By Chris Gleadell
January 29 2010
Well what a grand weekend out in Limerick that turned out to be. Maybe we didn't exactly get the victory in the clash with Munster but even that all panned out for the better as the weekend progressed.
I will not dwell too much on the intricacies of the game suffice to say we did much better than just about everyone outside the club expected us to do. But for a couple of inches after Dylan Hartley's charge down we may well have come away with a famous victory but overall I would say we were the better side on the night whatever the scoreboard said. At times our scrum dominated proceedings whilst we also made their much vaunted lineout look shaky too on occasion.
Our backs maybe did not get the space or time they have had of late but then neither did Munster's to any great extent as defences dominated. And when all is said and done it was probably the home side's defence that edged it for them. The turning point was of course the sin binning of the Munster skipper Paul O'Connell. At that stage of the game we had them under the cosh and pinned back and after one encroachment too many O'Connell found himself warming his heels, and practising a few grimaces, for ten minutes.
An already dominant scrum with a man advantage, surely now was the time to go in for the kill and drive them over the last few metres to their line. Well in theory yes but then the Thomond factor kicked in. For all we had heard about the atmosphere at Thomond Park it had been somewhat muted up till that moment, possibly on the back of Saints efforts on the pitch, but with Northampton bearing down on the Munster line something clicked in. All of a sudden the crowd raised their volume and intensity by another 50% and what remained of the Munster pack fed off it to grind their way back and clear their lines.
For a few minutes that unsettled Saints culminating in a penalty for the home side and O'Connell returned to the fray with his side three points to the better when ten minutes earlier his carding looked all but the death knell to his side.
Saints regained composure got one more penalty of their own and ended the game with that all important bonus point in the bag. Maybe not the win but Munster knew they had been in a game and might count themselves lucky on the day. Certainly they will not be looking forward to the Saints returning in April for the quarter final. For us well a return to Thomond Park now knows little if no fear. The pressure will certainly be on Munster next time round especially when you consider we had just that five day turnaround before this encounter.
As always with these European trips it was the mother of all social occasions too.
Arriving in Limerick on the train from Dublin on Thursday there was already a fair smattering of Saints supporters in town and by kick-off this number had swelled to well over a thousand. On O'Connell Street by Saturday morning just about every other person appeared to have Saints colours on.
Mix this in with a city that is Heineken Cup rugby mad and you have a fine blend. You could not get far in those Saints colours with a local stopping you to shake hands and talk about the game or a passing car tooting its horn with a wave from the driver and occupants. Limerick might get a bad press for unrelated matters but it has to be the friendliest place we have been in the Heineken and I would not let any of the scaremongers, most who have never been anywhere near the city, putting anyone off from going out in April. Yes there was a high profile incident in the city on Friday but as this involves two feuding families and ‘civilians' are not involved then it should not worry you. In fact I felt far safer walking the streets of limerick, even in the early hours, than I have in some other places we have visited in the past.
We made one of the many Flannery's bars our base for the weekend and were treated like old friends on every visit but on visiting another bar on Thursday evening the first person that approached us had a bible in his hand. I thought oh no someone is trying to convert us but no it a guy of around 80 informing us his son had managed to secure him a ticket (as many others had) from the Saints allocation. He said he was just off to mass and he would say a prayer for us in gratitude. I jokingly said can you ask the big man upstairs for at least a bonus point. Half an hour later he was back informing said prayer was performed and how it all panned out it seems that God might move in mysterious ways after all.
At the game itself there were more handshakes, pats on the back and shared drinks and singing long into the night. Shirts and other bit and pieces were exchanged, I somehow came home with an eight foot square Munster flag and there were more than a few sore heads around town the following morning.
On reflection however for our group of around ten or so friends the best part of the weekend was on the Saturday evening. Opting to go and watch the UL Bohemians v Shannon RFC game in the peasouper fog at Thomond Park in the afternoon we found ourselves in the Curragower bar on the banks of the Shannon river watching the London Irish v Leinster game joined by a few of the Bohemians crowd. Now Leinster and Munster are the fiercest of rivals but as the game progressed with its many twists and turns as the banter built up just about everyone in the bar, including it has to be said at least one employee of Munster Rugby, switched allegiances and began cheering for Saints best option. When the deciding drop goal went over the whole place erupted and when the final whistle went as all of us Northampton followers sat there shell shocked at our great escape all the locals burst into a spontaneous round of ‘When the Saints go marching in'. A truly great night that again went on longer than the night before.
So now all we have to do is do it all again in April. Demand is sure to be great and as I rebooked my room for the return on leaving on Monday the hotel had already fielded a lot of requests for accommodation so do not it late. We might pray for a different result in the rugby but if the social side is anything like we experienced last weekend I cannot wait to get back. April cannot come soon enough.