I was at a networking drinks event a few years ago where former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers was the guest speaker. Speaking afterwards, I asked him what his favourite ground was and he replied without hesitation – Thomond Park (home of Munster rugby). I messaged a few friends that evening to say we needed to make a trip to Limerick!
When Francois Pienaar, another former Springbok captain, hung up his international boots he moved over to play for Saracens. Saracens has been home to many Saffas over the years, including players, coaches and administrators, and I’ve been following them since moving to the UK. With Biggs living near Allianz Park, we’ve been to many domestic and European games together and I’ve also seen them win two of their 3 European cups – the first at Murrayfield in 2016, when they defended their European crown, and the 2nd at St James’ Park in Newcastle in 2019.
It’s taken a few years for the stars to align but they did this season and Darragh was quick to message me back in August when the 2019-2020 fixtures were announced. Darragh and I met travelling in 2011 and we enjoyed an unbelievable three months together exploring India and trekking in Nepal. We’ve seen each other a few times since and on all but one occasion (my wedding!), it’s been rugby related – Springbok end-of-year games against Ireland in 2012 and 2014 and the 2019 Pro 14 final in Glasgow where Leinster won their sixth title.
By early September Darragh, who lives 90 minutes from Limerick in Tralee – the county town of County Kerry, had secured us tickets and just a few days after that I booked my flights to Kerry! The Kerry airport makes PE look like Heathrow and that first pint of Guinness in one of TraLee’s local pubs was absolutely marvelous as Darragh and I caught up.
Darragh had a surprise planned as we made our way to see local Irish comedian / musician David O’Doherty at the Siamsa Tire theatre (home to the National Folk Centre of Ireland). He was phenomenal! From there we visited a few more of Darragh’s local pubs, ending up at the last-closing Henessy’s, and we both felt a little worse for wear running for our Limerick bus the next morning.
It was a beautifully sunny winter’s day and a grand bus ride to Limerick through tiny towns and alongside lush rolling hills. Arriving just as Leinster kicked off against the Saints, we made our way to Flanerry’s to watch the game. It was an entertaining and free-flowing game, which we enjoyed over our much needed burgers and wings. Darragh was delighted with the win and despite Saracens leaving a number of English stars at home, we were looking forward to a similarly cracking game later that afternoon.
We enjoyed another pint of deliciously smooth Guinness at a different bar in town before heading for the stadium – no more than a 15 minute walk. It was a mild and pleasant afternoon, bearing in mind this was Ireland in December, and there was a fantastic atmosphere just outside the stadium with the many bars all full, live music and some delicious food stalls about.
The atmosphere was amazing inside the stadium as kick-off approached and the hosts and two-time European champions started well. Despite a dominant first quarter, however, Saracens remained solid in defense and Munster could only came away with a penalty from flyhalf JJ Hanrahan. They continued playing deep in Sarries’s half, which thankfully was our end of the ground, and after building through a number of phases, captain and talisman Peter O’Mahony dived through a gap to dot the ball down at full stretch. The stadium erupted!
Saracens pulled three points back before the break (scrumhalf Spencer slotting only 1 from 3 in the swirling wind) and it ended 10 -3.
Unfortunately it was a forgettable second half as the weather turned. A swirling wind and driving rain meant neither side added anything to the scoreboard after the restart. As the clock went red, Munster kicked the ball out thinking they had sealed victory, but Arno Botha was given a last-minute red card for an forearm to the throat of Nick Tompkins. Saracens were still in it and it was set up for one final line-out. Munster were not to be denied, however, stealing the throw-in and closing out the game.
The game was by no means a classic but regardless, it was amazing to experience a Munster win at Thomond Park and a cracking weekend with Darragh.