By Charlie Morgan
Last season’s Heineken Cup quarter final at the Twickenham Stoop between hosts Harlequins and Munster gave us one of the most remarkable individual performances of 2013. Not long after returning from a debilitating long-term back injury, Paul O’Connell produced something truly phenomenal – a frenzied one-man siege of the reigning Aviva Premiership champions.
He harried ravenously after Ronan O’Gara’s restarts, stood rock-like over rucks, dominated the lineout and simply man-handled opposing runners. There were moments in attack too, careering carries and even deft passes. Aided by O’Gara’s boot, Munster were hauled into the last four on their captain’s shoulders – defying a 9-6 half-time deficit to prevail 18-9.
At the final whistle, O’Connell raised one arm aloft. He surveyed the playing area and raucous support stoically – as a medieval warlord might have done after a bloodthirsty but victorious skirmish. He seemed a man possessed. In a way, he was.
Receiving an utterly inevitable man-of-the-match gong, O’Connell was physically and emotionally exhausted, but his words encapsulated the premier tournament in European rugby better than anyone has managed before or since.
“I felt like an amateur out there today,” he gasped, deep in oxygen debt. “It just means so much.”
That is the crux of the Heineken Cup – how its biggest encounters surpass the well-worn benchmark of international intensity. O’Connell, then a 91-Test veteran, was elevated by a cause beyond individual accolades. Oblivious to the impending Lions tour for 80 minutes, he was immersed in a tribal desire to deliver for the province of his birth.
Boiled down to its base, rugby is a combat sport and – though the concept has become something of a cliché – team culture goes a long way. Stuart Lancaster has worked diligently on instilling that with his England side. He has used this immortal quote from George S.Patton, a United States Army general who served in both World Wars, in presentations to illustrate the importance of shared identity:
“Now if you are going to win any battle, you have to do one thing. You have to let the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired – morning, noon and night. But the body is not tired if the mind is not tired.
“When you were younger, the mind could make you dance all night and the body was never tired. You’ve always got to make the mind take over and keep going.”
Now 34, O’Connell turned out another folkloric display on Saturday night, an electric occasion at Kingsholm. In spite of abject domestic form, Gloucester rallied – no doubt inspired into an awareness of their historical responsibility by some pre-match words from Shed legend Mike Teague. But they were up against a flame-haired lock on his favourite stage.
Via the magic of YouTube, over 800,000 people have seen O’Connell’s shiver-inducing “manic aggression” speech prior to the clash with France in the 2007 Six Nations. It is an awesome scene.
However, as chronicled by an RTÉ documentary, Rob Kearney went into the 2009 Grand Slam campaign believing Ireland’s Munstermen gave more for their province than for their country. Whatever the instigator – be it spite or territorial small man’s syndrome – some sort of red mist makes them dance all night.
The Heineken Cup should take a lot of credit. As the most valuable arena in the northern hemisphere, it represents a unique soapbox for the hotbeds of European rugby to pour out their passions. Over the coming weekend, we have the last full fixture list – at least until a compromise is rescued from the current shambles.
Fittingly, the pick of the matches is at Welford Road. Leicester and Ulster are two previous champions united by a steadfast awareness of their prominence in the local community. That presents a collective cause for each player – whether homegrown like Dan Cole and Paddy Jackson or high profile recruits Julian Salvi and Ruan Pienaar – to rally behind. From there, the mind runs the body.
Whatever competitions remain next year, they will struggle to create the same sense of stripped-back tribalism – raw, gladiatorial and, above all, amateurish contests where pride is palpable. We can enjoy the Heineken Cup while it lasts, but from here on in the games get fewer. They must be savoured.