The 18th of January 2003. That was the date. Munster versus Gloucester in the final pool game of the 2002-03 Heineken Cup - rugby unions' European Cup.
For many reasons today, this seems like a lifetime ago. For one thing, the old Thomond Park was packed to the rafters with 12,500 people. No social distancing.
The tale of the game is one that has never been forgot and demonstrates the power of incentives and the importance of bonuses for increased production (winning and losing bonus points) in today's game. What happened that day is testament to economic theory and has gone down in Munster folklore as the "Miracle Match".
Going into the final game Pool 2 looked like this.
Munster remarkably won the game 33-6, scoring four tries in the process. A winning margin of 27 thanks to Ronan O’Gara’s last second conversion. So too did Perpignan, meaning a three-way tie at the top. Munster's winning margin and method are crucial in the miracle. Here is why.
Before kick-off Munster knew that they would need at least a 27 point winning margin AND four tries to progress. This was a time before bonus points so no extra point was given for scoring four. There are a number of interesting article online that overview the match, and the winning combination needed for this miracle to happen, but none that I could find explained why this was needed.
I was lucky enough to have a contact to a player that played a starring role for Munster on the day. He admitted to knowing what was needed (27 points winning margin and 4 tries) but not knowing why. With his help and those in Munster Rugby I was guided towards the tie-breaking rules. I could figure out the rest.
So here is why the Munster Miracle was a minimum margin of 27 points and at least 4 tries.
Before the final pool game, head to head tries scored read:
Tries Scored (Before Last Game)
Perpignan = 10
Munster = 5
Gloucester = 9
With Gloucester on 9, this is why Munster needed at least 4 tries. If Gloucester were to score a try in the game against Munster, the Irish team would have needed 5 tries in that game (total of 10). This of course would have had them level with Perpignan, with the French club stuck on 10.
Munster managed to get 4 tries which got them level with Gloucester, as the English club were held try-less. So, at the end of the final pool game, with all three teams on 8 points, the criteria for tie-breaker (Head-to-Head tries scored) read:
Tries Scored (After Last Game)
Perpignan = 10
Munster = 9
Gloucester = 9
As a result, Perpignan topped the Pool and qualified for the knock-out stages. This was not the end for Munster, as they could be one of the two best second placed teams to qualify from the pool stages. This was decided by points difference across all six pools.
To separate Munster and Gloucester, tie-breaker criteria two was Head-to-Head on points difference, but across all three teams. Before the last Pool game this read:
Interestingly, Perpignan were -3 and lucky Head-to-Head Tries Scored was the first criteria! In fact, any Munster win with 5 tries would have been enough to secure at least 2nd (even a one point win) so long as Gloucester didn’t score a try.
Thankfully, the introduction of bonus points in the 2003/4 competition means the complications associated with Munster's "Miracle Match" is unlikely to be repeated.