Munster head to the south of France for the second year in a row for a semi-final, in this the last year of the Heineken Cup competition. Marseilles is the destination and current forecasts indicate that the weather will be unseasonal with rain and low temperatures forecasted for the game on Sunday. While the cooler temperatures may suit the players better, it is a pity for the supporters not to see the area at it’s best. It will however minimise the need for sun protection for the more fair-skinned amongst the Red Army.
For the past 2 weeks, since the excitement of the quarter-final, logistics have been a major focus for those lucky enough to be able to travel. Tickets were not in short supply but the travel options were expensive. Multiple routes were evaluated as the invasion of Marseilles was planned by the Red Army. After many requests some airlines brought forward their summer schedules by a week to facilitate demand. As many supporters could not get Monday off work the Sunday fixture was not ideal, so they either had to pay a higher price to return on Sunday or give up the dream of travelling to the game.
For the semi-final Toulon had home country advantage but are not actually the home team per the ERC rules. Therefore, as they wear red and black there had to be a toss to determine which team would wear red for the game. Toulon won that toss so Munster will play in their away blue as they did at Gloucester (and in the 08 final v Toulouse) but Munster did secure the home dressing room. The stadium will be awash with red flags from both sides but I am confident that regardless of the colour of shirts worn the Munster supporters will be heard singing and cheering on the team.
The sixteenth man will definitely be required for this mammoth challenge against the defending European champions, leaders of the French Top 14, who have a very multi-national and deep squad. Whoever pulls on the Munster jersey will have to play out of their skins and the sum of the team will have to be more than the sum of its parts but in those jerseys is the Munster DNA. The attitude, the spirit and hunger to get back up and make more tackles, the focus to play at that level of intensity and passion, the sheer doggedness to never say die… Being written off as under-dogs by the experts is nothing new, but can Munster do it one more time? The cup final experience gained in the pool stage will stand to this group of players, as will that gained coming so close last season. In a one-off game anything can happen, which is what makes sport so compelling. A good start is essential as is a strong referee. Maybe the game will turn on one incident, a carding, an injury, a lucky bounce of the ball… How many more sleeps to dream of glory? How many more days to say a few prayers and send messages and tweets of support? If you live in Munster get out the flags and fly them proudly to let the team know you are behind them all the way as they represent the province and the country in the semi-final.
During the past two weeks however the team had to maintain focus on their League aspirations also. After they slipped up at home to Glasgow an away win in Galway was required to regain momentum. A bonus point win would help the cause of achieving a home semi-final in the League. Glasgow’s victory over Ulster on Friday also helped, but with a game in hand against Edinburgh and an easier run in to the play-offs, Glasgow may yet pip Munster to second place.
I was away for Easter so dependent on updates via social media but I had recorded the game so I watched it on Monday. I knew Munster had won, with Paddy Butler scoring the bonus point fourth try and picking up the man of the match accolade. I was delighted for him as his season like that of Andrew Conway who must have run him close for the award has been very disrupted by injury. Both played a lot better than the last time I saw them in the British and Irish Cup quarter-final just 2 weeks ago. This game was the last opportunity for players to force their way into Rob Penney’s thinking, particularly for the bench spots. Who would have the best impact if called upon? The injury to JJ Hanrahan last week also made the selection of Conor Murray at replacement out-half very interesting, but in the end he was only on the pitch for 6 minutes so too short to judge. Hopefully he won’t be called on a out-half since his skills at scrum half are essential to the challenge to be faced in Marseilles. The commentators spoke of the riches available to Toulon in each position, where at out half they can call on Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau or Freddy Michalak.
With 7 tries scored there was plenty of action on a nice evening in Galway. There were some impressive offloads by Butler, Hurley, Downey to name-check a few, good handling in general, a Zebo-esque heel flick by Conway, several turn-overs won by Sean Dougall which caught my eye. Dave Kilcoyne was very impressive with ball in hand, making more ground in that game than I recall he has in any other all season so peaking at the right time hopefully. Of concern was the lineout which leaked several good opportunities particularly in the second half and the defensive frailties where for the second week in a row three tries were conceded, so plenty to work on this week while the Toulon video analysts go into overdrive.
The first two tries came from poor receipt of the restart – firstly by Connacht with Andrew Conway scoring a try off the resultant scrum courtesy of a nice pass by Duncan Williams. Connacht struck back straight away with Butler taking his eye off the ball to knock-on and from that scrum Connacht went wide for Healy to touch down in the corner to bring the score to 8-7 after the first quarter. Keatley landed two penalties in quick succession to help Munster into an 8-13 lead. Danie Poolman almost brought Connacht back into the lead when he soared above Conway to claim a cross field kick but his foot had been in touch. In the final 5 minutes of the first half Connacht won their lineout but Gerhard van den Heever was in a poaching mood and claimed an intercept pass from Robbie Henshaw to race down the field and score under the posts. Again Connacht came back looking for a better reward for their endeavours but knocked on the ball which was scooped up by Duncan Williams who chipped it over the Connacht player and gathered the ball before setting Denis Hurley free to score another try under the posts and bring the score to 8-27. In the build-up to that the commentators were critical of a tackle by Downey on Poolman but the referee did not see any foul play.
The focus of the second half was to secure the fourth try and bonus point win but Connacht were not about to lie down. Twice in quick succession Munster won penalties and opted for the lineout. The first attempt was a crooked throw. From the second secured by Donncha, CJ Stander appeared to ground the ball but was adjudged by the TMO to have knocked on in the attempt. It was Connacht who scored next, a good try by McKeon on 53 minutes. Kilcoyne nearly scored after another good charge but Connacht managed to turn it over and went on to score again, this time a penalty to bring the score to 16-27 as the game entered the final quarter. Butler was doing well in the lineout and Conway was set free to drive Munster back into Connacht territory but a misfiring lineout let them off the hook. It took until the 73rd minute for the Munster try to come, eventually awarded to Butler. It looked like it had already been grounded in the phases leading up to that as Kilcoyne and others hit Connacht with phase after phase but the referee was on the wrong side to award it until he saw Butler cross the line. The substitutes were unleashed by both sides and the game became a bit frantic leading to an intercept try by Poolman in the 77th minute to bring the final score to 23-32.
Connacht: D Leader (D McSharry 52); D Poolman, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; M Nikora (D Parks 70), K Marmion (F Murphy 76); R Loughney (D Buckley 58), J Harris-Wright (J Dinneen 73), R Ah You (F Bealham 74); M Kearney, A Browne; J Muldoon, W Faloon (C Gilsenan 49), E McKeon (A Muldowney 54).
Munster: D Hurley (R O’Mahony 73); G van den Heever, J Murphy, J Downey, A Conway; I Keatley (C Murray 74), D Williams (G Hurley 74); D Kilcoyne (A Cotter 76), D Varley (Q MacDonald 70), J Ryan; D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (B Holland 73); CJ Stander, S Dougall (T O’Donnell 60), P Butler.
So mission accomplished, no more injury concerns, plenty to work on as they prepare for the game of the season. I will be there on Sunday in the Virage Nord section. If you are there and get any good photos for inclusion in next weeks blog you can let me know by commenting here or emailing me at WTView@live.ie Safe travels to those involved in operation Invade Marseilles.