Munster are through to the Heineken Cup knock-out stages for a tournament record 10th successive season and their quarter-final collision with Gloucester at Kingsholm on Saturday has all the potential to considerably add to the rich history between the teams.
No team can match Munster’s consistency in qualifying for the last eight – three-time champions Toulouse are next best with their ninth appearance spread over the 13 seasons – and the province accept they will be subjected to much the same sort of welcome visitors to their own fortress at Thomond Park go through – the hottest of hot receptions.
“Our record in qualifying for the quarter-finals for the 10th season on the trot is great but we know that down the years there have been what some would call fortunate occasions,” said Munster full-back Shaun Payne, who has made 55 Heineken Cup appearances.
“I guess you could say the so-called ‘Miracle match’ in 2003 against Gloucester is one of those, when, after losing 35-16 at Kingsholm, Munster had to win at Thomond Park by 27 points along with a try bonus point –-and did just that. That one will certainly go down in both Munster and Heineken Cup folklore.
“That was the season before I joined Munster and in my first year with them in 2003/04 we lost 22-11 at Kingsholm and then won the home match 35-14 so there has certainly been some memorable matches between us. On top of that great rivalry on the field, there are great similarities between the teams off the pitch.
“Both of us are particularly well supported and Gloucester’s hugely passionate crowd means we fully expect we will get much the same sort of welcome at Kingsholm as teams running out at Thomond Park get when they play us.
“The Gloucester fans really are their 16th man, and that is certainly not true of every club you play against in the Heineken Cup.
“Our fans are legendary. Who will ever forget them at the 2006 final in Cardiff when we beat Biarritz Olympique? And it would be great if we could have them turning out in force against Gloucester because they really are a different team on their home patch.”
That 23-19 Heineken Cup final triumph at the third attempt saw Munster claim their holy grail, with Payne adding: “As players and fans, Munster have always had a fantastic relationship with the Heineken Cup.
“This season we were bitterly disappointed to lose by a point at Wasps and in the end it was the losing bonus point we picked up at Clermont Auvergne that was absolutely critical in us making it through to the quarter-finals
“Now we have to try and knock out a nicely balanced side that is extremely strong up front with a good mix of established players and young players coming through,” he added.
Payne also discussed Gloucester’s potential danger men and the current strength in the Munster squad.
The former Natal Sharks and Swansea player said: “It is always dangerous to single out one player because Gloucester have strength all over the park, but Lesley Vainikolo is special – although I have been more impressed with him in the Heineken Cup than for England in the Six Nations as he clearly can improve in a few technical areas and a player’s form is linked directly to team form.
“However, you cannot buy or be taught strength and in pure physicality he has it all.
“Competition for places at Munster is so much keener than at any stage in the last five years. Nothing is taken for granted any more, and the only motivation we will need on Saturday will be the nature of last year’s quarter-final defeat at Llanelli Scarlets.
“That means the hunger that is always there with Munster is now more so than ever.”
ERC have confirmed that Munster’s additional players for the knock-out stages are hooker Sean Cronin and back rower John O’Sullivan.
Meanwhile, for fans who cannot travel to Kingsholm or view the match on the television, RTE Radio will broadcast Munster’s clash with Gloucester live on Saturday.
Commentator Michael Corcoran will be joined by former Ireland lock and manager Donal Lenihan as they describe the action and the atmosphere.
The game will be available on all RTE Radio 1 wavelengths – FM, LW 252 – and on RTE’s new digital radio service, as well as the RTE website. You will be able to get score updates on both www.IrishRugby.ie and www.ERCRugby.com.