Sunday 21 January 2018

Plenty to smile about despite loss

History can repeat itself and Munster will learn from Saracens defeat

Keith Earls battles a shower of hailstones. Photo: Sportsfile
Keith Earls battles a shower of hailstones. Photo: Sportsfile
CJ Stander sees the funny side of things at training this week. Photo: Sportsfile

David Wallace

What a weekend that was! It was a tough one for the Irish teams, and especially Munster who fought so bravely against the reigning English and European champions Saracens, but ultimately Rassie Erasmus' side lost out against a more experienced unit.

It's a learning process and that Munster team will move on to bigger and better things in the future. It was like something from the early 2000s when I was involved, and Munster lost some big games in the European Cup back then.

My lasting memory of those games was the crowd, and the brilliant atmosphere that followed us everywhere we went in Europe. All of that was back in Aviva Stadium on Saturday. And it was amazing to watch and experience it again, from the other side of the fence.

I went there with my family and I just thought it was an incredible occasion to be a part of. The support was 99 per cent Munster up there, and the atmosphere that was created was special to behold.

You could even see that the Saracens players were taken aback by it. When Billy Vunipola ran out and there was a big wide smile on his face. Those big players love playing in the biggest games like that, and they appreciated that atmosphere.

That's what Irish teams bring to European competition, no matter who's involved. They bring the colour and support. It's important to have at least one of them there when it comes to the latter stages of these big tournaments.

The near 50,000 attendance eclipsed both semi-finals put together from last year's Champions Cup. It shows you the power of the Irish support and their love affair with the competition.

You'd imagine the EPCR can only be delighted when they see two Irish teams involved in the final four, and Clermont are another one of those teams that brings the big party atmosphere with them.

But it was a sea of red in the Aviva. It was my first time enjoying a big match like that with my two boys, Andrew and Harvey, and my wife Aileen, outside of games in Thomond Park of course.

Strong I really thought the crowd was going to help Munster to get over the line in that game, but Saracens were such a strong outfit and they will be tough to beat in the final.

When it comes to those guys, you need about 20 men on the field when you're playing a team like Saracens, and this was very evident when they went down to 14 men they held their line well. They never seemed to lose their composure.

Looking forward, Munster have the two Guinness Pro12 games and then a home semi-final looks almost certain. Last weekend's game is going to stand them in great stead, as they are going to learn a huge amount playing against the European champions.

It's a big jump on the learning curve, and playing games like those highlights strengths and weaknesses like no other. They can be harsh lessons, but you learn where you need to improve and it's only good in the long run. The flip-side is the positives give you real confidence.

Saracens were the better team on the day, but Munster have matured immensely this season, but that's another big step for them. Saracens have evolved over a five- or six-year period, if not longer. They have made four semi-finals recently and they have a real maturity about them. Guys have grown together and it's a team at the peak of its powers.

This Munster team will do likewise in the next four of five years. I could see them turning into a Saracens, and getting to that level with their development.

Munster will bounce back this weekend against Treviso. Munster will look to better themselves again and that bodes very well for the last two games, into the semi-final and hopefully the final. The experience of playing Saracens could be the catalyst to help finish on a high with some silverware.

They have the potential to win the Pro12. If they get there, it will have been a phenomenal turnaround. This time last year, they were trying to get into that last six and secure a European spot. It's amazing how far they have come.

Irish Independent

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