They played their first provincial match together 14 years ago and for the last 14 minutes in the RaboDirect PRO12 at Thomond Park on Saturday night it was almost like the good old days – Munster home and dry with Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer showing them the way…writes Peter Jackson
For sheer endurance at a seriously high level, there can never have been a half back partnership to match theirs. That the double act may not have that much longer to run made their reunion for the closing stages against the hitherto unbeaten Ulster all the more special.
In professional sport, time is the hardest test of all and nobody can have stood it longer or better than the pair who come not only from the same city but the same school – Presentation Brothers College in Cork.
After all those seasons in tandem, how fitting that they should have been back in harness to ring the old year out in suitable style, securing a decisive win which put an end to Ulster’s winning RaboDirect PRO12 record and consolidated Munster’s hefty presence in the play-off zone.
The more senior members of the multitude in Limerick’s mighty citadel could have been forgiven for thinking they had seen it all, from the stuffing of the All Blacks in the late seventies to the Miracle Match against Gloucester shortly after the turn of the century.
On the last Saturday of the year they witnessed something unique, a pair of 35-year-olds guiding their team home just as they used to, season in, season out.
Each, of course, has long since left an indelible mark on the game – O’Gara’s drop securing Ireland’s long overdue Grand Slam in Cardiff in 2009, Stringer’s blindside dart unhinging Biarritz to clinch Munster’s first winning European Cup final in the same stadium three years earlier.
O’Gara, still indispensable after all these years, played his first match for Munster in August 1997 and still has some way to go before putting the finishing touch to an already monumental career – 126 matches for Ireland and counting.
Stringer, the junior partner by a matter of six months who found himself marooned a little short of emulating O’Gara’s Test century, made his Munster debut in November 1998, coincidentally against Ulster at Musgrave Park in Cork.
Michael Heaney, his opposite number in Limerick on Saturday evening, was then an eight-year-old at primary school, a fact which puts Stringer’s longevity into its true perspective.
Back home after spells in the English Premiership last season with Saracens and Newcastle, Ireland’s most-capped scrum half knows he is on borrowed time having been superseded by Conor Murray, at 23 twelve years his junior.
If the rugby gods are in a generous mood, the O’Gara-Stringer combination will bow out in a manner worthy of a marathon which includes three European Cup finals (2000, 2002, 2006).
When it comes to appearances, there is nothing to choose between the Old Firm as they go into another year. Each has played 232 times for Munster, topping the province’s all-time list ahead of such luminaries as Marcus Horan (223), John Hayes (217), Donncha O’Callaghan (215), Alan Quinlan (212), Mick O’Driscoll (207), David Wallace (203) and Anthony Foley (201).
Munster’s 24-10 win against an Ulster team minus such influential figures as Ruan Pienaar, Jared Payne and Rory Best provided due reward for a crowd of almost 24,000, the biggest of the Pro 12 season at Thomond Park. There were big numbers elsewhere across the spectrum of the competition.
The Ospreys’ local derby against the Scarlets in Swansea drew nearly 20,000 to the Liberty Stadium, almost as many as had been there three days earlier for Swansea City’s Premier League draw with Manchester United.
In the course of giving their neighbours a 32-3 stuffing on a night when the Scarlets had two players sent-off and three more binned, the defending champions more than doubled their previous highest attendance. They also lifted the gloom over the Welsh regional game in a manner which will make Leicester Tigers all the more wary when they venture to Swansea for a European Cup tie of critical significance on January 12.
Edinburgh went close to trebling their average audience before more than 11,000 for the Murrayfield return against Glasgow. It was not enough to prevent the Warriors doing the Christmas double and keeping the Saltire flying in the top four.
Connacht’s pre-Christmas match against Munster offered further encouraging evidence of rising support at the westernmost point of European rugby. A crowd of almost 8,000 made it a record-breaking occasion, the biggest for a Pro 12 match in Galway, eclipsing the previous best – 7,022 for the same fixture last season – by more than 700.
The Sportsground has been even fuller this season, topping 8,000 for the European Cup tie against Harlequins in October. That would have been unheard of four years ago when gates in Galway had dwindled to below 1,500. The Pro 12 average this season is up to 5,000 and higher still with the European ties against Quins and Biarritz taken into account.
Cardiff Blues managed their first five-figure attendance at the Arms Park since returning there from the local football stadium. The Boxing Day derby against Newport Gwent Dragons just topped 10,000, a far cry from a time long gone shortly after the end of the Second World War when the same fixture drew 48,000 to Cardiff Arms Park, a world record for a club match which stood for many years.