Never mind the outcome, today’s Champions Cup clash between Saracens and Munster could be a red letter day for the province’s supporters regardless of whether their heroes win or lose, writes Simon Lewis.
With the Red Army converging on north London this lunchtime and possibly providing more than a third of the 10,000 capacity despite an official allocation of just 930 tickets, there promises to be another chapter written into Munster rugby folklore as Irish supporters prove once again they hold a unique place in the fabric of the European competition.
They have been turning out in droves for years, during the years of hope before that first Heineken Cup victory in Cardiff in 2006, through the glories of a second success two years later and continuing on relentlessly despite the rise of arch rivals Leinster and latterly Toulon.
It is a very different landscape in European club rugby these days, with Munster struggling to hold their heads above water in relation to the free-spending French and English giants, but the level of support the team continues to attract to away fixtures remains one of the few constants. And a short hop over the water to London this weekend provides another opportunity for rugby’s bigwigs to appreciate just exactly how important such spectator participation is to their tournament amid the multi-million euro team budgets and TV deals.
Munster seem to get it if their contemporaries at big-money clubs such as Saracens do not and, as Jay Briganti, one of the founding members of the London branch of the Munster Rugby Supporters Club (MRSC), told The Irish Examiner this week, it is hard to imagine another club willing to let their head coach attend a supporters’ event for a question and answer session the night before a big game as Anthony Foley was allowed to do last night at the Temple Walkabout pub in central London.
More than 300 supporters were expected to attend last night’s function and more again will pile into rugby clubhouses close to Allianz Park at Mill Hill and Hendon before and after today’s game as the London Branch does its level best to accommodate the influx of supporters from home.
“Having Axel there was massive,” exiled Limerickman Briganti said of the Q&A. “I’m not sure how many other club s in the world would make their head coach available to fans on the eve of the game. It makes it quite a special event. Before the quarter-final (at Harlequins in 2013) we had (then head coach) Rob Penney and Doug Howleltt.
“And they were under a lot of pressure at the time. There’s not too many clubs that would give their fans such direct access to such high-profile members of the management and playing staff so close to a key match. And the pressure’s on again for us this weekend, it’s do or die for us, so it’s greatly appreciated.”
Dooradoyle native and Garryowen clubman Briganti echoes many Munster supporters when he speaks about the two-way street that operates between the squad and fans of the province.
“It is a close relationship with the team and the players always take the time to interact and I think that’s why the fans continue to support them in such high numbers. The players tell us they feed off the crowd when they’re away and people travel because they probably feel they can influence things a bit and dilute a little bit of home advantage.
“People spend a lot of time and money getting to games and it’s because it matters to them and as a consequence it probably does help the players get off the ground a little bit faster.
“We’re up against teams with bigger budgets, big names, like Saracens this weekend, they have an England No.8 and 10 and other English stars scattered around, a big South African contingent. These are people they want to see as well and it’s great to see Munster lads and Irish lads, maybe guys we grew up with, compete against them.
“We don’t have a lot of sports like that in Ireland with that international focus. And it’s great to feel as a fan that we can play a part in it, be a part of the occasion.”
Munster supporters, of course, have been part of the occasion since the early days of the Heineken Cup, when tickets weren’t so scarce.
MRSC secretary Ian Buckley recollection of one such trip stands out to this day as his most memorable. “It was actually one that we lost, when we were beaten by Stade Francais in Lille (in 2001),” Buckley said.
“Back then the travel options to Lille weren’t exactly spectacular and we even had a couple of lads, the Gleeson brothers, going on a yacht. They sailed their yacht from Foynes to France to get to Lille. And there were a couple of the Clohessy brothers, who were related to Peter Clohessy, who took the trip by motorbike.
” Those were the early days, the support wasn’t as big and tickets weren’t as hard to come by as they are now. It was fantastic, we were treated like kings by the French and even though we lost I came away with some fantastic memories.”
By the mid-2000s, the demand for tickets required some ingenuity in procuring them for foreign fields and Buckley said: “There’s a guy called Rory McCann, who’s a member of the supporters club who happened to be on holidays in Biarritz in 2006 when the Heineken Cup final tickets went on sale and so we took more than our fair share.
“Rory put up a post on one of the fans’ web forums to say where he was and within 45 minutes he had Western Union money transfers going into his account. So he went to the stadium, joined the queue, bought some tickets then went away and got changed and went back for more. He kept putting on a different jumper or jacket and eventually came away with 126 tickets for the final. It’s things like that, that our members do.”
The London members have been doing their bit this week with Briganti saying the branch has been fielding 60 e-mails a day over the last couple of weeks from people looking for tickets.
“Not bad for a group that started when 25 lads met in a Blackfriars Irish club five years ago looking for a pub that would devote a TV screen to Munster rather than Premier League football.
They now have an e-mail distribution list of just under 1000 and three official pubs, in north, central and south London as well as organising transport to away games.
The Harlequins game two seasons ago was what Briganti described as the “perfect storm” for Munster fans, who managed to procure tickets throughout the Stoop and turn an English ground red on a momentous day for the province. A similar outcome today would prove there’s still plenty of life in the province yet, on and off the pitch.
Red Army defy Sarries’ warnings
Munster will be backed by more than 2,000 fans today (1pm) for their do-or-die Champions Cup pool game at Saracens, with many more having travelled to London without tickets, according to the official supporters club.
The faithful will gather in numbers inside Allianz Park, despite the best efforts of Saracens to limit away fans inside their 10,000-capacity arena.
Munster’s official ticket allocation for the penultimate Pool 1 fixture is 930. Munster Ticket Operations manager and supporters club organiser Jennifer Kiernan told the Irish Examiner that “every single one of them” was quickly taken up, while many more were purchased directly from Saracens, despite the club warning on its website that callers looking for general sale tickets “with an Irish accent” would be “treated with suspicion”.
Munster Rugby Supporters Club London branch member Jay Briganti called that statement “a bit crass” and suggested it belied the term “general sale” for match tickets. Yet the Limerick man predicted Munster’s support would exceed even the home club’s estimates.
“Sarries themselves think there’s going to be around 2,000 Munster fans and we think there’ll be more,” Briganti said, suggesting the figure could be anything from 2,600 to 4,000.
The London branch held a supporters event in central London last night, with the centrepiece a Q&A session with head coach Foley. Fans with spare tickets were asked to bring them along for distribution to the large number of people travelling over from Ireland without them.
Others, however, have decided to stay away following their experience in a pool match in December, 2013 when Saracens were playing at Watford’s Vicarage Road. Munster supporters were left with a sour taste, not just because of a 19-13 defeat but blatant attempts of the home club to drown out their singing of “The Fields of Athenry” and other chants with a booming public address system.
“A lot of our people were very annoyed by that last time and some don’t really want to spend their money in Saracens on Saturday,” Briganti said, adding that the London branch had organised events for Munster supporters in clubhouses at Mill Hill and Hendon rugby clubs, close to Saracens’ Allianz Park ground.
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