Last Saturday evening I rebelled against my own common practise and went out to watch two important matches. Munster were opening their Heineken Cup account away to Northampton, while Ireland looked to cause a shock in their meeting with Italy in a bid to reach the World Cup finals in South Africa. It’s by no means unusual for me to observe ninety minutes of football in the surroundings of a pub, but Munster are the team closest to my heart and such is the emotional turmoil I endure during each game that I tend to confine my vantage point to my living room, Thomond Park or the Millenium Stadium. Past experience has imbedded in me a resentment for the ‘pub rugby fan’. As the rugby bandwagon only really took full swing in Ireland in the past 3/4 years many spectators are still completely ignorant of the rules of the sport and how it should be played, but that doesn’t stop them yelling their expert analysis so loudly at the screen that I can’t even hear Ryle Nugent’s poetic narration of proceedings.
Thankfully for me the Munster match was so entertaining I sank into my usual obsessive mindset and grew immune to the senseless outbursts around me. For eighty minutes Munster and Northampton battled valiantly with the momentum swaying throughout. While the prevailing emotion at the final whistle was disappointment I had to appreciate what both teams had offered up as a spectacle. Unlike most other Heineken Cup matches last weekend this game was played primarily with ball in hand and was ferociously physical.
Munster will rue momentary lapses which cost them dearly, the obvious example being Geraghty’s opportunistic try on the stroke of half time. Lifemi Mafi is known for putting in crunching hits but on Saturday his defensive frailties were all too obvious. In pursuit of a trademark dump tackle he sprang out of the defensive line too quickly exposing a gap which the inspired Geraghty was more than willing to exploit and suddenly Munster were 7 points more in arrears. Despite being totally outplayed in the game’s third quarter Munster rallied showing the resilience and character that has brought them so much success in seasons past. Mcgahan’s men came from 14 points down and reduced the margin to a single point. A Geraghty penalty on 74 minutes pushed the Saints four points ahead. As the clock entered the red Munster laid siege to the Northampton line, it would have been typical for the visitors to cross for the winning score but in the end the Guiness Premiership side held out for a victory that was most definitely hard-earned.
With the bitter taste of defeat still fresh I reluctantly turned my attention to Ireland vs. Italy. Irish football has been so tortuously lacking in quality and entertainment over the past number of years that any time I do watch the team it’s out of a sense of obligation rather than genuine interest. It was a pleasant surprise to see Trapattoni’s boys actually play with some purpose and direction. When Glen Whelan fired a beauty past Buffon eight minutes in I knew I wasn’t in store for the usual borefest. If Ireland’s level of desire was a surprise, their inability to close out the match was anything but. When St. Ledger guided Hunt’s free kick into the net in the 87th minute my initial joy quickly subsided to dread, now we had something to lose and we were inevitably going to lose it. It pains me to think how we could have been caught on the counter attack in injury time when we were leading against the world champions. Gilardino couldn’t believe his luck when the ball fell to him unmarked six yards out and did the needful to break Irish hearts, or at least those who thought we’d actually hang on to win.
So there you have it, two fantastically entertaining matches both ending in utter heartbreak. It nearly makes me want to be neutral and just enjoy watching such thrilling sporting occasions without the emotional invesment…..never going to happen!!