Dublin airport at 10pm was eerily silent with no queue for security, no shops open, it was like a ghost town.
The giggling hens heading to Magaluf and the stags heading to Amsterdam in their own version of a uniform (matching tee shirts) added to the hustle and bustle of Liverpool airport at 6am on Friday as a section of the advance party of the Red Army, some in uniform, others travelling incognito waited to board the flight to Nimes.
Noise levels built to a crescendo as game time approached on Saturday evening.
When the rain finally stopped about half two on Saturday, one of Europe’s largest pedestrianized squares became a yellow and red themed flash mob as supporters from both teams emerged from the shelter of the bars, restaurants and shops of Montpellier to mingle, sing, wave their flags and generally get into the swing of things. The tram journey out to the stadium which takes about half an hour was even noisier as in the confined and crowded space the rival singing and chanting was amplified. The windows steamed up and every time we reached the next stop the doors would open and hopeful passengers would try to squeeze in with the rest of us sardines. Even though we arrived 90 minutes prior to kick-off there was a large crowd there before us enjoying the colourful, carnival atmosphere. A local man asked us to translate the gaelic sign and welcomed us to Montpellier.
The Michelin sponsored brass band were entertaining the crowd from atop a bus. Beer was available in special commemorative plastic glasses printed with the logos of both teams. Fans had painted faces, I saw one with half his moustache dyed yellow and the other half blue. Some from both sides were dressed in Roman centurion gear. Slightly inebriated French men insisted on giving us a kiss on both cheeks and wished us bonne chance. Plenty of bonhomie all around!
A Clermont fan appeared to hover over the crowd holding one flag in each hand. As he came closer we could see he was balancing on a shield shaped board carried aloft by his friends like pall-bearers. He managed to cajole a Munster lady up there with him but she gracefully descended after a few minutes. The good humour was infectious.
The MRSC were busy handing out flags to the supporters and also provided red visors to ensure there was a very visible RED presence. Inside the stadium, the Clermont supporters seemed to have 99% of the seats behind both goals and most of the stand at the far side but there were a few red pockets there and on our side red was the dominant colour from about the half-way line to the goal-line. This certainly made it easier to get a good singsong going than was the case in Watford or at the Stoop which was just as well as we were outnumbered about 5:1 by Clermont. Still it was a great turnout by the Red Army some of whom had travelled for over 28 hours each way to get there via ferry to Cherbourg.
My seat was close to the 5m line, just 5 rows back. There were four French people in front of me, one of whom was wearing an Ireland jersey and another a red jacket so I assume they were from Montpellier and were supporting Munster. I offered him my spare Munster flag and he was delighted to accept it and waved it enthusiastically for the game. While the sun was shining at the far end of the stadium we were in the shade. Under our feet were puddles and if people let their flags hang down they got pretty wet, so if they then waved them about it appeared to be raining as the excess water went flying. I had to ask someone behind me and another to the left in front of me to just wring out the flag before waving it about!
The backs were going through their drills when we arrived, but when the forwards arrived out on the pitch I noticed that while those by me were cheering their encouragement you could definitely hear booing from the French stand. The media there, the Clermont management and some players had spoken out in the build-up to the game about the recent incident during the Leinster game when Paul had made contact with the head of Dave Kearney. The citing commissioner for that game had reviewed the tapes and declared himself satisfied that there were no grounds to cite Paul for foul play as it had clearly been an accident but the French considered that he got special treatment and were enraged by what they see as inconsistent standards when it comes to citings. A hand written sign held up by a Clermont fan in the stand behind the goal read “Please don’t kick me in the head Paul!!!” and I could read it from the 5m line. I could understand it better if he got that reaction from Leinster as it had been their player who was injured but it seemed like poor sportsmanship to me to try to put Paul off his game. The Red Army responded by cheering all the louder for Paul, assuring him of our support. When the announcer was reading out the team sheet and got to Paul you could again hear the boos ring out around the stadium and several times during the match when Paul was in action they were at it again.
The stadium continued to fill up and the players were treated to a very colourful sight and amazing sound levels by both sets of supporters when they returned to the pitch to start the game. Munster scored first, with a penalty on the sixth minute but Clermont launched wave after wave of attack and finally breached the defense just 2 minutes later when Nalaga scored a try converted by Parra, who added a penalty just 4 minutes later and second on 17 minutes to bring the score to 13-3. There was no silence for the kicker. When Parra was kicking for goal it was like the Olympics stadium when the high-jumper or long jumper is egging on the crowd to help them clear the bar… clapping increasingly faster to get the adrenalin pumping, it built to a crescendo and then rapturous applause and cheering as he scored points from 4/5 attempts at goal. The noise level was muted slightly when Ronan was kicking. I was impressed to see Ronan strip the ball from a Clermont player in the tackle at one stage early in the game, that would not be a feat he is renowned for!
For the first quarter Munster had to put in a major defensive effort just to keep Clermont from pulling away, Casey put in several tackles around the ankles on Fofana to stop him in his tracks, and in the second quarter when Munster got into promising positions on several occasions they seemed to incur the sharp blast of Nigel Owens whistle and Clermont were able to kick their way out of trouble. At one stage Tommy O’Donnell made a great break only to be pinged for not releasing even though I felt he had not been held in the tackle. Still they finished the half strongly and while the scoreboard did not reflect it there was hope that they would repeat their second half performance from Quins and come out with all guns blazing in the second half.
