The Red Army was mobilised for a trip to Vicarage road in Watford for the return leg against London Saracens. There was a scattering of Munster shirts on the early train to Watford High Street and around the shopping centre but as we approached the ground supporters were arriving from all directions. The row in front of us were mainly Saracens supporters and we had some good banter with them. The row in front of them were mainly Munster supporters, there was a great level of support for Munster throughout the ground.
While there was an ferocious battle on the pitch on Sunday there was also an intriguing subplot involving the red army versus the public address system. It started during the team announcement. When they heard the big cheers from the Munster supporters as players 15 through 13 were announced they changed the rhythm to allow no time between names for cheering. The normal pattern was of course resumed for the announcement of their own players. They played some lively tunes over the PA. “Stand up for the Saracens” and “Wave your flag” which led to a great show as both sets of supporters took up the challenge of flag waving as we waited to welcome the players back to the field after their warm-up.
During the game they chanted “Sarries, Sarries” but during breaks in play whenever we launched into “The fields of Athenry” the PA system would start blaring their tunes to try to drown us out which only made us more determined to be heard. During play they did not play music so there was a level playing field for supporters then! It reminded me of the Labi Siffre song the Munster choir sing sometimes at Thomond – “The more you refuse to hear my voice, The louder I will sing”
Back to matters on the pitch. It was another very physical battle with plenty of aggression shown from the early exchanges and so it continued throughout the match. Saracens scored first with a successful penalty after a failed drop goal attempt. Munster equalised with a penalty. Felix Jones was injured and replaced by Luke O’Dea in his first game at this level. He was straight into the action, tackling a player into touch. Simon Zebo moved to full back and was fearless under the high ball, leaping into the air to claim it without care for his safety throughout the game. A perfectly weighted kick through caught the defenders wrong footed, David Strettle took full advantage, racing up the side line to touch down for a try which Owen Farrell converted to bring the score to 10-3.
Munster responded within 3 minutes when James Downey intercepted a pass and took off towards the opposite tryline. Despite being tackled he managed to get the ball away to Doug Howlett who scored and Ronan O’Gara converted to tie the scores at 10 all, and that remained the score through to half time.
The second half had some really good passages of play for both teams but defences were tight and penalties decided the outcome of the match. Saracens converted 4 of their 6 attempts while Munster only managed 2 out of 4. Munster failed to capitalise on their extra man advantage arising from a yellow card for Fraser for a high tackle on Howlett, despite going through 25 phases of play at one stage.
According to the match stats both teams made 80 tackles with Dave O’Callaghan making 9 while Donncha O’Callaghan and James Coughlan (on his 100th appearance for Munster) made 8 each. Both sides missed 6 while both also conceded 10 penalties each. The key was that Saracens scored 6 of their penalties in our half giving them an opportunity to kick their goals.
There were mistakes made but no lack of effort from the team. We can still qualify for the quarter finals but not as pool winners unless the last 2 games in January throw up some major shocks. Next up in the European Cup will be Edinburgh in January. In the meantime back to the Rabodirect League, away to Connacht next Saturday and then home to league leaders Ulster the following weekend.
The atmosphere was a little subdued on the train back towards London, partly because of the crush as we were packed in like sardines and there was no air. It was like a sauna. Thankfully we were only going 2 stops. Note to self, if the temperature is forecasted to be 8C you really do not need all those layers on!
Congratulations to the Munster womens team who won the InterPro series and to the Munster A team who drew on Friday night but remain in control of their pool in the British & Irish Cup which they won last season.