November is always a disrupted month for club rugby due to the Autumn internationals. Munster had a 2 week break from the league while Ireland took on South Africa and Fiji on consecutive weekends. Ireland then took on Argentina on the Saturday of the last weekend in November while Munster were back in action that Sunday, playing at Musgrave Park, their base in Cork against the Welsh team Llanelli Scarlets who were second in the league table. This provided an opportunity for some of the up and coming and fringe players to show what they could do in the absence of their teammates involved with the Ireland squad. However as the game was played in the far from ideal conditions of driving rain and strong winds, it became more of an endurance test for both players and supporters alike. The weather for the first half hour wasn’t too bad but after that the rain fell heavily. My raincoat proved itself to be waterproof but my hands felt numb in the arctic air. There was not much to clap about either to keep me warm. The pitch was muddy and the ball a liability.
Then the sight no fan wants to see, a player stretchered off. Rugby is a contact sport and since the game turned professional in the mid 1990s the players have become bigger and stronger and the tackles harder. As supporters we cheer great tackles in a gladiatorial contest but there is a downside. In this case, Niall Ronan had a head injury so the medical team assessed him before summoning the stretcher team to carefully transfer him to and strap him into the stretcher to avoid aggravating his injury further. He was taken to hospital but thankfully the injury was not as serious as originally feared. The big screen did not show a replay of the incident so it was hard to judge from the terrace how badly he was injured other than by the reaction of the medical team. We applauded his departure from the field to convey our best wishes and support.
The turning point in the game came in the last quarter when Felix Jones the fullback failed to secure the ball. As it squirted from his hands on the second attempt to gather it the chasing Scarlets player managed to touch it down for the all important try to bring the score to 13 – 3. Munster kept fighting to the end and secured a penalty in the final minute of the game. JJ Hanrahan bravely stepped up and took responsibility, scoring the all important 3 points by kicking the ball over the bar. As a result of finishing within 7 points of Scarlets a losing bonus point was earned which may prove vital at the end of the league when the top 4 teams will qualify for the play-offs.
The following Saturday night Munster played Glasgow at Thomond Park. December brings an increase in intensity levels as the European Cup resumes with a home and away game which can often determine the outcome of the group stages of that competition. Hence the game on December 1st in addition to being important for league points was also a chance to regroup with 6 of the Irish internationals back in their red jerseys. The changes led to some errors but the dry and calm conditions meant that there was a chance to play a high tempo game. From a lineout on the far side of the field the ball was fed to Tommy O’Donnell who burst through a gap and accelerated almost all the way to the line under the goalposts before he was hauled down. From there the ball was recycled and touched down by CJ Stander, a new addition to the squad. He had replaced Niall Ronan the previous week and made his first start for Munster at this game.
Then Glasgow retained possession, found a gap and were just kept out of scoring a try by the narrowest of margins – the player had touched down but had just been forced into touch a millisecond before he grounded the ball. The replay was scrutinised by the TV match official and in slow motion you could see that while the player was in the air over the side line he just made contact with the ground prior to the ball being touched down. It was close but a good defensive scramble by Simon Zebo and Doug Howlett succeeded in pushing the player out of play.
That kicked the Munster team into action and Felix Jones made a great break up the side before the ball was quickly recycled before eventually James Coughlan passed the ball to his backrow colleague Tommy who accelerated away and scored under the posts.
Just before halftime the crowd were completely energised as they urged on CJ Stander to his second try of the night. This time it was from the far end of the pitch when he scooped up a loose ball, a bad pass from a Glasgow player and ran almost the full length of the pitch to score in the corner. None of the defenders got near him! That set us up nicely for the the second half and while it took until the 72nd minute to register a score, it was a 4th try that was scored by the Munster pack and it secured the bonus point win. There was also a good defensive display by Munster to keep Glasgow tryless. The final score was 31-3 and that result moved Munster up to 4th place in the league table.
The steam rises from the scrum on the cold evening. Peter Stringer got one of the biggest cheers of the night when he came on for his 228th appearance for Munster in the 59th minute.
I love the atmosphere and energy from attending matches but I generally record them also to spot things I missed. One I enjoyed from reviewing this game was the exchange between the referee and the Glasgow player when he penalised the prop for blocking Ronan O’Gara from a kick ahead. He directed the objector to watch the replay on the big screen to see why he had awarded the penalty! On TG4 you also often hear the thoughts of Jerry Flannery, a former Munster player from the sideline during breaks in play. Driving home I was thinking it would be funny if some of the jokers in the team had taught CJ some Irish for his MOTM post match interview on the Irish language station TG4 – a useful phrase like “Póg mo thoin”. Maybe next time…
Saturday felt like the appetiser for the coming two games – home and then away to English club Saracens. It should be a full house next Saturday so I shall have to go early to get a good spot and soak up the atmosphere. So far the weather forecast is for another cold dry day so that should give good conditions for the game. The English clubs always bring out the best in the team and supporters alike. The next few days there will be plenty of speculation about the starting team, the strengths and weaknesses of different players and combinations of players, the likely Saracens team, the weather and previews in the paper and on radio will themselves be analysed. A good distraction from the budget to be published this Wednesday.. The Red Army is gearing up to make Thomond a fortress on Saturday.