A sold out Thomond Park, a sea of red, a forest of waving flags, the lunch time kickoff did not dampen the atmosphere as the Red Army came to celebrate qualification and to do its best to roar the team on to a home quarter final.
There was a brisk trade in breakfast rolls and sandwiches as I approached Thomond on Sunday about 11.20. My friends who live near Thomond were there since the gates opened at 10.45, so had kept me a space very close to the half way line, front and centre. After Toulouse has failed to secure a bonus point at Zebre the permutations to achieve a home quarter final were crystal clear – four tries were required, and while who the opposition would be could not be determined until after the Clermont game we enjoyed speculating!
Edinburgh scored first, Laidlaw converting the second of his penalty opportunities but Munster struck back immediately, starting from an excellent claim of the restart by Paul O’Connell which was taken up the middle by Varley before Coughlan made it seem easy as he crossed the line without being tackled when coming onto a good pass from Murphy. It was similar for the second try scored by Johne Murphy on 22 minutes. Following on from a scrum reset, Murray changed the direction of play with a pass to Murphy who scored under the posts when Edinburgh were expecting Munster to go for a pushover try from the scrum. Pat who was beside me celebrated each try by thumping me on the arm. Luckily I had 4 layers on to keep warm so no damage was done and since in my “About” page I wrote that I believe in active supporting, not passive spectating I have to appreciate her enthusiasm and enjoyment of the game. Indeed the title of this weeks blog was inspired by Pat, who would be shouting out encouragement to take down the Edinburgh player on the attack one minute, before changing her mind and encouraging the choke tackle tactics, while later in the second half when she was encouraging them to g’wan, g’wan, g’wan.. all I could think of was Mrs Doyle in Father Ted so I had to quip “You know you want to…”. Hope to meet you on the terrace again soon Pat!
The lowlight of the first half was the injury to Keith Earls who had won a turnover to set up a promising attack before a loose pass undid the good work and put Earls under pressure as he tried to salvage the ball. He looked to be in a lot of pain going off, hopefully it is not too serious as he has been playing so well. The scan this week will reveal more later this week. I have never heard a more mournful version of the “Fields of Athenry” as the one which started as he was being treated and we all hoped he was not too badly injured. As a result Zebo came into the action earlier than expected, was the hat-trick on again this season?
However it was Edinburgh who scored next as Laidlaw converted another penalty to take the score to 12-6 and they looked most likely to score again as they took the ball to Munsters line for phase after phase, testing the defence which scrambled and repelled each foray. Laidlaw came closest to scoring a try but O’Connell and Zebo combined well to keep him out and that was the closest Edinburgh came to scoring for the rest of the game.
Just when we thought the first half had petered out, the TMO was called on to look at an incident in the last play which resulted in a yellow card for the Edinburgh #6 Du Preez for reckless use of his head (on O’Connell at the bottom of a ruck). Munster tried to launch an attack off the penalty but lost the ball and the half time whistle went. The crowd were a little underwhelmed by the lack of scores since the 2nd try and the delays at scrummaging time in particular (which even led to a slow hand clap in the second half) but we were confident that the required points would be secured. The half time Zorb competition did engage a little friendly rivalry as we cheered on the ladies who did well at the halfway change of “pilot” but were overtaken by the mens team at the end.
Munster took full advantage of their extra man from the start of the second half. Tommy O’Donnell was in barnstorming form and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet himself, being heavily involved in the build-up to the third and fifth tries. It was Conor Murray who claimed the third after great work by James Coughlan and Dave Kilcoyne who had both come close to scoring in the build-up.
It was appropriate that Peter O’Mahony, who had appeared to be limping at the start of the game before he managed to run it off, was the one to secure the 4th (bonus point) try. He had a lot of work to do to make the line from where he took the ball but sheer determination and bloody mindedness (plus some good support from Keatley) meant there was no stopping him. As he thumped the ground you could see how much it meant to him as everyone celebrated the home quarter final (except probably the one Edinburgh fan I saw, there were probably a few more there but sadly I only saw 1 kilt all day).
The referee decided to check there was no double movement before awarding the try to add to the drama. The home quarter final was secured but there was still 18 minutes left and the players were able to entertain us with more scores, now relieved of the burden of the bonus point. After great build up by the pack, O’Donnell and Coughlan in particular, Zebo was next over the line. Apologies to Ian for cheering off Peter, Paul and Damien during your conversion attempt instead of the usual hush.
JJ Hanrahan had replaced Downey with almost half an hour left and I was impressed by his interplay with Keatley. Similarly there seemed to be good understanding between Zebo and Jones while Murphy continued his excellent form this season.
