TWENTY-two hours after Limerick welcomed home its Munster heroes, JOHN HOGAN and a crew of his fellow supporters returned from Cardiff following a four-day Odyssey spent living out of a car on the Heineken Cup trail.
With little in the way of money or foresight between us, my friends and I waited until a fortnight before this year’s Heineken Cup Final to book a trip to Cardiff.
Our intellectual and financial shortcomings meant that the best travel option left available to us at that late stage was a ferry crossing from Dublin to Holyhead early on Friday morning and returning in the wee hours of Monday morning.
The aforementioned shortcomings meant that we would also cross the Irish Sea without any accommodation arrangements for when we arrived on the other side.
Perhaps a little naively, we presumed that a kind-hearted soul would take pity on us upon hearing of our predicament and offer a place where we could lay our heads. It’d didn’t quite turn out as planned.
4:20AM: “Wake up. Johnny, wake up, we’re five minutes away and we’re not missing the boat because of you.”
Not the nicest way for anyone to be woken at such an ungodly hour, but the abruptness of my friend’s phone call was justified as, true to form, I had slept in and none of our travelling party knew the way to Dublin Port for our 8.30am sailing.
7.40AM: After a nervy period spent wandering through the capital, cursing the AA Roadwatch Route Planner and anxiously searching the sky for seagulls, we locate Dublin Port.
We have time for a round of breakfast rolls before joining the line of vehicles waiting to board, about a third of which are camper vans draped in Munster bunting and flags.
Nobody says so, but it’s obvious the five of us are wondering why we are sitting in a Toyota Corolla with a four-man tent in the boot, when we could have rented one of the far more spacious and comfortable campers purring beside us.
10AM: “Just make sure we don’t go by the Valleys to Cardiff when we get out of the boat, that’s what I was told. The motorway is a bit longer but it’s a much better road,” said our driver Mikey as we emerged from the ferry in Holyhead.
Ten minutes later we are driving through the depths of the Valleys, wondering where we’d gone wrong and how we had managed to give the slip to the hundreds of other supporters’ cars that had disembarked from the ferry with us.
4PM: After over five hours of wandering through mountains of flint and miles of mostly-abandoned mines, civilisation emerges on the horizon. We exhale a collective sigh of relief, assured for the first time since we left Holyhead that this trip would not involve working with the locals as a coal miner in exchange for petrol and directions to Cardiff.
Just opposite Cardiff University, we find a parking spot conveniently located next to a public park, where we plan to later set up our tent after returning from the night’s festivities.
4AM: It turns out waiting until we returned from the night out to put up the tent wasn’t the brightest idea we ever had. The lashing rain does little to spur on our enthusiasm to set up camp in the adjacent park so we resign to piling into the car for the night, vowing to set up the tent before taking off for the match the next day.
After an hour of being sardined into the back seat, either the exhaustion of having not slept in 24 hours or the fumes emanating from my co-passengers lead me to drift off.
12.30PM: “The tent. O mother of God, we forgot to put up the tent again!”
This revelation comes over the first pre-match pint in Dempseys near the Millennium Stadium and we all know it means tonight will almost certainly be again spent in Chateau de Corolla.
5PM: Nobody is surprised that the majority of bums on seats in the stadium belong to members of the Red Army but the sheer volume of Munster fans that have come through the turnstiles leaves even the most windy of us breathless.
The drum-bearing fans from Toulouse do their best to rile their comparatively miniscule travelling support but each time they are drowned out by repeated choruses of The Fields of Athenry and Stand Up and Fight. We join the rest of Bruff on the front row of the top tier and set about roaring ourselves silly.
5.42PM: “‘Ey man, ‘urry up or I will ‘ave to pees in your pocket!”
The rucks and mauls of the first half may have been among the most intense of the rugby season so far but they are nothing compared to the scrum for wall space in the stadium toilets at half time.
The urinating Munster fan whips his head around to see if the threat from the French man was serious but is relieved to see he won’t be squelching back into his seat for the second half.
6.40PM: Flaunting the 40-foot drop at the other side of the railing, we grab one another and jump for joy when Nigel Owens gives three final toots to his whistle.
The stadium is turned pitch black as the lights are turned off for the presentation and the stand beneath our feet shakes with the roar when Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara lift the trophy.
Impromptu scrums and lineouts, many involving the good-humoured local police, start almost immediately outside the ground as the Red Army re-floods the streets for the best party Cardiff will see in 2008.
5AM: After several hours spent tasting the delights of Cardiff, and several truly disastrous attempts to charm the French ladies, we return to the Corolla, which has by now become aptly known as The Cradle of Filth. Winning a Heineken Cup proves to be a powerful sedative however, as sleep comes much easier tonight.
2PM: About ten minutes into our haul back to Holyhead, Mikey says that he can no longer keep his eyes open and someone else will have to take the wheel. I am selected as the replacement based on my inability to come with an excuse as quickly as the other passengers in the split second after Mikey announces his retirement.
4PM: I pull into the car park of a restaurant and tell my team of sleeping beauties that we’ll have dinner. I feel my own eyelids dropping as I try to shake them back to life.
An hour later I wake up and tell my bleary-eyed passengers that it’s now or never if we still want to avail of the early bird menu.
8PM: With several hours left to spare until our ferry departs, we decide to put down a few hours in Bangor.
We meet several other weary Munster supporters in the Black Bull Inn and I end my reign at the wheel of the Corolla by ordering my first and most certainly last ever pint of bitter.
After a few pints of my more regular tipples, we say goodbye to Bangor and join the convoy of flag-adorned cars heading for the port.
3AM: The Ulysses looks like the site of a carbon monoxide leak with the number of drained bodies strewn around the vessel. Exhausted supporters, who look like they’d sell their first-born for a bed, take up every couch and chair and available inch of floor space.
7AM: I wake up to the sound of cranes offloading cargo at Dublin Port and with the taste of last night’s revolting bitter still on my tongue. For the last time we wade through the piles of rubbish, which are now taking up more space in the Corolla than the actual passengers, and settle in for the last leg of our epic trip.
10AM: We are forced to stop the car as not one of us can guarantee that we will be able to stay awake long enough to drive. I can only wonder what the passing residents of Borris-in-Ossory must have made of our five unconscious bodies or the revolting smell coming from the car.
12.00PM: The drive home from Dublin turns out to be the longest single trip we make all weekend as we are again forced to stop in Roscrea to rest the eyelids. At this point, I would eat my own toes for a bed.
1.30PM: Limerick at last. No homecoming parties for the Heineken Cup stragglers just the remnants of yesterday’s celebrations on O’Connell Street for the Munster heroes.
Such is my exhaustion that the water from my first shower in four days almost knocks me over. I climb into bed and don’t even have the energy to pull the quilt over my shoulder.
I sleep like a cured insomniac, too tired to even dream, but safe in the knowledge that the memories of the weekend will contribute to many a happy night’s sleep for years to come.