Munster captain Peter O’Mahony spoke of his excitement for what the squad’s core group of players can go on to achieve after being crowned champions of the BKT United Rugby Championship.
O’Mahony, who was unfortunately withdrawn early through injury against the DHL Stormers, was in the extended squad, at the age of 21, when the province last won the league title back in 2011.
Conor Murray and Keith Earls were starters back then, while Stephen Archer and Denis Leamy, Munster’s current defence coach, featured on the bench for the 19-9 final win over Leinster, almost twelve years ago to the day.
Those members of the old guard have soldiered on through the years, suffering semi-final heartbreak in the Heineken Champions Cup and the disappointment of losing the 2015, 2017 and 2021 league finals.
That makes what happened on Saturday evening in Cape Town all the sweeter for the likes of O’Mahony and Earls, who shared a long embrace following a famous 19-14 victory over the Stormers.
“I’m kind of in disbelief. I didn’t think it was going to happen for a few of us. We’ve been a long time at it. We’ve had a long road and our supporters have been incredible to us,” said O’Mahony.
“Our families have stayed with us. They get the brunt of it when we go home and we’ve lost again. But we stuck at it and it means the world. To win some silverware with Munster is massive for the whole group.”
Facing their sixth successive away trip and a quick return to Cape Town after beating the Stormers there in April, Graham Rowntree’s side laid the foundations with a strong first half performance, albeit with two disallowed tries curtailing their lead to 12-7.
Their defensive strengths proved vital as the Stormers edged back in front, and wearing them down in response, Mike Haley’s skip pass, and an inside ball from Shane Daly, set up John Hodnett to score his 74th-minute match winner.
Hodnett was the Vodacom player-of-the-match and one of Munster’s young guns who starred on the URC’s biggest stage. Ten of the matchday squad are aged 25 or under, with replacement back rower Alex Kendellen the youngest at 22.
Asked about how the young players have stepped up, especially during the Reds’ excellent play-off run, O’Mahony noted: “We’ve been on the road and we’ve had great experiences, and it’s bonded the group really well, particularly the two weeks we’ve spent over here.
It’s going to take a while for it to sink in. It’s special. I think it will be huge for the province going forward. We were nearly there a few times, and I think it’ll give the younger group, which is the core of this team now, a real leg up over the next few years to kick on.
“(It) gives you that real hunger and taste for it. We’ve a lot of work to do and plenty of growing to do, which is absolutely brilliant as well.
“This is certainly far from the ceiling of this group and this team and this environment, so I’m really excited for the future of Munster Rugby.”
Hodnett, the scorer of one of Munster’s most important tries in their recent history, was eager to emphasise how much of a squad effort it was to get the team onto the URC winners’ podium.
Also referencing the momentum built up by going unbeaten in South Africa, Glasgow and Dublin in recent weeks, the 24-year-old flanker said: “It’s not just the 23 here, it’s everyone at home. The way we’ve trained all year, it’s just a group effort. It’s unbelievable to have the win.
“We’ve been on the road I don’t know how many weeks now. We’re after travelling something crazy, a crazy amount of miles. It gave us great belief, winning away from home, and it’s just another one on our journey.”
An Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam winner in 2019, Hodnett added: “Winning here is massive for everyone. It’s a whole year’s work and it’s unbelievable to say we’re champions now.
“Battle hardened, that’s exactly what we talked about. You could see it there, we stuck in right till the very end and I think that was the difference.
“We did have a couple of off-weeks (during the season), I don’t know what it was. That win against the Stormers (in April) just turned the end of the season around. It just built momentum and that was it really.”
Munster conceded early tries in both halves, including Manie Libbok’s intercept effort which had the partisan home crowd dreaming of back-to-back URC titles.
Those scores, along with Mike Haley’s sin-binning, might have knocked the visitors’ confidence, but they came up with the answers, backing what they had done on the training ground to outlast their opponents.
Jack Crowley, who provided a try assist and landed a brilliant final conversion from out wide, Gavin Coombes, Jean Kleyn and Malakai Fekitoa were among the players to stand out as the Munstermen rose to the occasion.
‘A bang to the neck’ forced O’Mahony off before half-time, but with fit-again Springbok RG Snyman sprung into action and the ever-influential Tadhg Beirne switching to the back row, the Corkman was confident that his team-mates would prevail.
“We performed well in the first half. It probably should have been a couple of more scores up, but we weren’t,” acknowledged O’Mahony, who is coming up to the tenth anniversary of his appointment as Munster skipper.
“Credit to the Stormers, I thought their defence was excellent. Then we go down (14-12), 50 minutes in, and there’s 20 minutes of toing and froing, some incredible defensive performances.
“Four or five minutes to go, again we go back down there, show incredible resilience and skills to score a really well-worked try. It’s a tough surface, tough conditions, a greasy ball. Unbelievable skills and a great try to finish it off.”
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Marrying their Mike Prendergast-sharpened attack with that organisation and aggression in defence instilled by Leamy, it was a fitting finish to Rowntree’s first year in charge which has had plenty of ups and downs.
Munster’s backs were against the wall when they exited the Champions Cup at the round of 16, but they proved their doubters wrong. That character and will to win was there in spades on Saturday.
O’Mahony added: “We stuck to our guns. We spoke about it last night, we spoke about instances where we’d be struggling and we’d concede tries.
“But we won’t get bogged down in it, we’d get back into the next moment. You saw the last five minutes there. Class.”