There was a Welcome message to Munsters supporters, the Red Army on the electronic display above the entrance we approached. The next line of the message that flashed up reminded us that we were in the Pool of Death, so-called as it contained three semi-finalists from last season. When the draw was made we knew at most only 2 teams would get out of the Pool. Home and away defeats to Clermont meant that we had to win in Allianz Park and based on our home performance against them I travelled to London expecting a tight game and hoping we could edge it. Lack of consistency has been an issue but Munster have a tradition of rising to the occasion and with their future in the premium competition for this season at stake there could be no better motivation. Conor Murray, ruled out on Friday was a big loss as he is a world-class player but I thought our pack would be a good match for their “wolfpack” as it is usually the forwards battle that determines who will be victorious.
And so the Red Army gathered in north-west London on a bitterly cold day. At least the snow flurries which had started as I left Heathrow that morning had cleared away to leave a bright, breezy afternoon. The wind was blowing across the pitch. Our seats were behind the goal in the South Stand and we were lucky to be on the inside of our row as those outside us provided shelter. We missed our wind break when they disappeared for half-time! Munster were playing towards the South for the first half but the action did not come close to us. There were some promising moments when Munster managed to get through some phases before the ball was kicked away or a bad pass handed possession back to Saracens.
The first half possession and territory stats surprised me when I checked them the following day as I felt we had little of either but there were some good breaks, including one by Felix Jones and Andrew Conway who managed to get on the outside before that effort broke down with a pass to no-one. Another good break by Jones after taking a lovely pass from Pat Howard made ground but the ball came back to Keatley whose kick bounced the wrong way and instead of finding a super touch on the 5m line it bounced over the end line and Saracens were back playing in Munster’s half.
Billy Vunipola was deserved man of the match with tremendous ball carrying, tackling and winning turnovers and it took huge defensive efforts to haul him down, time and again. His opposite number CJ Stander was injured in the opening half hour and had to helped off so Peter O’Mahony moved to 8 with Dave O’Callaghan coming in at 6.
Their two tries came from breaks down the west wing. The first was finished off by Chris Wyles, Alex Goode put him into space after Vunipola was a successful decoy in midfield and at 22 minutes Saracens were ahead 10-0. When Chris Ashton took out Simon Zebo in the air Munster won a penalty but not in a kickable position. After securing their lineout another knock on handed possession back to Saracens. It was 32 minutes before Munster got their first kickable penalty which Ian Keatley successfully put over the bar to get Munster on the board at 13-3. Another promising break broke down with another knock on, before Saracens scored their 2nd try. It came from a quickly taken penalty after Munster were penalised at a ruck after securing the ball. Saracens went wide and just as two defenders tackled Wyles into touch while all the other defenders were pulled out to that wing, Wyles managed to kick the ball infield for Ashton to touch down unopposed and suddenly it was a long way back at 20-3 with just 3 minutes to half time. Billy Vunipola claimed the deep restart and made great ground bringing play back into Munster’s half. Just before the break Foley was penalised for collapsing the maul and Owen Farrell kicked Saracens into a 20 point lead.
Munster started well in the second half with a super break by Simon Zebo which led to 17 phases on the attack before being penalised for holding on close to the line. We saw a lot more action down our end, most of it defensive as Saracens tried to push home their advantage. Simon Zebo managed to drag Billy’s brother Mako into touch about a metre from the line but the resultant Munster lineout went horribly wrong when the ball hit Paul O’Connell in the back as he was facing the player he thought would get the ball behind him leading to another defensive 5m scrum.
Duncan Williams stopped the first drive and eventually Munster won a penalty to clear their lines. However Saracens kept on the pressure and on 56 minutes took another 3 points when Cronin was penalised in the scrum which was retreating. Saracens were soon back pounding the Munster line and when their forwards couldn’t get through they spun it wide. Felix Jones knocked on to give their pack another chance via a scrum. Duncan Williams was penalised for pouncing on the ball before it was fully out giving possession back to Saracens. Munster at this stage had made changes in the front row to see if Archer and Guinazu could stabilise the scrum. That time Saracens got the ball away quickly, going wide to one side and then the other. When Williams pounced on another ball Poite decided he had come in from offside and penalised Munster and warned them about too many penalties in the 2nd half.
“The Fields of Athenry” rang out again as we tried to lift the team before Farrell missed his first penalty. Saracens did however reclaim possession from the restart and came on the attack again. When James Cronin tackled the scrumhalf as he went to pick up the ball from the back of the ruck Poite had seen enough and showed him a yellow card on 65′. Tommy O’Donnell had to go off for the next scrum to allow John Ryan into the front row so Denis Hurley packed down at flanker.
Munster got the ball quickly to Zebo who made ground before giving a lovely offload to Williams who set-off down the wing, kicking ahead before being bundled into touch via a late tackle. When Peter O’Mahony tried to get the ball quickly back into play Jacques Burger took exception and a scuffle broke out. Munster got a penalty for that late tackle on Williams. Foley claimed the lineout, Peter O’Mahony charged upfield and with 10 minutes to go Denis Hurley touched down beside the post to make it 26-10, was there time to salvage the game?
I was shocked when Poite awarded Saracens their third try despite lying on the ground injured. Yes he had a good view of the grounding from his position but not of the final phases leading up to it. I was so busy looking at him I missed the dramatic swan dive from Ashton. Maybe Poite was getting information from his assistant referees. Anyway the try stood and Poite had to be replaced as did Simon Zebo who was also hobbling after that passage of play so Ronan O’Mahony made his European debut. Since there was no recognised scrum-half registered for the competition and fit with Cathal Sheridan and Conor Murray injured there was room on the bench for both Ronan and Keith Earls who had come on earlier at centre for his 100th appearance for Munster.
