Rumours of the demise of the Thomond factor were premature. A Saturday tea-time kick-off, a top English premiership team full of confidence rolling into town, especially after the English victory over New Zealand the previous week, a do or die contest in terms of survival in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. All the ingredients were there for a classic occasion. There have been many over the years, from the miracle match against Gloucester, the demolition of Wasps in a mud-fest, the two unsuccessful visits of Sale Sharks (memorable highlights being Barry Murphys super try and I can still see the pack driving Chabal back 10 yards!) and who can forget the Northampton game in 2011 when Ronan O’Gara snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a drop goal after 40 phases of play with the last kick of the game?
Round 3 of the Heineken Cup, resuming after the break for the Autumn internationals, brought London Saracens to Thomond Park as pool leaders after winning their first 2 games. Munster had lost away to Racing Metro in October and knew if they lost again they would not qualify for the last 8 of the premier European competition. The terraces filled up early on a cool, breezy, mainly dry evening. A light drizzle made an appearance from time to time. Red was the dominant colour, with lots of Santa hats in evidence adding a seasonal flavour. My friends had kept space for me in our usual spot near the half way line as I had gotten delayed by the Christmas shopping traffic. We watched the teams warming up and enjoyed the pre-match entertainment before cheering the players off the pitch. We belted out “Stand Up and Fight” along with Cara O’Sullivan and the Munster Rugby Supporters Club choir. It is a great anthem and really gets the adrenalin flowing.
The tone was set from the kick-off with the Saracens player who collected the ball quickly surrounded by 4 Munster players trying to wrestle it off him. The crowd were in good voice and cheered on every tackle and turn-over. When there was a scuffle after a scum we broke into a chorus of “Stand Up and Fight”, and again later that half when there were 2 players rolling around on the ground fighting.. the referee dealt with that incident by giving both a yellow card and 10 minutes in the sin bin. There was a steely determination in the players that they were going to throw everything at the Saracens, in attack and especially in defense. Academy player Dave O’Callaghan in his first start in the competition epitomised the attitude of the players. At one stage he took a bad knock and was injured, out of play, but when he saw the attack moving back in his direction he hauled himself to his feet and made the required tackle until the next break in play when he could get attention from the medical staff.
Whenever a Saracens player was waiting to collect a high ball the crowd tried to encourage him into fumbling it by “ooohh”ing whereas when their goal kicker Owen Farrell was lining up a penalty kick silence descended. Anyone breaking it was quickly hushed and it seemed to un-nerve him as he missed 4 of his 7 attempts. I did notice at one stage that Donnacha Ryan was staring him down as he lined up his kick. Donnacha stood there in his line of sight, hands on his hips, with his game face on (the one that makes the Klingons look cuddly!)
During the build-up to the game there had been a lot of comment on the impressive stats of the Saracens line-out which had a 100% success rate (23 / 23 in this competition) prior to this game. The Munster forwards had done their homework and successfully disrupted the Saracen’s throw so they only won 10 of their 15 in the game. The crowd of course also had a role in play – wherever the line-out formed the crowd nearby do their utmost to drown out the calls for the lineout! When it is a Munster throw they shout encouragement but it is not at the same noise level.
The referee was whistle happy to say the least. Thirty penalties in the game lead to a lot of frustration for players and supporters alike and he was booed off the pitch at both half and full time. So much for French referrees being “homers” – he found more to fault with the team in red than that in white, almost a 2:1 ratio. Maybe we will fare better next weekend in our white jerseys!
The score was 9-3 at half time, 15-9 at full time, all scores came from penalty kicks. There had been a few good breaks by Munster – Conor Murray just failed to link with Simon Zebo in the first half while James Downey found some space in the second. Zebo put in a crucial tackle in the second half, assisted by his captain Doug Howlett to stop the Saracens scoring a try. Felix Jones also put in a good tackle to drive a player into touch when the try line was beckoning, in fact all the players contributed to the impressive team performance. It was hard to decide who should be awarded man of the match. Sky choose James Coughlan who put it very clearly in his post match interview that this is merely a week long half time break. The score is 4-1 as Munster get 4 points for the win but Saracens got a potentially valuable losing bonus point. As a result, after 3 games they both have 10 points in the pool table so the return leg next Sunday at 3pm will give a clear indication of who will end up qualifying for the knock out stages. The away supporters will do their best next weekend in Watford to ensure that Munster come out on top! If the players can replicate that intensity and reduce the penalty and error count then they should be able to enjoy Christmas as pool leaders.
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; D O’Callaghan, P O’Mahony, J Coughlan. Replacements : P Butler for Dave O’Callaghan (62 mins), W du Preez for D Kilcoyne, D Varley for M Sherry, C Laulala for F Jones (all 66 mins), I Keatley for S Zebo (74 mins).
Saracens: A Goode: C Ashton, O Farrell, B Barritt, D Strettle; C Hodgson, N de Kock; R Gill, S Brits, M Stevens; S Borthwick (capt), M Botha; K Brown, W Fraser, E Joubert. Replacements : M Vunipola for W Fraser (temp, 21 – 30), M Vunipola for R Gill, R Wigglesworth for N de Kock (both 50 mins), D Strettle for C Hodgson (57 mins), G Kruis for M Botha, J Smit for S Brits (both 59 mins), A Saul for W Fraser (64 mins). Sin bin : Donncha O’Callaghan and Rhys Gill (20-30 mins)