Munster giants mingle with fans as they head for Marseilles
MUNSTER rugby fans were allowed to mingle with their heroes before they jetted off on a packed flight to Marseilles ahead of tomorrow's semi-final Heineken Cup clash.
The team gathered at Shannon Airport yesterday afternoon and received a fitting send-off from avid supporters who will watch from the stands as they battle Toulon for a spot in the final.
Direct flights to Marseilles in the south of France were fully booked but determined fans boarded several other flights to Paris, Poitiers and London where they hoped to catch onward flights and train services.
Father of Munster out-half Ian Keatley made the journey from Sutton, Co Dublin, with his wife Barbara and daughter Naomi.
"We left home early this morning with the Munster flags flying out the window and on the lawn," said Paul Keatley. "There's a bit of banter around the Munster and Leinster rivalry but now that Leinster are out of the competition, they are fully behind us."
Shannon Airport Authority chairwoman Rose Hynes said she witnessed the "special bond" the team had with its fans. "When you see the players here today chatting so easily with fans and getting photographs taken before the biggest game of the year, you really understand the special bond between Munster and their supporters," she said.
"There's hardly another professional sport in the world where the players have that type of interaction with their fans."
Ger Fitzpatrick (14), from Co Limerick, said that getting the chance to watch the game was "the biggest treat ever".
"I've been to Thomond for a good few games but this is the biggest treat ever. And to meet the players here is incredible," he said.
"They are so relaxed and friendly. Paul O'Connell stood in for a photo and signed my jersey. All I need now is for Munster to win on Sunday and it's the perfect weekend."
The clash between Munster and Toulon takes place at the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles at 3.30pm tomorrow.
Up to 8,000 members of Munster's Red Army are expected at the match, with many paying as much as €1,000 each to get there. Some 4,000 match tickets were scooped up in Munster alone with a further 1,000 fans acquiring theirs as part of match packages that include flights and a hotel stay.
A large Irish population in France and other parts of Europe have purchased tickets directly from Toulon Rugby and other sources.
Several charter flights will depart from Shannon and Cork tomorrow and will return after the match.