Ghosts of Munster
Dean Ryan compares Northampton's defeat to Munster to the time he went there with Gloucester.
Last Updated: 21/11/11 9:04am
I had the opportunity to return to the famous Thomond Park, home of Munster rugby on Saturday as part of Sky's broadcast team covering the Munster v Northampton fixture.
It was my first chance to come back since the ground had gone through extensive rebuilding and I was keen to see if the modern day facilities had eroded the venue of any of its history.
In recent years Northampton have had a similar relationship with Munster as the Gloucester team of 2002 vintage did in their many Heineken fixtures, with the Irish club being one of the most difficult teams in Europe to triumph over in a pool stage.
Last year being the only year since 1998 that they haven't progressed to the knockout stages being testimony to that.
But it was the headlines in Sunday's papers that brought a comparison I wasn't expecting.
To see the papers leading with "another miracle match" after Ronan O'Gara's injury time drop goal gave Munster a 23-21 victory it brought back many memories of what it felt like to be part of the "other miracle".
I was part of the coaching team in 2002 with Nigel Melville that took a Gloucester side to Limerick. Riding high in the Premiership and topping our pool after a comprehensive 35-16 victory against Munster at Kingsholm, we were in confident mood.
My only experience of Thomond Park prior to this had been a regional warm up for London many years before and like many others we had no experience to draw on for what was to come.
We were staying in the middle of Limerick, it is often the tactic of travelling teams to immerse themselves in the centre of passionate supporters in an attempt to dilute those first few moments of arrival at the ground.
We also chose on the morning of the game to travel to the ground for a walk though for the same reasons to create a familiarity with the surroundings so that we could focus without distraction come kick off on the rugby.
Now Thomond Park of 2002 had none of the imposing stands that now frame either side of the pitch but was a stadium of one stand and concrete terracing on the remaining three. It had an air of being slightly run down with a low lying mist adding to the air of menace and of past triumphs against great touring All Black sides that had fallen here.
The concrete terracing backed onto a local housing estate and any attempt to retrieve balls left the fetcher under no illusion what the local kids thought about his parentage.
Facts and fiction
The news had also broken around town that a local Taxi driver had "found" in the back of his cab our game plan notes. The local radio was alive with the story that a member of our support staff had been on his way home in the early hours and had dropped them in the cab.
Now this is where the best stories have no responsibility to resemble the truth.
Firstly, the notes in question were an aide-memoire summarising things that had been talked about all week and fairly useless in opposition hands, and secondly that due to our portable printer being out of action we had printed the notes on the hotel's.
It didn't take much to realise that somebody within the hotel had thought that they had stumbled on the golden key to victory for Munster and just had to get the relevant sheets into the right hands.
It also didn't stop the search for the mystery member of the support staff who had been out all hours. Many men were accused of guilt over the coming months and years as the story grew.
Our pre-game preparations went as normal with our big game players who had played in some of the biggest arenas around the world were relishing the up coming contest.
Going into the game that was the final pool match everybody knew exactly what was required to qualify.
Nothing could prepare us for the wall of noise that met us onto the pitch the sound of "The Fields of Athenry" had reached a level of noise never experienced in any other stadium.
It was simple for us, win or not lose by more than 27 points and four tries, and that is where the first problems started. It was almost possible to escape the media hype of you only "have to lose by less than". Our normal attacking approach had been punctured by a hesitancy that we had never had to deal with before.
It seems straightforward to follow the same approach and keep attacking that had served us so well previously, but normal areas of strength had deserted us. Our lineout was under enormous pressure forcing us to play with poor quality ball leading to the thunderous collisions by an Anthony Foley inspired back row forcing us onto the back foot.
The "Garryowen's " hoisted by Ronan O'Gara high into the air gave our inexperienced selection at fullback Henry Paul little chance. Every tackle every mistake seemed to raise the volume level another notch.
The atmosphere reached fever pitch as the game reached its conclusion. Time was up, final lineout around the 22 and Munster drove at the heart of our defence the maul growing in numbers as three quarters desperate to play a part joined in. The noise now was incredible as Munster's 16th man added his weight, with the inevitable score by John Kelly and O'Gara conversion giving Munster a 33-6 injury time victory. You can do the maths!
Now there are many comparisons with the 2002 match and Saturday's game with Northampton.
1.Thomond Park and Munster supporters are still a special European combination capable of willing their side onto great things.
2. Paul O'Connell still defies all logic in recognising when he is beaten.
3. There is nobody better than Ronan O'Gara to close out in the final moments
But this Munster side is now a side in transition with a back line struggling to match the quality of the past. In the absence of Keith Earls only Dougie Howlett seems to be able to defy age and provide the necessary spark.
In the back row the suffocating intensity that Foley and co. could create on an opposition breakdown is no longer there giving the likes of Ryan Lamb who I thought stepped up a notch at this level, the chance to play with quick ball releasing the pace and threat of Foden and Ashton.
Finally the scrum where the acquisition of B J Botha over the summer looked like a shrewd move, but even he had a torrid day against this Northampton scrum that has become a formidable force, highlighting Munster's lack of depth when Hayes was easily dispatched late on.
Now Munster are masters at getting through the pool stages, understanding that on occasions when losing that the bonus point will suffice only to return the following week galvanised to claim all four points, they will be very aware of how difficult Franklins Gardens will be in the last fixture.
But for my final comparison, there has only been one "Miracle" and that wasn't the one in 2002 where we were soundly beaten by a side that emerged to dominate Europe over the coming years, but that Munster were able to somehow claim a victory against a side that eclipsed them in just about every area.
The final five minutes were only memorable for the clarity of thinking by O'Gara but not for the lack of officiating. There is a common theme within refereeing that they are reluctant to decide a game in the final moments with a penalty but, as on Saturday, aren't they doing just that by not!
I get the feeling that this Northampton side fuelled by their failure to land last years Heineken Cup and add to that a feeling of injustice from this game may just be the real deal this time around.