Northampton Saints 9 Munster 8
IT was a day like no other at Twickenham, Munster fans invading the home of English rugby for an historic first appearance in a Heineken Cup final.
Northampton supporters played their part too, piling onto a fleet of old-fashioned double-decker busses and travelling down the M1, a scene reminiscent of a bygone era.
A crowd of 68,441 witnessed a tight, attritional and low-scoring affair, on May 27 in 2000, with an estimated 40,000 Munster supporters engrossed in a nail-biter which ended in disappointment.
It was an epic journey en route to the last afternoon of the season.
Memories of the semi-final victory over Toulouse in the furnace of Bordeaux were still fresh in the mind, but this was a completely different type of game.
The English club took on the Munster forwards just like the Irish eight had squeezed the life out of other sides along the way.
And Northampton decided this was going to be an up-the-jumper approach, none of the frills witnessed in the try-fest in France.
In essence the Saints outmunstered Munster and there was no disputing the better side on the day.
And the conditions were totally different, too, a swirling wind playing havoc with the kicking skills of Ronan O’Gara and Paul Grayson.
The Munster number 10 came into the game as the competition’s highest scorer with 131 points, but couldn’t add to his tally in a rare blank outing.
O’Gara missed four penalties, a couple of drop-goal attempts and the conversion of the lone try while Grayson nailed three penalties from five attempts.
And that was the difference after French referee Joel Dume brought proceedings to a halt, leaving Munster to ponder what might have been and dwell on the most galling defeat of the lot, going down by just one point.
They did have the satisfaction of scoring the only try in the first-half after Jason Holland dropped a goal earlier to edge Munster in front.
It was well finished off by the supporting David Wallace, one of the best Munster players on view, following a careering run down the wing by hooker Keith Wood.
There were important contributions from O’Gara in particular and Holland, Anthony Foley and Dominic Crotty.
Munster led 8-6 at the interval, Grayson kicking a couple of penalties to leave Northampton well poised for their customary strong second-half showing with the abrasive Pat Lam a central figure up front.
The signs were ominous early in the second half, notably, when O’Gara had a clearance kick charged down and Munster were pinged at the ruck to leave Grayson land his third penalty.
Moments earlier, the Munster out-half had a pass intercepted by Northampton scrum-half Dom Malone and it needed a lung-bursting saving tackle by Eddie Halvey to rescue the situation.
Another key moment was the yellow card dished out to Munster captain Mick Galwey in the closing quarter when they were on the front foot in Northampton territory.
It was hard enough playing with 15, never mind having to take on a rampant Northampton with 14 and a man short in the pack.
Foley summed up just how difficult it was for the kickers in the conditions.
“The wind was swirling all over the place and wasn’t easy at all for Ronan, who went desperately close with a couple of kicks,” he said.
His last, which would have won the game, appeared to be heading over only a gust of wind to change direction at the final second.
Scorer for Northampton: Pens (3): P Grayson
Munster: Try: D Wallace; Drop goal: J Holland.
MUNSTER: D Crotty; J Kelly, M Mullins, J Holland, A Horgan; R O’Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, K Wood, J Hayes; M Galwey, captain, J Langford; E Halvey, A Foley, D Wallace. Sub: K Keane for Crotty.