Saracens, a top English premiership team coming to Thomond Park with confidence after their bonus point win over Clermont threw down the gauntlet to the Red Army. We owed them one after their PA system tried to drown us out two seasons ago* so despite the inconvenient scheduling on the Friday night of a bank holiday weekend, supporters were determined to mobilise, travelling not to be mere spectators but to be active participants, ensuring their presence would indeed be the famed sixteenth man. Time off from work was secured where necessary, traffic reports were studied and alternative routes considered as supporters travelled from near and wide. All were clear on the mission: to make Thomond a fortress, a cauldron of noise so that Saracens could not hear themselves think and especially could not hear their line out calls. In stark contrast to ensure a deathly silence for their attempts at goal to put as much pressure as possible on their kickers. When looking to gather a high ball they would hear us “encouraging” them to spill it; any Munster maul would be greeted with cries of “heave, heave.” Incidents where handbags were thrown would trigger a rendition of ”Stand up and fight” while injury stoppages would be a good opportunity to break into “The Fields of Athenry.” Every Munster tackle or turnover would be cheered, and as the song says, we would keep it up until we hear the bell or in our case, not the final whistle but the final farewell to the team after the game when they came back out to thank us for our contribution to their victory. The objective was to send Saracens home with nothing, specifically no points in the pool table but to hold them to just one score, a first half penalty was an incredible achievement and leaves Munster sitting pretty at the top of Pool 1 until Clermont come in December.
Working a 4 day week makes it easier for me to get away from Dublin ahead of the traffic on match days. By kickoff there were still empty seats in the stands and spaces on the terraces as some people were not so fortunate and had to make a dash after work but the stadium soon filled up for the first full house of the season. It was great to have such a buzz and atmosphere again. I arrived almost 2 hours before kickoff to find many of the regulars already there including John whom I had met returning from Sale. I had done my good deed for the day and given a different John (also originally from Waterford) a lift from Naas to Castletroy where he dropped off his bag at a friends before heading into the game. After 4 years working in Scotland he was delighted to be back in Ireland and able to get to Thomond. He was good company and it shortened the road for me, though I was amused to be told that as recommended he had checked out this blog and it was “actually good.”
Saracens came out on the pitch early and as I saw them looking around I knew they could not imagine how different it would be by kickoff. It was BTSport‘s first broadcast from Thomond and they seemed to have a huge staff with them including Brian O’Driscoll and David Wallace while Keith Wood and Gavin Duffy were there for Newstalk and Len Dineen was covering the game for Live95 FM. The choir was great while drumming act “The Hit Machine” also helped build the atmosphere. The noise levels rose as the team were applauded off after their warm up. Given the new protocol for the European competition, when the two teams came out of the tunnel together you did not get the traditional polite round of applause for the visitors to compare to the raucous welcome for the home team but the rendition of Stand Up and Fight just before their arrival led by Jean Wallace completed the warmup of the supporters and we kept it up for the full 80+ on a blustery, showery night.
Looking back it seems incredible that the half time score was 3-3. Both kickers had missed some opportunities ending up with 33% returns. In the early exchanges James Cronin and CJ Stander combined well to force a turnover via a great choke tackle. Denis Hurley made a good break after collecting a garryowen but was pinged for not releasing and we watched as #13 Marcel Bosch’s attempted kick from just inside the half way line thankfully went wide.
BJ triggered the first chorus of SUAF in the 10th minute when there were handbags resulting in a talking to from the referee just before Ian Keatley’s first penalty attempt. When it came back off the post we thought Andrew Conway was in for an early try as a reward for his excellent chase of the kick but unfortunately he could not control the ball due to the efforts of the two defenders. It did however keep Munster in the right part of the pitch to put the pressure on Saracens.
It was strange to watch the maul not being contested at times by Saracens, a very unusual tactic which earned them an early turnover to the disgust of Paul O’Connell who sought clarification from the referee. When later #4 was offside Keatley found a great touch in the corner. Duncan Casey’s laser guided dart was secured by Dave Foley. That time Saracens defended the maul close to their line. Another promising position went abegging when a poor pass was compounded by a slip by Conway who was then pinged for holding on allowing Saracens to clear their lines. A great kick through by Zebo did not work out as planned when his chase was blocked by 2 Saracens players but he still managed to get the ball into an excellent touch. The noise levels when Saracens were trying to organise their lineout call was tremendous. I was nearly deafened by the shrill whistles of someone close behind me!
Playing with advantage, Keatley sent a cross field kick, Conway again chased, getting up high to beat the 2 defenders and one of them definitely made contact with him in the air but the referee saw nothing wrong. I was very impressed by the workrate of Andrew Conway throughout the game and he was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet. The official stats only record the metres run with the ball but Andrew chased so many box kicks in attack and defence that his metres run in total would be a very impressive figure. Last Monday he was interviewed and said that the Sale game was “the best feeling I have ever had on a rugby pitch” Irish Examiner I expect this game surpassed that experience!
