Saracens faced Munster in 2012 in the Heineken Cup – the relabelled Europeans Champions Cup (main sponsor Heineken!) saw them drawn against the Irish giants again. I’d travelled to Limerick that year so had pretty much decided I wouldn’t go again; a phone call telling me International Rugby League was being played in Dublin the next day changed my mind entirely! Words that often seem to pour from my mouth before I know they’re out – ‘It was rude not to!’ sprung straight out there.
I booked an early flight so I could take my time and enjoy the nice hotel I was staying in; you’d think living 25 minutes from Stansted and having booked Meet & Greet Parking; which by the way is great! Would have meant I was in loads of time for my flight; but, oh no! With a nightmare queue at security I think it’s fair to say I resembled a scarecrow who’d run a marathon after being dragged backwards through several bushes! I could have sworn half term started in the evening, not the morning! But, I did make the flight, and in spite of my hate for the whole take off and landing thing arrived with no drama.
I sat next to Alex and Justin, fellow Saracens on the plane and gave them a lift to their hotel; I had the 1st hint that my European Satnav possibly had a little joke inside it! Their hotel was it turned out on the main road; it sent us down a side road however where we were promptly surrounded by 3 very wild looking border collies! One, literally stood in front of the car and wouldn’t move! A very awkward moment! Not wanting to cause an international incident we were patient until the thing finally moved!
Having dropped the lads I headed for my swish abode for the evening the Castletroy Park Hotel; it was posh to say the least and apart from some rowdy guests in the night I’d highly recommend it! I had a lovely lunch with Joanne a Twitter friend and Munster mad lady! It was great to spend time with someone so knowledgeable about rugby! I had a chat with 3 Munster men as we left the lounge and ended up sharing taxi to and from the game with them. Rugby really is a great game!
I’ve probably lingered a little on the pre-game ‘stuff’ partly because I know the game’s going to be a hard one to report – but, here I go! I’d expected a close, hard fought game and so it was. I have to say that the atmosphere at the wonderful Thomond Park is amazing! The 16th man thing certainly rings true for Munster; I imagine the noise when heard on the pitch must be spine tingling. And yet – the sound of silence – is for the me the most wonderful noise at the Irish stronghold. It sounds odd to describe silence in that way, but the respect shown to the kickers is I would say second to none; I’ve been to a lot of grounds and I’m not sure I’ve heard anything like it!
Owen Farrell made a return for Saracens his opposite number Ian Keatley had dropped the goal that secured a 1st round win for Munster, breaking Sale hearts. Saracens were visiting on the back of a bonus try win against Clermont Auvergne. It was felt that neither team had been playing at full throttle so far this season.
Munster have a great tradition having been finalists on 4 occasions; winning 2 of those games. Saracens made their debut against Toulon in May 2014; losing to the Frenchmen. The battle of the scrum started early as it was deemed that Saracens took their maul to the ground.. The scrum as reset, then collapsed, Murray took the ball at the 3rd attempt. A pattern started early on as Keatley kicked the ball to touch when it looked like an attacking opportunity was on; this was repeated through the game by both teams at times.
The 1st chance to put points on the board fell to Marcelo Bosch of Saracens as Munster were penalised for holding the ball just inside their own half; Bosch had the distance but not the accuracy; the ball went just wide of the posts. George Kruis, newly into the England squad knocked the ball on from the Munster kick out.
A penalty for Munster saw Keatley kick to touch, Peter O’Mahoney took the ball from his jumper and streaked round the front of the lineout; Neil De Kock, so often in the firing line of on rushing big forwards made a hugely important tackle to take O’Mahoney down. Saracens were penalised for failing to roll away and we saw a rush of blood as David Foley and Jim Hamilton clashed. Hamilton is known for his hit temper; watching the replay I wonder if there was an intention to wind Big Jim up. For some reason Will Fraser had a talking to, he’s a tad shorter than Hamilton! With what was an easier kick Keatley missed the posts; which was something of a surprise. Saracens seemed to be as surprised as anyone as Andrew Conway was 1st to the ball; Jamie George saved the day by hitting the ball out of his hands! Saracens turned the scrum round to be awarded a valuable penalty to clear their lines.
Neil De Kock put a box kick in after the line out; it’s clear to see watching a re-run of the game that the Munster defence did a good job of blocking the Saracens chasers; on this occasion Billy Vunipola was prevented from chasing the ball as 2 Munster men moved line slightly to block his path; perfectly legal and perfectly effective.
I’d say a feature of the 1st half was that the Munster forwards were quicker around the pitch and moving in numbers One thing that was regrettable was to see Paul O’Connell, an immense player, have a big go at the referee on a decision he made from a lineout; I imagine he forgot he’s no longer captain. The majority of the rugby was played in the Saracens half ; I’d say Alex Goode was lucky at one point when Conway went up for a high cross field kick; looking at the replay Goode seemed to go for the man not the ball. The kick was speculative as a penalty was on its way; Keatley was successful this time.
The emphasis on forwards play and strong defence continued in the 1st half; Farrell perhaps showed his lack of match fitness hooking one very kickable penalty. Saracens were awarded a further penalty; one the home fans disagreed with; but they were still totally silent for the kick; Farrell slotted this one over the posts and the teams went in at 3 apiece.
I was sat with a couple of fellow Saracens fans and we all felt that an error would decide the game; the 1st half was attritional; neither team, in spite of their speedy back lines, had really looked like scoring a try. Saracens seemed to come out after half time with a renewed vigour and looked the team most likely to score. That ‘error’ however came as replacement prop, Rhys Gill, had what can only be described as a moment of madness 51 minutes into the game. Lifting a man above the horizontal with your hands between his legs is never going to end well, and I have to say Mr Dallaglio, intentional or not that is a card all day long! Had CJ Stander not landed on another man he could have been badly injured; at the risk of upsetting Saracens fans Gill was lucky not to see red!
Any advantage Saracens had gained walked off into the sin bin and Munster went ahead as Keatley converted a penalty minutes later. It was felt by the Munster crowd that Saracens were wasting time while they were a man down; nothing any other team including their own wouldn’t do I’m sure. Munster however didn’t waste their one man advantage; it wasn’t to be one of their stunning backs who scored the only try of the game. Conway thought he’d scored and watching it on the TV it did look as of he had! No idea why it wasn’t given!
The try did however come straight after as Dave Kilcoyne with what must have been his 1st touch of the ball touched down s Munster rolled over the line form the lineout. Keatley missed what was a hard conversion.
Munster had scored 8 points while Gill was absent; Keatley added to his own tally by adding a drop goal to his 2 penalties. It was to be a gap Saracens couldn’t close; they weren’t able to score another point; as well as giving the obvious one man advantage I’d say the card really fired Munster up. They won a hard fought 4 points and prevented the visitors from taking a solitary point home with them. A good evening’s work for the men in red. I’d have to say that the kicking form of both number 10’s will be of concern to both teams. Saracens will put the loss behind them, lay no blame and look to the next round away to Sale; there is still a lot to play for but it’s going to be an uphill battle for them.