With five minutes remaining Saracens went looking for their bonus point so Munster were back on defensive efforts but the team fought to the end not to concede a fourth try. In the build-up during the week Saracens were smarting at criticism after their loss at Gloucester and some in the media were suggesting that they had been “damaged” by losing two finals last season so maybe they had a point to prove. They were by far the better side and it will be interesting to see how they fare in Clermont next weekend to determine who goes through as group winners.
After the game the players showed their appreciation to the supporters despite their disappointment.
Our fixture against Saracens two seasons ago had left a nasty taste thanks to management antics such as using the PA to drown out our singing with canned music. The ticket sales for this game also generated some bad PR when they advised that callers seeking tickets with Irish accents would be treated with suspicion, so I was curious to see how we would fare in their new home.
The Pioneers we met were all very friendly and helpful, directing us to the shuttle buses, handing out flags, providing directions inside the grounds. The bus service ran fairly smoothly, we did not have a long wait going or coming although the man behind us in the queue on the way out was complaining about people jumping the queue and not impressed when the 2nd bus opened its door and people behind him got on first! We all got on that bus anyway so his friend shushed him.
I was surprised that the different stands were not well signposted. We checked the map to see which one was the south stand but none of the entrances into it were numbered so we went in one and were directed to the right section inside.
At half time the mascots were out and about while their A team was presented to celebrate winning their competition and there was a kicking contest to try to get the ball to land and stay on the target area but it kept bouncing off it.
I was surprised by the layout of the new stadium, the lack of symmetry as the East and West stands were totally different shapes.
Much was made of the artificial pitch in the run up to the game and there were some kicks which went astray as a result. If it was a normal pitch the going would have been soft judging by the muddy shortcut we took back to the bus after the game which would have made the game less free-flowing perhaps, we’ll never know. Cold hands could also have been a factor but Saracens did not have as many fumbled passes as Munster in a very untypical display.
We were in Row C and since there was no row A so we were very close to the pitch although I prefer to be on the side than behind the goalposts. There was a walkway behind row C which my neighbour availed off to take his seat just as each half started, stepping over the back of his seat rather than making us all stand to let him in. Similarly those in row B climbed over the railing in front of them to get out to the bar and loos during the game.
Congratulations to MRSC London who provided very useful travel information, organised a Q&A for the Friday evening with Anthony Foley and arranged with local clubs Mill Hill RFC and Hendon RFC to open their clubhouses to the Red Army. These locations also served as centres for the distribution of flags. I went to Hendon as I was impressed by all their twitter activity leading up to the game. I heard that despite their best preparations they still ran out of Guinness by noon but they had other options to keep supporters hydrated. They even had live music in the Clubhouse to entertain the crowds.
It was great to meet some old yet new friends there. Rob has been following my blog from the early days and did feature in it once when he tweeted a photo of me on his TV celebrating a Ronan O’Mahony try in Musgrave Park in December 2013 (Ghosts of Christmas Past) yet we had never met. Living near Manchester he does not get to many games and was gutted not to get to the Sale game in October due to other commitments that day. He spotted me straight away and brought me over to meet his wife Becci. It was like meeting old friends. It turns out that their Munster roots are via her grandmother in beautiful Castletownbere. That morning they had hit the road at 7am after dropping off their daughters still in PJs to their grandmother. Next weekend Rob hopes to travel the shorter distance to Doncaster to support the A team in their quarter-final of the B&I Cup.
On our way to meet Rob we met a trio from my home town, Hilary, Dee and Joe whom I had met for the first time in December. Hilary had flown in from Luxembourg and I have noticed more blog views from there in recent weeks 🙂
Brian, whom I have met with the MRSCDublin gang a few times introduced me to his sister Elaine who said she enjoys the blog. They are also west terrace ticket holders so maybe we’ll meet there next weekend.
Shout out also to Fernando who featured in last weeks blog. He tweeted me from Brazil to let me know he was tuned into the action from London in the early morning, his time.
A potential blog title which crossed my mind was “Man Crush” as a Sarries fan behind was calling out to Charlie Hodgson for a wave as Charlie was warming up near us in the second half. “Don’t make me call you Charles” he warned! Meanwhile the trio from Munster in front of us were very animated when Johnny Ryan (as they called him) came on for the first scrum when James Cronin was in the sinbin. Every tackle he made was cheered as they roared him on. Maybe they know him. He certainly hasn’t let Munster down when called upon in some huge games this season. Padraic chatted to us afterwards and turned out to be another Tipperaryman from Birdhill. He and his friends, like the thousands who had travelled, did their best to boost the team. Reports from home said we were heard on TV belting out the Fields of Athenry and getting behind the team.
Next Sunday’s game may be a dead rubber but after losing at home to Clermont in December it is time to rebuild the fortress. The Sale Sharks may smell blood in the water and come looking for what is still a prestigious scalp at Thomond. There is also the opportunity for Munster to claim a 100th European victory which only Toulouse have managed to date.
When bodies are bruised and spirits are low it is time for the 16th man to lift the team, to show we are supporters, not fair weather fans.
Official highlights: http://www.epcrugby.com/matchdaytv?play=media&id=19969
Munster: Felix Jones; Andrew Conway, Pat Howard (Earls 47), Denis Hurley, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley (Hanrahan 75), Duncan Williams; James Cronin (O’Donnell 77), Duncan Casey (Guinazu 61), BJ Botha (Archer 61); Dave Foley (Holland 75), Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony Capt., Tommy O’Donnell (Ryan 68), CJ Stander (O’Callaghan 28).
Replacements: Eusebio Guinazu, John Ryan, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Dave O’Callaghan, Ronan O’Mahony, JJ Hanrahan, Keith Earls.