Hugh Farrelly: Munster must be aware of san seb's sting
WHILE Toulouse is a city well worth seeing and a great night out, Munster fans got the better deal this weekend with the chance to check out San Sebastian.
Having had the pleasure of five days there in 2005 -- courtesy of the Basque Tourist Board -- in the build-up to the Biarritz-Munster quarter-final, it can be confirmed that this northern Spanish city ticks the relevant boxes.
If culture is your thing, San Seb has as much Basque architecture as you could desire; churches, cobbled streets, music, all that jazz.
If the 'old doll' wants to do a bit of shopping, there are plenty of boutiques to keep her happy and, although the forecast is for overcast weather, the city-centre beach is 'Baywatch' worthy, with a Rio de Janeiro-esque Jesus looking down, Mitch Bucannon-style, from an adjacent hill.
The nightlife is cracking also with more than enough hostelries to keep the florid flow of Brave and Faithful happy while the wines and restaurants are top quality.
Most supporters will inevitably gravitate towards the old part of the city -- a collection of ancient streets and laneways centred around a giant square once used as a venue for Spaniards to indulge their obsession for tormenting bulls.
Amid the surrounding warren of streets are at least 60 bars, the vast majority of them tapas bars serving Spanish delicacies (or 'pinxtos' as they are known locally), whose standouts include shrimp with egg and potato and croissant stuffed with pork meat (the Rolls Royce of sausage rolls).
A word of warning, however, based on an unfortunate incident five years ago. Irish people know the deal these days but, back in 2005, tapas were a largely unknown concept and, brought on a tour of the old part by our friendly cougar guide from the tourist board, the most vital piece of tapas-related information was not imparted: you have to pay for them.
Mistakenly assuming these trays of delicious tit-bits on the counters were to encourage drinking in the way Irish pubs use bowls of nuts or Tayto, we reacted the way Augustus Gloop did upon entering Willy Wonka's chocolate room.
Over 20 pinxtos were wolfed down in quick succession before a trip to the fresh air outside was required to relieve the pressure.
It was at this point that the hairy hand of the owner (a dead ringer for Rene in 'Allo 'Allo') clamped down and we were hauled back in and furiously informed that the feast we had just devoured was "no free, no free."
There followed a humiliating experience when an account of everything consumed had to be relayed to Rene who was totting up in his notepad.
Like a child picking sweets in the local shop ("Three of them, six of them, four of them ... "), the extent of the gluttony quickly became apparent and an attempt at lightening the mood ("and a Diet Coke") missed the mark completely.
The bill was finally paid and the owner returned behind his counter muttering under his breath what one can only assume was the Spanish for "fat b******d".
Tapas travails aside, the San Seb experience is one to be embraced and Munster bring a stronger squad than the one that was beaten 19-10 in 2005. There was no Ronan O'Gara that day, Paul Burke played in his place, and the bench included Scottish prop Gordon McIlwham and centre/wing Paul Devlin, who is now earning a wage with the Cornish Pirates.
Biarritz had an all-star back-row of Serge Betsen, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thomas Lievremont and players of the ability of Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Dupuy and current forwards coach Jean-Michel Gonzales on their bench.
The visitors have far more depth in their squad this time around -- as evidenced by the recent excellent victory by a second/third-string side in Connacht.
Munster justifiably go in as favourites but, with Dimitri Yachvilli in the Biarritz line-up (as he was five years ago), the same warning applies to Munster players as to their tapas-hunting supporters: you pay for your mistakes in San Seb.