Munster Hailed before Semis

The Celtic Tiger may seem as endangered as its sabre-toothed predecessor right now, but some examples of Irish success still prowl.

Two Irish teams play in rugby’s Heineken Cup semifinals this weekend: Leinster, which visits Toulouse, is the current holder but it is Munster, which play Biarritz in San Sebastian on Sunday, that is the true phenomenon.

The journey to the Spanish Basque country will hold few fears. One French Web site has labelled Munster “the old truckers” of rugby. The team, and its fans, who form that genuine rarity—a popular invading army—are in their 11th consecutive Heineken Cup playoff season. In fact, Sunday represents a ninth semifinal and Munster enters the game chasing a fifth final appearance and third triumph, to follow those of 2006 and 2008.

Nobody foresaw this when rugby union went professional in 1995. Liam O’Callaghan, a historian at Liverpool Hope University whose doctoral thesis examines Munster rugby, said that “they were playing three times a year in the Irish inter-provincial championship, often in front of three-figure crowds, and the occasional match against a touring team. They had been playing since the 1870s, but any identity was pretty dormant—loyalties related to your street, your parish and your club rather than the province.”

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