The substitutes all did their part, BJ Botha thought he had scored a rare try but it was called back for a penalty against Hanrahan for blocking. That was an excellent passage of play where Murphy, Hanrahan and Coughlan all made great offloads to keep the ball alive and the tempo up. James Cronin displayed great ball handling skills himself, taking a pass at knee height. Duncan Casey continued to impress with his lineout throwing as three lineouts in quick succession were all secured, two by Paddy Butler who almost got to the try line at the back of a maul off the third lineout which led to a sinbinning for Geoff Cross after Edinburgh had been warned not to pull down the maul when conceding the previous penalty. Another lineout won, maul set, illegally pulled down but playing advantage, Munster spun the ball out wide, Zebo drew the defender and passed to Jones to score the 6th try. I was surprised to see it was his first in the Heineken Cup in 14 appearances. Unfortunately Butler had to go off for a blood injury so O’Mahony returned to the action.
From the restart, with just minutes remaining, it was great to see Donncha leading a maul from inside his own half into Edinburgh territory, showing his hunger is as great as ever as Munster laid siege to the Edinburgh line for the final minutes of the game. I am sure Dave Foley enjoyed his first European Cup start at Thomond with a full house baying for blood and urging Munster on to victory.
James Coughlan (pronounced Cawlin in Cork not Cock-lin as I had a hit from a search for the pronounciation) was awarded Man of the Match and his metres run stats alone are impressive along with his ball carrying but there were many worthy contenders as this was a great team display. The indomitable POC was everywhere, carrying ball, making his tackles, leading by example while Archer made the most tackles with 11 (edited down to 9 when they revised the stats). At times Archer and Murphy were like twins separated at birth.. or at least wearing similar headgear which made me take a second look when I first noticed the white helmet in the scrum. The backrow were immense and there is so much competition there. I thought Ian Keatley had another great game, he ran the backline well and attacked the gainline. Hopefully he is over his recent groin injuries and will enjoy his call-up to the Irish squad. While Edinburgh did not provide their sternest test it was great to see the improving ball handling skills and to see the team playing heads up rugby, exploiting space, changing the point of attack.
After the game, the players walked around the pitch to applaud the supporters for their contribution to a successful campaign through the pool stages. The opening weekend defeat to Edinburgh meant the players had to adopt a Cup final mentality which should stand to them in the coming knock out phases which start the first weekend of April. It is hard to know what form the quarter finalists will be in after a Six Nations campaign, what their injury situation may be, etc. For now we can enjoy the anticipation and get behind the squad players who will be called upon to maintain the League position while the Internationals are away. The victory of Munster A in the British and Irish Cup shows the depth of talent in the squad and I look forward to seeing more of the up and coming players at first hand in the coming games.
Highlights package from TG4:
Sky highlights for those who prefer the English commentary are here
Random Observations on the terrace…
Discrimination claims were lodged when a steward came looking for a lady who had lost a bracelet! Some of the lads nearby felt that they could have been asked if it was theirs!
MRSC USA had flown in on Friday and were enjoying the atmosphere. Ronan O’Mahony who scored his 6th try in the B&I Cup in their 6 pool games was interviewed pitchside before the game. In addition to the choir and Cara O’Sullivan there was a lively set from a Brass band as part of the pre-match entertainment.
Ryan Stoves of Nenagh were the lucky winners of the Bank of Ireland competition to be the sponsor for a day which explains the unusual shirts worn. Funny how TG4 continue to retain the graphic of Peter O’Mahony in a jersey with the Toyota logo on their studio backdrop!
It was a very different game from last week as this subset of the stats shows:
The full Match stats are available here
It was lovely to get a reply from Peter Stringer to my tweet about last weeks blog:
I tell myself he found the blog insightful and was not just referring to my tweet!
Kudos to Daniel for his comment on my last blog which showed that in addition to his artistic ability he can also paint a great picture with words. You can check out his Munster artwork here and see his comment in last weeks blog.
Munster: Felix Jones; Keith Earls (Simon Zebo 24), Casey Laulala, James Downey (JJ Hanrahan 53), Johne Murphy; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray (Duncan Williams); Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin 60), Damien Varley (Duncan Casey 67), Stephen Archer (BJ Botha 60); Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell (Donncha O’Callaghan 67); Peter O’Mahony Capt. (Paddy Butler 67), Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan. Replacements: Duncan Casey, James Cronin, BJ Botha, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paddy Butler, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Simon Zebo.
Edinburgh: Jack Cuthbert; Dougie Fife, Nick De Luca, Ben Atiga, Tom Brown; Greig Tonks, Greig Laidlaw Capt.; Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford, Willem Nel, Grant Gilchrist, Izak Van Der Westhuizen; Cornell Du Preez, Roddy Grant, David Denton. Replacements: Aleki Lutui, Wicus Blaauw, Geoff Cross, Ollie Atkins, Tomas Leonardi, Grayson Hart, Carl Bezuidenhout, Joaquin Dominguez.
Daryl’s full set of photos from the game are available on Flickr