It did not quite work out like that, as on 47 minutes a Parra penalty took them to 16-3 lead but on 59 minutes Munster scored a super try when Denis Hurley on for the injured Keith Earls touched down a great grubber kick from Ronan O’Gara which he converted to bring the score to 16-10 with a quarter of the game remaining and the momentum swung towards Munster.
We were ecstatic and belief swelled as Clermont seemed to be there for the taking. Parra missed a penalty. Casey almost got to another ball threaded through to claim a second try. Instead of referring to the video ref the touch judge advised that Munster had knocked it on but I thought that the Clermont player had done so first. Then a penalty was kicked to touch and we hoped for a miracle maul over the line as had happened on many a previous occasion but this time we were repelled by Clermont. Another lineout also went astray and all the time the clock was ticking down…till the final opportunity was lost when Nigel blew for a marginal forward pass and then from the resultant scrum Clermont kicked the ball out and time was up.
After clapping the Clermont fans off the pitch the team came over to thank the Red Army for their support again. From my seat I could see that Dave Kilcoyne had a black eye and the emotion etched on everyone’s face, including Ronan O’Gara who brought his young son Rua with him and Simon Zebo’s tears. They had dug deep and had nothing left but they could hold their heads up high for showing the world their resilience, their never say die Munster spirit, their refusal to go quietly out of this competition and for giving us hope that the “transition phase” is already over and there is a lot to build on for next season. This is not a team that accepts heroic defeat but one which expects victory and getting so close will hurt but will also spur them on to repeat the feats of 06 and 08. We are not as far away as some thought earlier this season. The hunger is there, valuable experience has been gained in this campaign and there is no doubting their bravery or commitment.
After the crescendo comes the quiet again, as tired and emotional, hoarse and drained but proud of the team we made our way back to the tram. The bubble had burst and the season is all but over but what a finale!
The tram was a lot more subdued on the way back to town, no major crush or steamed up windows. Even the Clermont fans seemed drained by the high drama and probably a bit relieved to have made their first European final. We wished them well in it. As we were about to get off the tram in town a French man asked who was our number 7. “Tommy O’Donnell”, I replied, “From Tipperary!” He could not catch the surname (I should have said it rhymed with O’Connell”)…but a French lady behind me said it a bit differently for him which worked – she said it was Tommy O’Donn-elle… Sounded posher that way, but then he is from the Premier county as am I. He has had a great season and will hopefully get a well deserved Irish cap this summer.
Clermont: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, R King (S Nakaitaci 63), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 61), B Kayser (T Paulo 68), D Zirakashvili (R King 78); J Cudmore (J Pierre 38), N Hines; J Bonnaire, J Bardy (A Lapandry 56), D Chouly.
Munster: F Jones; K Earls (D Hurley 50), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry (D Varley 56), BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan.
Match stats are available here: http://www.espnscrum.com/scrum/rugby/match/167682.html
ERC TV highlights: http://www.ercrugby.com/eng/matchdaytv/index.php?play=media&id=15200 includes post match interview with Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell. Also behind the scenes matchday footage showing some of the carnival and colour mentioned above is available here http://www.ercrugby.com/eng/matchdaytv/index.php?play=media&id=15203
Also loved Billy Keane’s article about the weekend: http://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/tears-of-sorrow-pride-and-joy-on-day-of-heroic-failure-29227792.html
Updated to add a link to this interesting take on the game by a Montpellier supporter who wrote a blog about the game as if he were a Munster fan: http://leblogdevern.blogspot.ie/2013/04/being-munsterman.html?m=1
Photos provided this week by Eleanor.
L’escargot for breakfast…
A blog within a blog for those interested in the non rugby part of the trip…The weather dominated the weekend, unfortunately we did not get to see the south of France at it’s best. Montpellier is a lovely city. The people we met were very friendly and helpful. Public transport is excellent, we used the trains, tram and buses which were efficient and good value. With your train ticket you are assigned a seat and there is a designated place to use your phone so the carriages are pretty peaceful. My sweet tooth loved the boulangeries, creperies and patisseries! We did the covered tourist “train” tour through the city so we could see something of it despite the rain. Headphones provide the commentary in various languages including english and it lasted 40 minutes.
It weaved its way through the narrow streets, past both Irish pubs and went down to the Arc de Triomphe area. The views from there were not great when we were in the train due to the rain but when it dried up later we returned and enjoyed the panorama.
On Sunday we took the 7.25 bus into town and had breakfast at the station where we met 2 of the red army who had been up all night and were in need of plenty of strong coffee. They were in good form. There I had l’escargot for breakfast but it was the name they gave to the danish pastry whirl with raisins…so I was not being that adventurous!
We took the train to Carcassonne where we enjoyed the 2.5 hour walking tour of the fort and the city. There was a bitingly cold wind blowing in exposed parts and the rain returned just before we finished the tour. There was a couple from Cornwall whose son works for Saracens on the walk so they had a chat about the game with me as they had seen the second half and thought we should have won. After lunch we met 2 more Munster fans, recognisable to each other as we were wearing the Red Army baseball caps provided by MRSC at the start of this season, being used to keep off the rain not the sun. We had a chat, exchanged news and views and directions before we sought out the warmth of the bar in the Hotel Terminus. When we returned to Montpellier we walked up to Place de la Comedie which was almost deserted.
Even the Rotary club who had been there all day Friday and Saturday looking to sign us up for their blood donation clinic were gone as was the Munster flag which had been flying on the Fountain of the Three Graces. Normality was restored.
Thanks for reading the WestTerraceView which has come to the end of it’s first season as the game on Friday is only on Italian TV!
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