‘You want to play in the hardest places against the toughest opposition’

James Tracy has faced Munster five times in Thomond Park and the memories seem to have melded into some indistinguishable pool like steel in a furnace.

He has won three times in Limerick and lost twice. Two years ago he was part of a Leinster side that fell to their hosts in a bad-tempered game that saw the visitors lose Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong to the sinbin and James Lowe to a yellow card for an ill-timed aerial challenge.

This time last year he was part of a rugged defensive action that ground out a 13-6 win. That one brought to an end a run of 22 games without loss for Munster at their home ground and one that had started on the back of Leinster’s previous win there two years earlier.

“You learn a lot about yourself playing down there,” he said. “Each time presents its different challenges. You want to play in the hardest places against the toughest opposition and that’s definitely up there as one of the hardest places to go.”

Few players can benefit from an empty away ground so much as the travelling hooker but Tracy will tell you that he would much prefer the brickbats and banter from the terraces as he prepares to stand on the whiteash and launch another lineout throw.

Leinster's James Tracy and Alex Moon of the Northampton Saints after the weekend's Champions Cup clash. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Leinster’s James Tracy and Alex Moon of the Northampton Saints after the weekend’s Champions Cup clash. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

These are the days and the atmospheres that players live for and they are slipping through their fingers as Covid continues to barricade the gates. That bears mentioning, even if everyone realises how lucky they are just to be playing at all in the midst of a pandemic.

Crowds give sport life. They add colour to the lines drawn on the pitch and it was interesting to hear the Leinster man scroll all the way back to an all-but-forgotten ‘A’ game against Pontypridd at Sardis Road in 2014 when asked for an away day that still stands out.

A British & Irish Cup semi-final, it ended 22-apiece with a Leinster side boasting the likes of Tracy, Tadhg Furlong and Luke McGrath progressing to the decider after extra-time because they scored more tries. The 5,200 locals were left stunned, and none too pleased, and Tracy remembers it all too well.

“That was one of the craziest atmospheres I have ever played in. We were all fearing for our lives getting out of there. They are staunch rugby down there. That’s actually one that stands out. They ended up getting a draw out of the game. It was a ridiculous atmosphere.”

There was none to speak of when Munster saw off Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel Michelin last weekend but that’s not to say it wasn’t an away win to make Tracy sit up and take notice. He watched every minute of the come-from-behind win and was duly impressed.

This Saturday’s get-together will be diluted by the usual absence of front-line internationals on St Stephen’s Day but there is enough momentum on both sides and an abundance of youth and potential that has been bubbling to the surface to make this another interpro to cherish.

“They are definitely evolving, as we all are. Each year there is a young and exciting crop of young guys and they have a few new young guns in their pack and back line who are really solid but, luckily enough, we have one or two ourselves. We are all going in the right direction.”