Munster are alive to fight in Europe another day, at the expense of provincial rivals Leinster. Hence when we scored the all important 4th try in the final pool game against Racing Metro, a chorus of “Alive alive oh” broke out, celebrating that fact and teasing the Leinster fans watching the game. As it was scored by Simon Zebo who scored three out of five tries in the game, his second hat-trick on the anniversary of his first (last seasons final pool game against Northampton) there were plenty of chants of “Zeee-bo, Zeee-bo” and there was a carnival atmosphere on the terrace. It was not like that all game, the first quarter was more memorable for errors than brilliance but given the weight of expectations on the players and the changing of the guard this season that was understandable.
The crowd came early to let the team know how much the game meant to them despite the early start and the bitingly cold wind. There was a great sense of anticipation on the terrace. The Racing Metro team were warming up near us and when practicing catching high kicks, they knew they were being watched as missed catches were greeted with delight while catches were also acknowledged in a teasing manner. The Munster team were cheered off the pitch after their warm-up.
A missed kick to touch and several early engagements on scrums stopped Munster gaining any early momentum. However, a red card in the fifth minute reduced Racing Metro to 14 men as their #6 knee’ed Tommy O’Donnell in the head in front of the referee. We expected the numerical advantage to produce scores but as the clock ticked on and opportunities were squandered there was some disquiet indeed almost a sense of panic amongst some on the terrace – as if there were 15 minutes left, not 15 minutes just gone.
One of the highlights of the first quarter was when the referee Wayne Barnes was bowled over as Ian Keatley tried to drill a ball downfield and caught the ref in the face, knocking him over, ouch! but it did not concuss him so he was ok to continue.
However Munster have been slow starters in many games this season and today was no exception. In fact it was Racing Metro who scored first, earning a penalty.
The first try came from a penalty kicked to touch by Zebo followed by an excellent lineout take by Ryan before a maul upfield towards the try line from which Murray peeled away to score.
The second try was also a forwards dominated effort featuring a super charge through the defence by Dave Kilcoyne after a lovely pass from Mike Sherry, followed by a quick pass by Murray out to the backs who were queueing up on the left side of the pitch, any one of 5 could have scored but Keatley passed to Earls who passed to Zebo to score. Racing responded with a penalty to bring the score to 12-6. However Munster were not ready for their half time break yet. A clever kick through by Keatley with a good chase by Zebo and Downey who managed at full stretch to hand trip the Racing full back. Munster earned the penalty when he did not release the ball. The crowd were baying for more and Keatley duly delivered the kick to touch, the line out was delivered securely to Ryan, the maul formed and while pushed back initially it gathered momentum before Sherry peeled off and was pushed over the line by Peter O’Mahony to score the 3rd try.
The crowd were ecstatic, it was great to see the maul a traditional strength of Munster back in all its pomp and effectiveness.
The 4th try was nearly scored at the death of the first half but the TMO decided no foul play had been committed (although it looked similar to the situation from last week in Edinburgh which did result in a penalty) so we had 15 minutes to catch our breath and savour what was unfolding. Surely the 4th try would be achieved in the second half…
We enjoyed a bit of banter with former Munster player Frankie Sheehan who was co-commentating on the game for Sky sports. During the first half the ball was kicked into the commentary area and Frankie showed his old skills by throwing the ball back down earning a big cheer from those on the West Terrace. Then at half time we saw him trying to warm up as it was 2C and he got a slagging about being ready to tog off and return to his playing days!
The second half was just 5 minutes old when Downey took another blow to his ribs which were originally injured in the first half but he picked himself up and did his bit to ensure Munster retained possession, protecting the ball while keeping one hand to protect his ribs before he had to retire from the game. There was a funny incident when Dave Kilcoyne made several hard metres before he was tackled and then he managed to get up and made about another 2 inches before he belly flopped to the ground again. Overall he carried the ball a pretty impressive 32m all game but that movement gave us a smile. However we were soon grinning from ear to ear as Jones fielded a kick and counter-attacked, passing to Keatley who passed to Zebo, who kicked the ball ahead and chased it to collect and score the 4th try eliciting the chants of “Zebo, Zebo”, before some one started off “In Dublin’s Fair City” and everyone joined in…alive alive oh indeed! The strains of “The Fields of Athenry” swelled around the ground sounding so much better than the piped music at Saracens and Edinburgh. We have something special at Munster when it comes to creating an atmosphere.
The fifth and final try was scored on 55 minutes and again featured the forwards making the yards before the backs cut loose, this time it was Jones to Earls to Zebo.
Tommy O’Donnell made a super break and overall had a very impressive game, second only to Zebo in terms of metres run with the ball (74m) and to Coughlan for tackles made (9)
It is interesting to see the match stats from ESPN here
JJ Hanrahan replaced Keith Earls for his second Heineken Cup appearance and we can expect to see more of him in the coming weeks with the internationals away on duty with Ireland. It was also good to see John Ryan get his first experience at prop in the European Cup for the last 8 minutes.
Racing Metro did not give up, despite playing most of the game down a player. They nearly scored at the end but were just kept out by a determined defensive effort – by which time they were down to 13 players and Munster to 14 with the yellow card shown to Paddy Butler on the 79th minute.
The team applauded Racing off the pitch and we were just leaving when we saw them come back out to thank the supporters. Reading their recent tweets they really loved the atmosphere the supporters created and the occasion that we all enjoyed being part of.
Ten years and a day against the first Miracle match against Gloucester this generation of players enjoyed adding their own exploits to the folklore of Munster rugby. The team sing “stand up and fight” in celebration of their victory and progression to the quarter finals:
On the drive home I was listening to the requests from Munster fans returning home in good spirits on the radio and the sports updates on the Leicester v Toulouse game as there was an outside chance that both could qualify and put Munster into the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter finals instead. I also heard the post match interviews by Zebo, Donncha and coach Rob Penney who were all delighted with the performance and interplay of forwards and backs, and the fantastic support which made it a special occasion.
No Munster rugby for the next 2 weeks before the return to League action in Cork against Edinburgh for the 4th game between the sides this season. So far it is 3-0 to Munster but Cork has not been a happy home ground for Munster lately and given the disruption due to the 6 Nations competition, it should be an interesting game. It should also be an opportunity for some of the A team who have also qualified for their European quarter final in the B&I Cup competition to get an opportunity with the senior squad while the Internationals are on duty with Ireland.
For the next 2 months we can dream about the European quarter final in London in April. By then we may have Paul O’Connell back, CJ Stander could be registered and hopefully we won’t have any new injuries in the meantime which will give great competition for places. There are a lot of good things to build on from this weekends performance.
You can view all of Daryl’s photos from the game here. Thanks a mill Daryl for letting me use them to enhance the blog.
Video highlights of the game on YouTube:
Munster: F Jones; D Howlett capt, K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; Ian Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: D Varley, W du Preez, J Ryan, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, C Laulala.