Advantage Perpignan after the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup as the only side in Pool 6 to score a bonus point in their 31-14 victory over Edinburgh. However there were enough shocks this weekend, including Toulon losing to Cardiff in Wales while Ulster had a great victory away to Montpellier and Toulouse edged out Saracens at Wembley, to indicate that there will probably be some surprises in the remaining four rounds to determine the make-up of the quarter-finals come January.
While the game on Saturday against Gloucester did not come near the heights of last season, or indeed the legendary status of the Miracle match between the two teams in January 2003, progress was made since the disappointment at Edinburgh. Perhaps some of the intensity was lost when the Gloucester team was announced, showing 12 changes from that of the previous week, in effect a second string side. Maybe it was partly due to not being a sold out game but some of it was due to the error rate which meant that Munster could not convert their 60% possession and territory dominance into scores, specifically a valuable bonus point. Not that either side showed a lack of effort.
There were renditions of Athenry and “Stand Up and Fight” several times during the game but they did not gain momentum to become an aural Mexican wave as on previous occasions. An exodus before the final whistle was noticeable, poor form especially as Earls nearly scored with the final play of the game. Points difference could still be relevant in a tight pool.
There was a good crowd on the terrace when I arrived an hour before kick-off. We watched Paddy Butler who had an operation on his thumb after last weekends game being interviewed during the warm-up. It was nice to say hi to Daryl who was on the pitch taking photos. It is worth checking out his full set from the game here to see one of Anthony Foley with a smile!
The weather was dry but windy, luckily the torrential rain held off until after the game. There was a chuckle when we saw Downton on the back of the Gloucester shorts, rest assured it is not an ad for the TV show but for a local logistics firm. At kickoff, the bemused look on Gloucester winger Jonny May when the terracers shouted at him to get on side (behind the kicker) and on the pitch was priceless and his compliance was greeted with delight!
Munster made six changes since the previous week (3 as a result of injuries to Zebo, Butler and Ronan) and I was delighted to see Donncha backing up the attitude I wrote about last week with a typical aggressive, abrasive 66 minutes.
Similarly Damien Varley took his opportunity to start and delivered a fine performance with Munster winning 10 or their 12 lineouts during the game. Mind you he had plenty of targets with 5 jumpers to aim for and vary the tactics but after some poor performances early last season it is great to see him silencing his critics. BJ Botha stood out in the stats list with an impressive 11 effective tackles while Sean Dougall, a late replacement for Niall Ronan made the most with 13, putting in an excellent shift, especially considering he had been in Nottingham with the A team the previous night. Peter O’Mahony returned to action after his head injury and won the Man of the Match accolade for putting Munster on the front foot including a magnificent lineout steal in the second half, and his leadership, but I expect that the other change to the starting line-up, Johne Murphy, ran him close.
Johne has been like a new signing this season and was unlucky not to be picked on form for the team last week. According to stats taken from ESPN he ran 108m with the ball during the game, making 2 clean breaks and he also made 7 tackles missing none. I joked on twitter that maybe his new habit of wearing a scrumcap is the secret of his success, likening him to a superhero with it providing special powers ;-).
Earls continued his good form, with plenty of running and tackling also and was unlucky not to score at the death, while Casey Laulala completed the top 3 of meters run being lively with ball in hand. It is a pity there is often no one on his shoulder to collect his offloads and prevent a breakdown in play. One of his early tackles on the fullback Martyn Thomas set the tone for the evening.
Gloucester’s plan was for a high tempo game with quick lineouts, tap and go, putting Munster on the backfoot. Often they appeared to be offside but were not picked up for that by the referee who made or did not make several expected calls during the game, resulting in boos ringing out, especially before halftime.
Long live the Maul which made a welcome appearance and resulted in the first try touched down by Varley.
Gloucester scored a try through Charlie Sharples from a turnover of a promising Munster attack which brought them deep into Munster territory and was scored via a simple 2:1 on the blindside. The second Munster try resulted from a lovely cross-field kick from Keatley which found Johne in space to score and Munster finally put daylight between the teams on the scoreboard. There was theoretically still time (12 minutes) to go after the bonus point but while Cronin & Stander provided impact off the bench, for the second week in a row late injuries resulted in the team losing shape. Hurley was unlucky to be injured shortly after replacing Jones so he was replaced by Hanrahan. Ryan had to go off injured after O’Callaghan had been replaced so Stander ended up playing at lock for the subsequent scrums. When Downey had to go off Sheridan came on at scrumhalf while Murray moved to fly-half with Hanrahan in the centre and Keatley at fullback.
There was time before the game to meet fellow Munster blogger Eamonn Keane and Babs in the MRSC bar for a chat about blogging, rugby and life in general.
Congratulations to Munster A who won again in the B&I Cup, some players may well be promoted to the senior team for the coming league games given injuries and the Autumn Internationals. Next weekend a tough away game to league leaders Glasgow awaits, an opportunity to make further progress, building confidence and momentum.
ERC Match stats show that Munster have had the most passes in the 2 rounds to date with 341 of which Conor Murray was responsible for 43% (147 passes), while within Pool 6 Munster had the distinction of the most Rucks won (188 – Ospreys lead overall with 192) and the most missed tackles (34) so plenty to work on before the defining back to back rounds against Perpignan in December. Also of interest: Sky Highlights
Munster: Felix Jones (Denis Hurley 57) (JJ Hanrahan 66); Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey (Cathal Sheridan 78), Johne Murphy; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray ; Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin 66), Damien Varley (Mike Sherry 72), BJ Botha (Stephen Archer 75); Donnacha O’Callaghan (James Coughlan 66), Paul O’Connell; Donnacha Ryan (CJ Stander 69), Sean Dougall, Peter O’Mahony (Capt.)
Gloucester: Martyn Thomas (Rob Cook 7); Charlie Sharples, Mike Tindall, Ryan Mills, Jonny May; Jonny Bentley (Freddie Burns 49), Dan Robson; Dan Murphy (Yann Thomas 75), Darren Dawiduik, Rupert Harden; Lua Lokotui (James Hudson 49), Will James (Capt.); Matt Cox (Gareth Evans 41), Akapusi Qera, Ben Morgan.