Alright on night as stadium finds voice – eventually
THIS wasn’t how we imagined it to be, not by any stretch. The new Thomond Park, the improved Thomond Park, the superb full-length space-age stands packed to the rafters with the red-shirted hordes, but — and this was always the biggest concern — would the old Thomond Park atmosphere still be there? The final answer is no, not quite, not yet.
Before the transformation from 20th-century 13,000-capacity relic to 21st century state-of-the-art stadium (capacity doubled), Thomond Park would be throbbing a full half an hour before kick-off, the terraces already packed and alive, all attention focused on the pitch. Not last night. A mere 15 minutes before kick-off, regular pre-game songstress Cara O’Sullivan was on her own in a sterling rendition of ‘There is an Isle’, the Shannon anthem and a Thomond Park favourite. “Ye’ll have to sing up lads!” she exhorted the crowd, as she launched into ‘The Fields of Athenry’, but still she sang solo.
As kick-off approached, however, things began to change, buzz increasing as the minutes counted down. In the usual Thomond Park tradition the home team got a good send-off after their warm-up was complete, and at 7.55pm, five minutes to kick-off, Cara finally got a bit of support, and even those in the 15,100 new seats were ready to ‘Stand Up and Fight’. The chant began, ‘Munster, Munster, Munster’, the anticipation was palpable. Montauban were first out, received the usual Thomond Park warm welcome, but then came Munster and now, for the first time, we got a taste of what this place is going to be like when it finally finds its voice. Thomond Park in the old days was loud, intimidating, but as Paul O’Connell led the troops onto the pitch, this was ear-splitting. A pause, while Garda Paul Flynn, who was on duty last week against Glasgow but died in a road-traffic accident during the week, was remembered, and the minute’s silence was impressive. By the time referee Wayne Barnes blew his whistle to signal the kick-off, however, much of the old energy was back.
Not everyone was in their places at the start, traffic congestion leading to huge problems in getting to the ground on time, but those who did were instantly into the game, and had to plenty to shout about in the opening minutes as Munster threatened on a couple of occasions. First blood, however, went to Montauban, and again, an old Thomond Park tradition was respected, total silence for kicker Petre Mitu, polite applause as the visitors went three points ahead. Mind you, and again in typical Thomond Park fashion, when the same man missed a much simpler opportunity five minutes later, that was greeted with even more enthusiastic applause.
The 22nd-minute gave the fans the first real opportunity to open their lungs, as new star Keith Earls finally saw open field, took off, and was only brought down by a last-ditch despairing tackle. A minute later we heard the first strains of The Fields from the crowd, but it was a watery effort, tentative, short-lived. At this stage, however, even though behind on the scoreboard, Munster were playing all the rugby. Dominating possession, their principal problem was that most of the rugby was being played inside their own half, Munster insisting on playing the ball through the hands even as some of the die hards in the stands implored them to kick for territory. The offload in the tackle was Munster’s weapon of choice, but it wasn’t really working, and wasn’t helped by a succession of unforced handling errors. It wasn’t helped either by the number of penalties conceded, even if referee Barnes won few friends for several of his decisions.
AS THE game wore on, the crowd did their best, but it was the 68th minute before The Fields really got an airing, supported all round the ground. At that stage, though, Munster were a mere two points ahead, 16-14, but they were deep in the red zone, well inside the Montauban 22, when yet again the whistle sounded, yet again Munster conceded a penalty. Not good. This wasn’t what the crowd had come to expect, this wasn’t the occasion they had anticipated, and as the minutes counted down to the final whistle, the boos began the dominate, the whistles, exasperation at the deliberate delays by the visitors at lineout time, but exasperation also at their own. And still, even the disastrous potentially match-winning penalty kick by Mitu was respected, silence given. Impressive. Who would have predicted, however, that it would all come down to a late Ronan O’Gara penalty to beat what had been seen as the whipping-boys of the group? A winning start for Munster in the latest Heineken Cup campaign, a winning start for the new Thomond Park, but surely there is better to come. Much better.
© This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, October 11, 2008