Love them or loathe them, Saracens have played a big part in Munster’s celebrated European journey. Next Saturday’s pool outing in Limerick is the 10th meeting of the two sides in European competition. Last weekend marked the 20th anniversary of their first meeting,a famous victory that, for me, launched Munster’s bid to become a real force in the captivating new arena of European rugby.
Right now Munster hold sway in the collective head-to-heads with five wins and four defeats, but the balance of power has shifted noticeably with Saracens winning four of the last five. The two most recent defeats have been at the semi-final stage of the Champions Cup, each by a margin of 16 points.
The relationship between the two clubs took a turn for the worse after the pool game at Vicarage Road in December 2012 when the hosts deliberately blasted loud music over the public address system every time there was a break in play to drown out the singing of the large contingent of travelling Munster supporters. Childish in the extreme, it was not well received.
As a consequence, when Saracens bagged a comprehensive 30-10 at their new home at Allianz Park in January 2015, a number of diehard Munster supporters refused to travel. Others declined to socialise in Saracens’ new surroundings, with the London branch of the Munster supporters’ club decamping to a nearby GAA club for their post match refreshments.
I’m not so sure that Saracens, with their deep pockets, were too worried about the loss of revenue as a consequence of that boycott. As we’ve subsequently discovered, they didn’t need the money.
When the story of Munster’s relentless drive for European success was penned after that memorable 2006 final win over Biarritz — their fall from grace a reminder to all of the perilous state of the professional game — Saracens were central to the story.
Irish rugby was in a pretty delicate position after losing to Argentina at the 1999 World Cup when Munster rocked up at the home of Watford FC at Vicarage Road for the first meeting of the teams, a month after that damaging defeat in Lens. Warren Gatland and I, still bruised from our World Cup experience as coach and manager respectively, travelled to London hoping Munster might lead the way in getting Irish rugby back on track.
Declan Kidney’s men faced a difficult task that day against a powerful Saracens pack full of quality internationals, including five current or future British and Irish Lions in Julian White, Scott Murray, Danny Grewcock, Tony Diprose andRichard Hill. A sixth Lion, Paul Wallace, had to content himself with a place on the bench.
Add in future England hooker George Chuter, grizzled Argentine loose head prop Roberto Grau and iconic 1995 South African World Cup winning captain Francois Pienaar and one of the best forward units in the entire tournament was in action.
About 300 Munster supporters made the trip, the biggest at an away match to that point. There was no need for the public address system to drown out the Munster singing. There wasn’t any. Munster recorded their first ever Heineken Cup win on English soil that day in are markable match.
Saracens thought they had the game in the bag, leading 18-3 early on, 21-9 at half-time and 34-23 with 8 minutes left. They were so smug, they substituted a number of key forward early in the second half with the busy fixture schedule in the Premiership over the festive period in mind.
That decision backfired spectacularly, with Munster refusing to throw in the towel. When Anthony Foley scored a try to close the gap to six points, Munster smelt blood. With two minutes left, Jeremy Staunton scored another.
Ronan O Gara’s conversion completed the job and, somehow, Munster delivered a famous 34-35 victory. That changed everything. On the final whistle, Gatland sprinted for a taxi to Heathrow Airport to catch a flight back to New Zealand for an early Christmas break. I committed to keeping the home fires burning in his absence, starting with a visit to a delirious Munster dressing room.
As I entered, the players and management were just about to gather, locked together in a big circle in the middle of the room. Brian O’Brien, that great Shannon stalwart and Munster manager at the time, started to belt out a song that wasn’t instantly familiar.
“Thanks a lot, I’m sure glad to be, to be where I can see, so many friends of mine”. God, an operatic song. Where’s Brian’o going with this? The lads didn’t even know the words. Then, once the chorus started, it all kicked off.
Every player belted out the chorus, jumping up and down in unison. Suddenly it all began to make sense. The words couldn’t have been more apt. From that point the legend grew, even if it was still several years before the tune borrowed from the opera Carmen overtook the ‘Field’s of Athenry’ as Munster’s anthem.
When Munster followed up that success two weeks later with an equally significant 15-31 away win against Colomiers to register their European first win in France, their confidence grew to new levels.
Repeating the dose in the new year against a Saracens’ side, who had now been forewarned of the Munster threat, even in Thomond Park, would be equally challenging, despite those heroics in France. Saracens were a far better side than Colomiers and had no inhibitions travelling to Limerick.
At that stage, in an effort to jazz things up when playing at Vicarage Road, Saracens had a few glitzy additions of their own including a remote controlled car that brought the kicking tee onto the field, pom pom waving majorettes on the sidelines and fans that wore Fez hats and shook their outstretched hands every time they had a kick at goal. It all struck me at the time as a bit false.
Pienaar was one of the most recognised and respected figures in the professional game at the time. His place in history was secured by the manner with which he led South Africa to that 1995 World Cup in his native country and by his intimate relationship with Nelson Mandela.
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When O’Gara, his head swathed in bandages, landed a glorious touchline conversion with the last kick of the game to beat Saracens, once again by a single point 31-30, the old Thomond rocked. A few minutes later the crowd stood respectfully and clapped Pienaar and his men off the pitch up the narrow open steps that led to the dressing rooms.
At the top of the steps, the former Springbok captain stood for a second to take it all in. He was captivated by his surroundings, something he spoke about afterwards. “This place is special. There is nothing manufactured here, just fanatical support for their team and respect for the opposition”.
His sentiments got traction and the aura surrounding games in Thomond Park took off in earnest. When someone of Pienaar’s stature spoke with such passion and feeling about the place, other teams began to take notice.
Twelve years later the Saracens hierarchy, no doubt influenced by their surroundings that day in Limerick, felt the need to suppress the Munster support in Vicarage Road that day in 2012 but went about it the wrong way. Munster fans tend not to forget.
Since then other clubs, especially in England, appeared to turn against Saracens as they built an all-powerful squad that began to dominate on the domestic and European fronts. For many in England, the recent fine and points deduction in the Gallagher Premiership represents some form of poetic justice.
Saracens, having accepted their fate, are ready to move on. Rumour has it Mark McCall will send a powerful team to Limerick on Saturday. We will see. If they win, then retaining the Champions Cup, and with it their place in next seasons tournament will become the priority. Despite that 35 point handicap, they will not be relegated from the Premiership.
Lose and Saracens might well concentrate on qualifying for next year’s European tournament by finishing in the top six of their domestic competition. That’s why every serious contender for European honours this year will be praying for the Thomond roar to reverberate around the famous stadium once again on the final whistle.