And so it came to be! I prophesied in my last blog: “The Red Army will do it’s part. They will be loud and proud and especially RED. Tickets are being sourced from anywhere and everywhere to boost the 3,700 allocated to Munster.” I was confident that we would be there in numbers, in red and would make ourselves heard as we did in the Saracens game. The proud part was written optimistically, given the humiliation in Glasgow but this was the Heineken Cup for a one-off knockout game. While all the younger players may not have experienced that intensity themselves they have witnessed it often enough in the past decade to be hungry for their own piece of Munster folklore. Who better to lead them out than the irreplaceable Paul O’Connell in the absence from the team sheet of the injured Doug Howlett? Given the disappointments of recent seasons and the poor league form by our standards, thousands of the Red Army travelled more in hope than with great expectations, and many more would have turned up in London to support the team had tickets been more plentiful. Harlequins spurned the financial windfall which would have arisen from moving the game to Twickenham in the hope of securing the benefits of home advantage but they were thwarted and probably awestruck as many clubs have been before by the resourcefulness of the Red Army! Lansdowne Road 2006 anyone?
Before the game, supporters from both sides gathered in the sunshine to meet friends, exchange banter and watch the warm-up. I took the opportunity to take a few photos and soak up the atmosphere which was building nicely. Munster appeared to have secured about 40% of the ticket allocation and their red jerseys, scarfs, hats and flags could be seen in all corners of the Stoop.
The opposition support were colourful also, with some of the Quins supporters taking wearing their colours to a more formal level!
I had a front row seat in the Etihad Stand but there was a wide walkway between it and pitchside and then the barrier so as you can see from the photo below it was not up close and personal like from my usual position on the west terrace at Thomond. It was impossible to see how close to the touch line the player was on the near side. The walkway was great for socialising before and after the game and during the interval, and the cleaners came and picked up rubbish and cleared the empty bioware beer glasses when the match started and again after the half time interval. The 2 Harlequins mascots and PA guy also went up and down the walkway, banging drums and encouraging their crowd and team. Oscar from Munster engaged in a half time competition with their bear but lost. The big screen was behind me so not useful to see what I had missed but it was a privilege to be there for this occasion. There was plenty of cheering and singing, “The Mighty Quinn” is a catchy number but “Low Lie the fields of Athenry” has a way of swelling like an aural Mexican wave which I love. Who cares that it is in Galway! “Stand Up and Fight” also had several airings, especially in the second half which Munster dominated.
I sat beside two Munster ladies who had also travelled from Dublin and we did our bit to drown out the Quins guys beside us who were very enthusiastically supporting their team for the first half and spent most of the second complaining about the referee in his green (Irish) jersey! They confused me chanting number 3 and then Ireland’s number 3 at one stage. I could not figure out what Mike Ross had to do with it…until my neighbour enlightened me, they were on about ROG behind dropped from the Ireland team. Well he certainly showed them a thing or two with his masterclass in kicking (6/8, one of those missed unluckily came off the post) and tactical management.
The game itself was played at a fast pace on the hard ground. Quins scored first from a penalty conceded at the scrum, O’Gara missed a chance to equalise when the ball hit the upright, then Evans missed his second kick but converted the third to take a 6-0 lead. O’Gara copied Keatley from the Racing Metro game in kicking the ball straight at the referee but did not manage to bowl him over before a successful penalty got Munster on the scoreboard at 6-3 after 24 minutes of play following a break by Casey Laulala which was flicked onto Zebo, possibly by Tommy O’Donnell. Paulie got in on the “flicking” act, (maybe Zebo has been giving lessons after his now infamous heel flick in the Six Nations?) when he juggled a pass but managed to hold onto it. Quins restored their 6 point advantage shortly after but amazingly were not to score again until the 65th minute almost 37 minutes later! Munster went in at half time with their tails up, trailing by just 3 points (9-6).
