The fog which threatened to envelop Thomond Park during that frantic Friday night in January could not quite obscure a sight unique in the annals of the Heineken Cup.
Never before had the Munster faithful witnessed their team being pulverised in the scrum the way Northampton pulverised them in the second half of the pool decider while their captain sat in the sin-bin. Paul O'Connell watched with rising anxiety before his team's battered set-piece, locked by flanker Alan Quinlan and substitute second row Donncha Ryan, somehow lifted the seige.
Munster got out of reverse gear in the nick of time the way good teams do on bad nights, scraping through 12-9 to confirm their status as No. 1 seeds. The only one of six from the Guinness Premiership to make it nto the last eight, the Saints from the English Midlands were always likely to be back in Limerick for the quarter-finals.
Now that they are, Munster will know exactly what to expect from opponents duly acknowledged by coach Tony McGahan as 'the real deal' and by O'Connell as having the potential, like every other quarter-finalist, to go all the way to the final in Paris on May 22. And while they have never lost a home quarter-final, Munster will appreciate that there is, as they say, a first time for everything.
The other three home clubs know how it feels to be knocked out at this stage on home ground. Leinster lost to Leicester at Lansdowne Road five years ago, the following season Leinster gave Toulouse the fulltreatment in Toulouse and Biarritz's record at San Sebastian has been less than fallible since Northampton's staggering win there a few weeks before their relegation from the Premiership four years ago.
Six months ago, before the first ball had been knocked-on, I picked Munster, Leinster, Toulouse and Stade Francais for the semi-finals on the proviso that they kept apart until then. Only one, Toulouse or Stade despite the Parisians' decline, are guaranteed to be there from a quarter-final cast of such competitive ferocity that picking the winners is much more hazardous than usual.
On average, the quarter-finals produce three home wins, one away. Of 44 ties over the last eleven Heineken seasons, only eleven have gone against ground advantage. Not since Bath won at Leicester and Leinster at Toulouse five years ago has there been anything other than a majority of home wins at this stage of the competition.
Leinster v Clermont Auvergne (RDS, Dublin, 8pm, Friday) Referee: D Pearson (England).
The champions against the best French team not to have reached a Heineken final. Clermont, flat out for the Top 14 title once more after losing their tenth final in a row to Perpignan last year, piled 40 points on Leicester and 27 on the Ospreys to get this far. The Michelin Men, beaten at home just once all season, tend to be a different proposition on the road. Ballsbridge is not the best of places to be going with a record of one win out of nine on the road in France.
Biarritz v Ospreys (Stade Aneota, San Sebastian, 4.00 pm Saturday) Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).
The Basque Country against Wales withn a couple of veteran All Blacks thrown in. After a flaky season, the Biarritz big guns are back - Dimitri Yachvili, Damien Traille, Fabien Barcella and the towering Imanol Harinordoquy, my man of the Six Nations. No wonder Les Biarrots go in as favourites before 30,000-plus but nobody is closer to a current Test team than the Ospreys. After after being routed at Munster in the quarters last year and the Saracens shocker the year before which cost Lyn Jones his job as head coach, it's high time they delivered.
Munster v Northampton (Thomond Park, Limerick, 5.30pm, Saturday): Referee: N Owens (Wales)
Munster fans have been nervous about Northampton ever since they defied the odds to win the 2000 final at Twickenham. The thought of the mighty Tongan prop Soane Tongauiha picking up where he left off last January will give them due cause to be more nervous than usual. But for some costly tactical decisions, Munster would almost certainly have lost that match and aged all the more. But when it comes to winning home quarter-finals, nobody does it better -- played five, won five. This one promises to be the closest of all.
Toulouse v Stade Francais (Le Stadium, Toulouse, Sunday, 5.30pm) Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).
A month ago, before almost 80,000 at the Stade de France, Toulouse trounced the Parisians 29-0. Last week they stopped the rot by beating Clermont 19-10 with two tries from Dimitri Szarzewski and one from the Aussie, Mark Gasnier. Toulouse, held 9-9 by Stade last September, have shown recent signs of strain, conceding enough penalties at Biarritz a fortnight ago for Yachvili to inflict their biggest defeat of the year, 26-10.
My last four, in chronological order:
Leinster, Ospreys, Munster, Toulouse.
The directors of ERC voted unanimously at a Board meeting to postpone all decisions including the release of further instalments of ERC's distributable central revenues to the six shareholder countries until 19 February next when the Board will meet again to reconsider the issue.