The holiday schedule brings two Irish derbies on successive weekends. Last year the home game was against Connacht and marked the final appearance in a Munster jersey for John Hayes aka the Bull. There were some lovely tributes to him that night with banners around the grounds saluting his contribution to the province over 14 seasons and 212 appearances. I received a present of his autobiography for Christmas and in the prologue he recounts his last game and how much he enjoyed it and the interaction with the supporters. There was great respect and admiration for John from the crowd, team mates and opponents. He received a standing ovation when he lead the team out and as he departed the field after about sixty minutes. After the game he also appeared on the pitch with his family for a warm reception. It was a special night at Thomond.
This year it was Ulster who were coming to see if they could repeat their success from their European cup quarter final win last April. They were also leading the league with a 100% record so we were hoping to bring their run to a halt as well as improving our own league position. However, when the teams were named on Friday while Munster had strengthened their team with the inclusion of some of their Ireland internationals, the Ulster team had 11 changes from that which had defeated Leinster the previous weekend, but did include some talented youngsters like Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall who had lit up Thomond with some sparkling scores during their Autumn international against Fiji. Many of the Ulster players named for this game had also acquitted themselves well in Italy winning both away games there in November without a raft of their international players so it would be wrong to underestimate them!
As I approached Limerick there was a heavy sleet shower and the temperature dropped below 4C. A good night for hot toddies and hip flasks. The pitch was very wet and heavy but it had stopped raining so we hoped it would remain dry for the game. The 5.30 kick off time was family friendly so there was a good crowd there, officially attendance was over 23,000 but that number includes season ticket holders whether they attend or not. The pre-match entertainment was provided by local Limerick band Hermitage Green which includes former Munster hero Barry Murphy (centre in picture below) who scored the try against the All Blacks in 2008.
Cork soprano, Cara O’Sullivan also led us in a rousing rendition of “Stand Up and Fight”.
Ulster received a warm reception before Denis Hurley led out the Munster team in recognition of it being his 100th cap for Munster, the 25th player to achieve that milestone.
Munster got points on the board early thanks to a penalty awarded from a scrum. Ulster missed their first chance to equalise but made sure of their second opportunity after about 20 minutes. The RaboDirect logo painted on the pitch had the seasonal addition of a santa hat… half of which must have ended up on the shirt of Ulster number 13 Mike Allen as you could barely make out his number after he was tackled there!
The sleet returned and made life tough for players, officials and supporters alike. Normally on the West Terrace the roof of the West Stand offers adequate protection but the direction of the wind at times ensured that those in the front felt the full brunt of the rain and hail while those on the North and South terraces had no protection at all. Hopefully the free translucent Rabodirect Pro12 rain ponchos had been distributed there to keep them a bit drier. Fingers and toes turned to ice. The referee Alain Rolland was heard on the ref link rubbing his hands to keep warm and joking with his TMO about the latter being nice and warm! However the crowd were soon energised by the best attacking move of the half. It all started when Craig Gilroy lost his footing and then Ulster were pinged for holding on. From the resultant penalty Munster had a lineout almost on half way. The pack controlled the ball and mauled up field before releasing it to Ian Keatley who juggled the ball but held on to make a great break before passing to Casey Laulala who in turn passed to Denis Hurley who almost made it all the way to the tryline. Maybe he could have passed to Dougie but the main thing was that Munster retained possession and applied their dominance in the scrum to good effect, scoring a penalty try after several scrums in that corner. The fired up forwards and crowd dominated the rest of the half. Ulster were not helped by the yellow carding of their scrum half Paul Marshall for excessive use of the boot on Donncha O’Callaghan but there were no further scores before the break.
The half time music interval was cancelled due to the weather but the under 11s mini rugby from Carrigaline and Mitchelstown were not deterred! There was also a presentation at half time of a Munster jersey to the three local charities benefitting from this game which had been nominated as a Charity Match, with €1 from the sale of each program going to the Charity fund.
The second half started brightly with Munster taking advantage of Ulster being down to 14 men for the first 5 minutes. Simon Zebo popped up in midfield and scored a great try under the posts on 44 minutes. The third came five minutes later, the forwards piling on the pressure in waves of attacks that culminated in Peter O’Mahoney scoring with Tommy O’Donnell assisting in driving him over the line. That left 30 minutes to secure a valuable 4th try and bonus point win but it was not to be… There were two decent chances, in the first a clever O’Gara kick over the Ulster defence bounced the wrong way, instead of into the arms of Zebo. In the second a penalty resulted in a lineout in a great position only for it to be overthrown and Ulster were able to relieve the pressure. It was a pity as a bonus point win would have resulted in Munster moving to 2nd place in the league on equal points with Scarlets. However it was good to see the team playing well this week and last week in bad weather conditions after some disappointing displays in the rain in Paris v Racing Metro and in Cork v Scarlets. RTE choose Tommy O’Donnell as their Man of the Match. He was well supported by 22 year old Paddy Butler and 23 year old Peter O’Mahoney in the back row. In this photo I took he is making a break and the cavalry are arriving to support him!
Donncha continues to have a stormer this season while the coaching staff keep us guessing about the optimum team, trying various combinations particularly in the competitive backrow and by pairing O’Gara and Keatley at 10-12 for the last 30 minutes of the game this week.
The league table after 12 games (10 left to play) has Ulster 9 points clear of Scarlets with a further 5 teams in the chasing pack hoping to make the top 4 to qualify for the play-offs so there is a lot to play for, starting next week when Munster play Cardiff in Cork and Ulster play Scarlets.
Due to the Christmas holidays you may have missed last weeks installment re the 2008 classic game versus the All Blacks which was well received (https://westterraceview.wordpress.com/2012/12/21/looking-back-favourite-games/)
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