There are two ways to treat a trip to Thomond Park: block out the Munster brand and the intimidation which goes with it. Or embrace and enjoy the "16th man" which is the crowd for big matches in Limerick. Even the All Blacks have been known to get the hurry-up there, but Northampton's England full-back, Ben Foden, thinks he's got it sussed. Going back there this week for his second visit of this season, Foden recalls being screamed at as "English scum" during his first visit with a lightness of spirit that silently adds "bring it on".
Northampton know they will be up against it in Saturday's quarter-final of the Heineken Cup; up against Munster's home advantage and history but also the enduringly odd and unbalanced factor in Europe that Irish provinces meet English clubs. It's the red jersey and "Irish by birth, Munster by the grace of God" versus the small-town fervour of the Saints and their loyal disciples. But results-wise this season they are dead level.
They met twice in the pool stage, with Saints winning narrowly at home, then earning a bonus point from a 12-9 defeat at Thomond to secure a return trip to Limerick in the last eight.
"Everyone talks about the 16th man being the crowd," says Foden, the 24-year-old whose first start for England was in similarly hostile surroundings in France two weeks ago, "and you go to Thomond Park and realise that's definitely what it is. As soon as any knock-ons or infringements come from you, the boos and hisses go up and influence the referee to blow his whistle a bit quicker.
"Or they're quiet when their team do a little bit of cheating and manage to get away with it because the referee doesn't want to annoy them."
Saturday's whistler will be Wales's Nigel Owens, who wrote in his autobiography about how much he enjoys Thomond Park. Well, he never had to catch a high ball there in the first minute. And talking of The Saturdays, that is a source of added "stick" for Foden: his girlfriend Una Healy, from the pop band, is a lady of solid Tipperary stock.
"I could hear the heckling while I was warming up," Foden recalls. "It was 'stop stealing our Irish girls' and 'English scum' and stuff like that. And I smile and they cheer and it's all good banter. I enjoy that intimidation, I relish the opportunity to score a try and put my hand to my ear and say: 'Who's shouting now?' It's what they want to see, a pantomime, having a hero and villain." He adds, with impressive optimism, that Una's mum and dad have been won round to supporting the Saints, but her sister Deirdre remains unpersuaded.
Almost everywhere on the pitch Munster have established stars knocking heads with Northampton's emerging team: Paul O'Connell versus Juandre Kruger; Doug Howlett v Chris Ashton; Jerry Flannery and John Hayes against Dylan Hartley and Soane Tonga'uiha. In the January match, Munster famously won a scrum against the head with O'Connell in the sin bin and Howlett in the pack; Northampton's coach, Jim Mallinder, says he was more annoyed by his team taking the subsequent line-out off the top instead of driving it. And this time, of course, it is win or bust.
"We'll benefit from having already been over there," says Mallinder. "Until you have gone through that ritual of leaving the hotel, and driving up to the ground, and running out for the first time for your warm-up, and being under the first high bomb – until you've actually experienced that, it's difficult.
"We're aware that we are taking on a brand, a whole area," he adds. "You really get that feeling that everyone is interested, from the staff at the hotel and the waitresses in the bars, they're all Munster through and through. We're not worried, we're excited about it."
Foden draws inspiration from having helped England push the Grand Slam champions all the way in Paris. "Everybody said France would play this lovely game and smash the English and win by 20 points. We could have run away with that game if we'd taken our chances. This week it's ruthless and cut-throat: you're either out or you're in. Hopefully Munster will underestimate us a bit."Reuse content