stand up and fight like a man’, from the opera Carmen. Let the stamping begin.

It is stirring stuff but nothing compared to the entrance of the team, roared on to the pitch with a sound like a crack of thunder. The Gloucester team were broken on the pitch and taught a rare old lesson on the terraces, a fact their supporters were generous enough to acknowledge as they drank deep into their nightmare night.

Thomond Park is a special place. The atmosphere could peal the paint from the stands, if there was any paint. But the secret lies in the terracing. Tightly packed, both sets of fans indulged in a rip- roaring tribalism. It is a million miles from where many of the English clubs are heading; towards all-seat stadiums with lots of light entertainment to make for a good family day out.

Thomond Park grants little concession to the nuclear family. It belongs to a bygone age, before the American and Australian razzmatazz that is perceived to be entertainment. This isn’t about cheerleaders and titillation, it is pure passion. The word “entertainment” does the occasion no justice.

And the harder the edge, the fairer the attitude of the supporters. While our sport moves towards the family-friendly stadium, crowds are slowly emulating their football counterparts and expending as much effort booing opponents as cheering on their own men. David Sole, the Lions prop who was commentating on the Parker Pen Challenge Cup tie between Wasps and Stade Franais eight days ago, felt that whistling at kickers was part of the professional game.

But the question has to be raised: why must rugby emulate a game that has been scarred by thuggery over the years. If the roars that greeted scores at Thomond Park were something, the silence that greeted the kickers of both teams was something else again. Antagonism might fuel the passion but it is controlled and in proportion and impeccable manners reign.

Fewer families, but more rugby people ingrained with an understanding and a respect. Every club in England should aspire to match the attitude of the Limerick crowd. And on the day there was plenty to learn on the pitch as well. “A lot of players learned a lot about themselves today,” said Nigel Melville, Gloucester’s director of rugby. The lessons were grim ones. Some of their players are going to have to wrestle with their egos. They could start by watching the Munster men at their best: heart and soul, heart and soul.

Stuart Barnes, The Daily Telegraph).