Thomond Park was more jammed that night than it ever has been since — they had to have a health and safety audit after that game, writes Ronan O’Gara.
Munster’s European meetings with Saracens have been few and far between — tomorrow’s is only the sixth encounter between them — but they’ve generally been memorable.
Some of the province’s seminal games have been against the English side, and they often represent a major clash of cultures.
When Munster and Saracens met for the first time 15 years ago, we were in underdogs territory; there wasn’t much history of Irish success in Europe, bar Ulster in 1999, and European rugby at that stage for us was a bit like a League of Ireland side playing one from the Premier League. Saracens were star-studded, featuring the likes of Francois Pienaar and Thierry Lacroix. We were excited about playing at Vicarage Road; we went to watch Watford play the day before, and playing on a soccer pitch was a novelty to us back then. It’s a better surface and it makes everything so much easier — no wonder it was such a high-scoring game.
We edged them 35-34, so they were gunning for us in Thomond. We’d done all the hard work, then they went the length of the field for a try. But Keith Wood got over and then I had the last kick to win it that just snuck in off the post for a 31-30 win. There are games that stay with you. Tomorrow’s will be the same for the current crop of players — it will define their season.
Thomond Park was more jammed that night than it ever has been since — they had to have a health and safety audit after that game. Old Thomond was a cold place, the concrete was damp but having so many standing made for a fantastic atmosphere. It was the little things — you’d have a ball dribbling into touch in the corner and the crowd are 30 people deep right back to the wall — they’re willing it to go over the line, that created a bit of messing in the crowd and made things more interesting for them. As a result, it was a more intimidating atmosphere to play.
That ongoing support is crucial to Munster’s well-being in a variety of ways. The province has a tradition of big attendances for one-off games against touring sides but for me the supporters really bonded with the team the day we won a semi-final against Toulouse down in Bordeaux in 2000.
We went on to lose the final, but the Munster fans stayed singing in the stadium long after the final whistle, whereas other teams might expect to get abused.
Munster haven’t won a European Cup since 2008 — yet I don’t think you can say the support for those big away games has waned. After what happened at Harlequins in 2013, when Munster fans snapped up far more tickets than they should have, Saracens will do their utmost to ensure it doesn’t happen again; hence they’re treating any enquiries from people with Irish accents suspiciously.
Look at the big European teams: traditionally Toulouse and Leicester have always had strong support, three of the Irish provinces have it and Connacht are getting there. Toulon have been very well supported lately. There’s a reason why these teams generally succeed, and it’s the biggest obstacle facing Racing Metro at the moment. People don’t always appreciate how important supporters are — if it’s a one-score game with 20 to go, the fans get you over the line.
If there’s no atmosphere it just doesn’t have that life-or-death feeling on the pitch and the opposition will thrive on that. You’d wonder how well-supported Saracens are. They have the fourth-highest average attendance in the Aviva Premiership but it’s swelled by the big one-off games they host at places like Wembley. They got almost 84,000 to a game there last year but the attendance at Allianz Park is usually around a tenth of that, and like the majority of English clubs, those figures are falling at the moment.
Nonetheless, they are an innovative club. Peter Stringer said one of the best things at Saracens was how well they treat their players — everything is catered for, and they go on team holidays. When you get things right off the pitch, it makes a big difference, and with an extra bolt of confidence, Saracens could be lethal. But despite lots of investment and a number of different approaches, ultimately they haven’t got what they’ve wanted in terms of silverware — just one Premiership title in 2011.
As a result, there’s no doubt Munster are the bigger name of the two in the Europe, but what makes this a 50/50 game is that Saracens have the bigger names — just like they did in 2000. That wasn’t the case in 2008 when we beat them in a semi-final at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry; we had won in 2006 and we always felt we were likely to beat whoever was put in front of us.
The current side don’t have that feeling of invincibility, but it’s what they’re striving for. Munster still have a majority of players who feel extremely passionate about representing their people — how many of those will there be in the Saracens dressing room tomorrow? Professionalism is changing the game every year, but Munster’s core values remain the same.
Saracens have expanded their game in recent months but there’s a myth that they are an all-singing, all-dancing side — their 10-12-13 axis isn’t the most creative you’ve seen. Whereas Bath are an attack-oriented side — how many points would they score on a 4G surface every week? — Saracens are pressure-orientated. They’ll be happy to play kick-tennis and keep the ball in the right areas of the pitch, hoping Munster will get bored, make a mistake or make a poor decision. It’s off such turnovers they can be deadly, and they will look to put Chris Ashton, Alex Goode or David Strettle into a one-v-one scenario where they can strike. Munster must counter that with accuracy — they’ll have to kick well, keep the turnovers low and the discipline intact, but their discipline is usually good.
What also gives me confidence is it’s basically cup rugby, do-or-die, and Munster are the best at that. If the game was played five times, Saracens could easily win three or four of them, but in a one-off shoot-out, Munster will come into their own. Deep down, Saracens know that. I also think Mark McCall’s men have lost a little bit of their edge — they don’t look as confident to me as they were at the start of the season. In the game at Thomond Park, Saracens looked for the first 50 minutes like the team that would win, but then Rhys Gill was sin-binned and they crumbled. Soft underbelly?
There will be a moment where both sides will look each other in the eye and one will blink. If Munster get in front, their opponents might fold, but if Saracens get a lead, Munster won’t. Even a team of Clermont’s quality couldn’t fully get away from them last time out. Munster are the terrier that bites.
They will do whatever it takes.
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