At least Munster still had the penalty advantage which finally led to a score in the 26th minute, 3-0. Owen Farrell had an easy opportunity to equalise at 33 minutes but missed it badly to our relief. However on 36 minutes he got another chance and successfully brought the score to 3-3 and so it remained for the rest of the half although Keatley had an opportunity to double Munster’s score on the stroke of half time when the scrum won a penalty (BJ, BJ, BJ, we chanted as he seemed to be the one getting the plaudits but I am sure all the front row and indeed the pack contributed to the successful scrum)
Dancing Oscar was very entertaining at halftime showing that “he” has new moves while the minis featured Rugbai Chorca Dhuibhne and Thomond RFC U11’s
Saracens came out all fired up for the second half and tested the Munster defence but could not make a breakthrough. Ashton did make some ground but his kick ahead just beat Strettle into touch and from the lineout Munster got the ball to Keatley for a good clearance kick. Saracens tried the same tactic a few minutes later but Murray just got a hand to it. O’Donnell made a great break from a Saracens scrum and put Munster back on the front foot.
After a spell of kicking by both sides, Saracens launched another attack through their pack which led to the pivotal moment of the game. CJ was on his feet trying to get the ball from #3 when #17 Rhys Gill lifted him up and dumped him down head first into the pile of bodies. The referee blew it up immediately and called on the TMO. A yellow card was shown to Gill in the 51st minute and that gave Munster the edge they needed to pull ahead. The resultant penalty gave them good field position. The lineout was secured by Tommy and taken on by his backrow colleagues. A further penalty was awarded and this time Keatley made no mistake, moving Munster to 6-3 in the 53rd minute.
Conway took a great inside pass off a scrum from Murray to move Munster deep into the other half. Keatley kicked ahead but neither Jones nor Zebo could get there. Saracens won their lineout but Munster kept the pressure on them so their clearance kick did not get them out of danger. Munster took it on from the lineout and went through the phases before Conway dived over in the corner and it looked good to us but the try was referred to the TMO and disallowed to our disgust.
However we still had the advantage so Keatley again kicked to touch. There was a short delay while Dave Kilcoyne came on for the lineout as James Cronin had needed treatment so was substituted. Foley secured the ball and offloaded it before his feet hit the ground. The maul drove through the defence and it was Kilcoyne with his first touch of the ball who scored. What an impact sub! Killer Kilcoyne claimed his 4th European try and his second of this campaign. The conversion attempt was not successful but suddenly there was daylight and the all important 8 points (no losing bonus point) between the sides but with almost 20 minutes left there was no time for complacency. A few minutes later a further drop goal pushed Munster out to 14-3 and more impact subs were introduced, Robin Copeland, Stephen Archer plus Eusebio Guinazu. Saracens tried to find a chink but Munster’s defence held firm. CJ Stander who had been down for treatment was still carrying ball and making yards from the base of the scrum to put Munster on the front foot as the clock ticked down. His performance “walks the talk” of his recent tweet “I may not be Irish by birth, but I am Munster by the grace of God.” His contribution to this game must have again made him a contender for Man of the Match, the official award went to Conor Murray.
The remaining substitutions were made in the final minutes. The referee stopped play immediately to allow the medics on when Stephen Archer was involved in a clash of heads with Fraser who appeared concussed as he staggered a little after the impact. Archer was also bleeding after the collision and needed attention.
When the final whistle went we couldn’t believe the scoreline. The earlier home defeats in the league had the doubters writing off Munster and the Red Army. Saracens are a seriously good team, but how many good teams have come to Thomond Park with confidence only to leave with the bitter taste of defeat? Two years ago my blog of their last visit was called “Fortress Thomond in all it’s glory” and it was great to see it a fortress again. The performance was not perfect but at that intensity there will be mistakes. The defence of the backline was much improved, the half backs controlled the game well while the forwards were immense. Overall the team are moving in the right direction with 4 big wins from 4 in October.
The match stats show how Munster had a stronger second half again this week both in terms of possession and territory:
Munster: F Jones, A Conway, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; J Cronin, D Casey, BJ Botha; D Foley, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony (captain), T O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: E Guinazu, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, B Holland, R Copeland, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, G van den Heever
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt (capt), D Strettle; O Farrell, N de Kock; R Barrington, J George, P Du Plessis; G Kruis, J Hamilton; K Brown, W Fraser, B Vunipola. Replacements: S Spurling, R Gill, J Johnston, M Botha, J Wray, R Wigglesworth, C Hodgson, D Taylor.
All of Daryl’s photos from the night can be found here, I particularly like his sequence of photos leading up to the try.
Up in the MRSC bar afterwards I had hoped to see Peter, my most frequent commenter visiting from Wales or Barbara visiting from London but I could not spot them. I did meet Eilis and her brother Patrick, Audrey plus Kevin from MRSC Dublin while Linda Molloy recognised me and said hello. I also had a chance to speak to Tom who was proudly wearing his fez and while disappointed at the result he was very impressed by Thomond, describing it as the best Club atmosphere he had ever experienced!
The PRO12 is an important focus this season so while sore bodies will need to be managed keeping the winning habit going is important. With 11 players called up to the National training camp it will also provide an opportunity for the A team players who had a good win in Nottingham on Friday in the B&I Cup.
Love this comment from Niamh as it shows I am achieving my goal: “it’s like bein there” while Kate’s regular “looking forward to the blog” tweets help to motivate me. So if you like the blog please leave a comment, share it with your friends and sign up to receive an email notification when I publish future editions.