Agony, ecstasy, anxiety, exhilaration…all within a few minutes. Last week may have been helter skelter but this week’s closing moments were definitely a roller coaster ride. Our hopes that Munster could protect the slenderest of leads dashed as Tommaso Benvenuti raced in to score, leaving a dazed Keith Earls in his wake with only minutes remaining. JJ Hanrahan came on to replace Earls. After the failed conversion attempt, Ian Keatley kicked off with 63s of normal time remaining. Munster needed to work themselves into a try scoring position and looked like they could when they were awarded a scrum with just seconds remaining. The ball came out quickly but Munster went backwards with 2 passes, before O’Connell took it up the middle, quick recycling and offloading between Murphy, Hanrahan, Hurley’s backhand offload to O’Donnell who used his strength to fend off the defenders and stay inside the touchline before releasing JJ Hanrahan who burst clear down the far wing. One man to beat. A sweet sidestep before he touched down while we and his teammates jumped around celebrating.
But was victory to be snatched from us? The referee referred to his TMO, we were not sure what question he asked. Was there a forward pass? A foot in touch? A knock-on? Anxiously we watched the replay but could see no reason not to award the try. The TMO agreed and the celebrations resumed at 81 minutes 30s both on and off the pitch. Watch the highlight video from the link below to see what this meant to young and old players alike. Silence was not provided for the conversion attempt as there was no time left for Perpignan to score again so the one point margin was enough to see Munster clear at the top of Pool 6.
Approaching Stade Aimé Giral, spirits were lifted to hear a chorus of the “Fields of Athenry” ring out. The Red Army was gathering and making it’s presence felt. As the stadium began to fill up distinct groups of Munster supporters were visible.
I had noticed on arrival the previous evening that there is about an extra hour of daylight in Perpignan compared to Ireland at this time of year due to it being closer to the equator. Our tickets were just on the 22m line with a good view of the screen, perfectly situated to witness the scrummaging triumph which led to the first try of the game, but more about that later. There were packets on our seats of the yellow and red batons which the locals blew up to create a lot of noise. The cheerleaders and flag bearers formed a guard of honour to welcome both teams.
I was very surprised to see Munster emerge in red while Perpignan wore white. Their band was high in the stand to our left and created a carnival atmosphere, the noise levels became more hostile during penalty kicks while boos rang out as reaction to any perceived infringement as they did their best to ensure a home town referee. Munster started brightly, Dougall looked like he had repeated his feat of last week with an early try only to be called back for an offside against James Downey. Allan got Perpignan on the scoreboard with a penalty before 2 fights broke out on either side of the pitch. The referee consulted with his assistants and decided to send both Peter O’Mahony and the Perpignan hooker to the bin. On the replays we saw number 6 put his boot in but it was deemed not worthy of a card.
Keatley equalised. Jones was harshly penalised for a late challenge when it seemed to us he was committed to the tackle but that let Allan take the score to 6-3. A third penalty for coming in from the side at a ruck took them to 9-3 before Munster got another shot at the posts but Keatley failed with his kick. Allan then missed one before Keatley missed a second easier one just before half time. The noise level when he was kicking versus the quiet for Allan was very noticeable, as was the waving of the giant Catalan flags down near the goalposts when Keatley was lining up his kick. I wondered if his recent injury problems were affecting him also.
The teams emerged after halftime and Munster needed to score next. The scrum had been strong and when they pushed Perpignan back, forcing them to concede a scrum as they carried the ball over the line the pack sensed blood. Between the 42nd and 48th minute, time and again they packed down. The referee awarded a penalty, another penalty, a reset, a free kick – we’ll take the scrum, – another penalty, a warning was issued and we roared them on while nervously hoping there would not be any mistake to let Perpignan off the hook. A crooked feed, a slipped bind, a lost footing, any would have negated the effort and enabled the ref to meet the demands of the home fans. The Red Army urged them on in between querying the ref. “That’s twice ref, how about a card ref? Another penalty ref? Should have gone to specsavers ref!”
But the Munster technique held firm and the penalty try was eventually awarded but no yellow card was waved this week! For the first time Munster took the lead. The kicking duel between Keatley and Allan continued. Allan missed one and converted his next shot before Keatley restored the single point margin. Allan missed a later chance to regain the lead. Then disaster struck with the Perpignan try as per the opening paragraph…
Munster lined up to clap Perpignan off the field. Perpignan were shattered and stunned. After their team huddle they did a circuit of the pitch to thank their supporters. The guard of honour remained in place while Munster then went on their lap of honour, which I thought was a nice touch.
It was another classic Munster day, the drama was up there with that of the drop goal against Northampton, and there is still so much more to come from this group of players. They are not the finished article at all yet, but they bring so much drama and passion to the European Cup. Other memorable moments from the game include Donnacha Ryan who put in a mighty clearance kick, Sheridan’s try saving tackle; James Cronin like Sheridan, justified his selection in his first Heineken Cup start. Casey Laulala’s great offload to Jones who almost put Johne away while another pass went dead. I believe we will see more of those being latched onto before Casey leaves at the end of this season. The subs all made an impact, especially in the last and vital play of the game.
Shout out to the A team who kept their hopes of reaching the knock out stages in the B&I Cup alive with an important win over Plymouth. I expect and look forward to seeing several of those players next weekend in Musgrave Park. Also kudos to Peter Stringer whose appearance in the Amlin Cup for Bath on Saturday earned him his 100th European Rugby cap – joining ROG and Hayes in that select group of players.
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Match highlights from ERC site (French commentary): ERC Highlights
The TG4 highlights are longer and include interviews with JJ and Peter but you have to go to the end of the first video (Ulster game) to get to the second video which is this game. Or just watch Peters Post match interview via SKY. You can’t buy that passion and pride in the Munster jersey! Also worth checking out Rob Penney’s post match interview
Click here for the ESPN Match stats
Munster: Felix Jones (Denis Hurley 71); Keith Earls (JJ Hanrahan 78), Casey Laulala, James Downey, Johne Murphy; Ian Keatley, Cathal Sheridan; James Cronin (Dave Kilcoyne 61), Damien Varley, BJ Botha (Stephen Archer 72); Donnacha Ryan (Donncha O’Callaghan 52), Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony Capt., Sean Dougall (Tommy O’Donnell 61), James Coughlan
Replacements: Duncan Casey, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley
Half time entertainment had a game of mini rugby at both ends of the pitch while the cheerleaders danced to “All I want for Christmas” in mid field.
The Perpignan mascot travelled in style! He also went around at half time with a nerf gun! Not as cuddly as our Oscar!
Notes: I did not watch the full game back so there could be errors in my recollections but hopefully this captures the drama. If you were there what were your observations?
A separate blog will be posted to my other blogsite on the Christmas market, sightseeing in Perpignan and Carcassonne etc later this week. All photos this week are my own 🙂