Munster blew the Harlequins challenge away in the first 16 minutes of the second half. They threw everything at them and forced them to concede penalty after penalty to keep the scoreboard ticking over nicely to 9-9, 9-12, 9-15, 9-18. When Quins did get a lineout near the Munster line, Peter O’Mahony was hoisted into the air by Donnacha Ryan and ripped the ball out of the hands of his opponent; Murray weighted a beautiful box kick which Zebo chased and won, soaring into the air with no evidence of his recent foot injury. When Quins got an intercept James Downey flattened his target and the ball was turned over again. The intensity was immense, the commitment unfailing, they were sweating passion while the supporters were euphoric and grew louder as the half progressed. The tactics were mixed up cleverly, employing mauls, choke tackles, garryowens, charges up the middle by Kilcoyne, Coughlan and Downey, offloads by Hurley and Laulala, phase after phase of pressure and when the tank was running dry, into the fray springs Donncha O’Callaghan eager to play his part followed by a new front row with fresh legs to maintain the intensity in a superb team effort. The six point difference did not do justice to their superiority and there was always a chance that Quins could score a converted try to regain the lead, but Munster did not let them have much of the ball for the final minutes, and we even had time for a chuckle when Zebo almost ended the game but decided there were a few seconds left so came back infield to set up another ruck before Murray eventually kicked the ball out and the celebrations could start. Strangers who had become comrades in the red army hugged each other in delight at the final whistle.
After the game the Munster faithful made their way pitchside to salute their heroes, serenading them with their anthems and applauding their magnificent performance. One supporter ventured on to the field to be tackled by a steward or three and led away. It took the team some time to walk their lap of honour, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying their victory. They in their turn applauded the supporters, acknowledging friends and family in the crowd. You could see how much it meant to everyone – the senior guys who had been there and done that and the new guys who had never experienced the like of it in their careers. It was great to see Dougie walking around the pitch with Casey, hopefully he will be fit for the semi-final to give the coach some good selection headaches!
Everyone knew it had been a special occasion and while Clermont are rightfully favourites for the semi-final in three weeks time in Montpellier, we shall once more prepare to travel to be “loud and proud and especially RED”
Luton Airport had it’s share of rugby fans passing through on Sunday night, Ulster fans returning to Belfast and Munster fans via Dublin to their homes. My flight was full and I had a great chat with 2 supporters about all things rugby. One of them had a program and we were amused by the typos on the team listing – Dougie played on the wing and we had a new hooker by the name of Damien Reilly apparently! He told me he had hundreds of programs going back to the 1940s including the Grand Slam year. They plan on going to France but I joked that I probably won’t recognise them there, I’ll be so dazzled by their white legs in their shorts as we look forward to warm weather then!
When I got home I was still hyper so I watched the highlights on TG4. Man of the match was awarded to Paul O’Connell who was quite emotional in his speech about being so proud of the young guys and feeling for them and their families with the criticism they have been getting when they are working so hard on their training but games haven’t always gone their way.
Match stats can provide an interesting perspective of the game. I was impressed by 3 lineouts stolen and 100% success on own throw. Well done Mike Sherry, junpers and lifters. Rucks won: 100%! Tackling success rate: 96% – 13 tackles alone by Tommy O’Donnell. Defenders beaten 15. Full Stats
HARLEQUINS: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, T Casson, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa’asavalu, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter. Replacements: J Gray for Buchanan (49 mins), T Guest for Fa’asavalu (51 mins), M Hopper for Cassen (76 mins). Not used: M Lambert, W Collier, C Matthews, K Dickson, B Botica.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Hurley, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: D O’Callaghan for Ryan (69 mins), D Varley for Sherry, W Du Preez for Kicloyne, S Archer for Botha (all 76 mins), P Butler for O’Mahony (79 mins). Not used: C Sheridan, I Keatley, I Dineen.
It is always worth checking out Gift Grub’s rugby sketches. This game inspired a rap by ROG and Paulie called Tacklemore
Congrats also to the Munster A team who won their B&I Cup quarter final in Cornwall to set up a repeat of last seasons exciting semi-final against Leinster A. It is great to see we have good talent coming through and gaining valuable experience as Kilcoyne and Butler did last season in that competition.
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