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Toe to Toe

Stand up and fight until you hear the bell
Stand toe to toe, trade blow for blow

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Just 3 weeks ago Munster stood up to the firepower and financial strength of Toulouse and prevailed.  Their reward was a trip to Marseille to take on the multinational and big budget team Toulon, defending European champions.  This David v Goliath encounter would test the credentials of the next generation of Munster players hoping to emulate their heroes and prove that they deserve to be in the top 4 of the competition.  The defeat of Leinster in the quarter final by the same opponents ensured that no one underestimated the size of the task ahead.  Thousands of the Red Army were mobilised in operation InvadeMarseille and it was great to have so many seated together to combine our efforts at singing, cheering and flag-waving to ensure both Toulon and Munster knew we were there.
RedArmyPeter O’Mahony got a noisy welcome when he appeared, arm in sling, during the warm-up.  When the team gathered to jog off together in front of the North end we serenaded and cheered them to the changing rooms.  It was a pleasant surprise to see Cara O’Sullivan come onto the pitch before the start to lead us for a rousing version of “Stand Up and Fight” before the hakaesque Toulon response Pilou Pilou (which you can see in the video clip from Downtown)

Munster kicked  off and Zebo tore after the ball, supported by Dougall to succeed in putting pressure on Steffon Armitage and winning for Munster an early scrum deep in Toulon territory.  However Wayne Barnes was not happy, awarding the first of 3 penalties against Dave Kilcoyne to allow Toulon clear their lines.  Munster were penalised for not rolling away on 5 minutes and Wilkinson made no mistake.  However Munster immediately responded, Varley and Botha putting on the pressure this time to force a turnover and Toulon conceded a penalty which Keatley converted to bring it to 3-3.

Ian Keatley's first penalty for Munster

Ian Keatley’s first penalty for Munster

Wilkinson added two more penalties before Zebo gave chase to another kick-off and Toulon cleared the danger but only as far as Jones who set off to counter-attack and won back his own garryowen to put Munster on the front foot.  Earls was next to surge forward, then it was Zebo’s turn and when Juan Fernandez Lobbe accidently kicked Murray in the face he was sinbinned.  Keatley kicked his second penalty to bring it to 9-6 and Munster had a numerical advantage.  However a fumble on claiming the restart gave Toulon a foothold in Munster territory again and Wilkinson scored a drop goal to restore the gap to 6 points (12-6).  Munster scored a rare (in this game) penalty from a scrum and Keatley made it 12-9 but Toulon scored two more penalties before the break, one when Downey played the ball when offside and the second for holding on which was a long way out so Toulon captain Wilkinson summoned Delon Armitage from full back as he has a more powerful boot and he was successful to make it 18-9 at the break.

Wilkinson scores from this penalty

Wilkinson scores from this penalty

Munster came out all guns blazing in the second half.  They stole a Toulon lineout but a kick ahead by Earls was blocked down and suddenly there was last gasp defence required – Downey got in an ankle tap which gave a few vital seconds to regroup and Zebo just got to Steffon Armitage in time to push him into touch as he was grounding the ball.  The TMO confirmed no try and we could breathe again.  Habana also made a break but slipped and Munster took control.  A lineout was secured, a maul formed, Murray burst down the side and Zebo was perfectly positioned to take his offload and power through the defenders to just ground the ball as confirmed by the Assistant Referee.

Paul O'Connell claims the lineout

Paul O’Connell claims the lineout

Keatley again ignored the cacophony to convert from the very difficult angle and suddenly the gap was just 2 points and the momentum was with Munster.  Keatley missed a penalty to take the lead and shortly afterwards Earls took out Smith as he kicked through the ball and so the pendulum swung again – Toulon adding 3 points and having the numerical advantage at a crucial stage of the game on 63 minutes.  However Munster kept up the pressure and surprisingly turned down a kick at goal with just 9 minutes left.  Toulon defended the maul and turned over the ball.

The Munster Maul

The Munster Maul is defended by Toulon

At the other end Coughlan somehow managed to launch himself to block down Wilkinson’s attempted drop goal and Hanrahan cleared the ball to the half way line.  Munster kept persevering, looking to get the vital score but on 78 minutes O’Callaghan was penalised, Wilkinson extended the lead to 8 points and hope was lost but still they demonstrated their doggedness and made Toulon fight till they heard the final whistle which brought with it scenes of jubilation for one team and despair for the other.

Munster did us proud as ever, standing toe to toe with their opposite numbers, throwing their bodies on the line to defend, taking and making tackle after punishing tackle.  Wayne Barnes was not happy with the Munster scrum which neutralized that weapon. Toulon were wise to the threat of the Munster maul and ensured they did not succumb to it, after seeing the way it had been used to dismantle Toulouse.  While Toulon were clinical they did not overpower Munster in the way they had Leinster.  Indeed when Munster took the lead it looked like Toulon might blink first.  However their experience pulled them through.  Last season there was a lot of talk about transition but this is not yet completed, as is clear when you consider that this was the first start in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a European Cup semi-final for Varley, Foley, Stander, Dougall, Keatley and from the bench for Cronin, Casey, and Hanrahan.  Hopefully this defeat will spur them on to their Holy Grail as the defeats in 2000 & 2002 did the team who eventually succeeded in 2006 & 2008.

Aftermath.
The Red Army remained en masse while the dejected team assembled at the corner nearest the North end to applaud and in turn be applauded off the pitch by Toulon.  Flags flying proudly we waited for them to emerge again so we could show our appreciation and support in their time of need. It is easy to do a lap of honour after a victory but we wanted to show them we were with them in good times and in bad, and will keep the faith. “To the brave and faithful nothing is impossible”

Acknowledging the support Felix, Paul, Denis & Conor

Acknowledging the support Felix, Paul, Denis & Conor

Yes we were disappointed, we had come so close to toppling the defending champions.  At the final whistle Toulon were relieved, they knew they had survived a tough test. Munster knew they could have won and probably should have won but things did not go their way.  Too many times in the first half they were on the wrong side of a penalty decision by Wayne Barnes.  Time and again the ball did not go to hand, putting Munster on the back foot.  Yet they kept the pressure on Toulon and won the second half scoring the only try of the game. We were left to ponder the “what ifs” – if Earls had not been sinbinned, if the decision had been to take 3 points rather than going for the line or taking a drop goal opportunity to put doubt into the minds of Toulon.. But the “what ifs” also apply on the positive side…what if Downey had not managed to make that ankle tap or if Zebo had not covered across to deny Armitage or if Coughlan had not blocked down the attempted drop goal…then the floodgates might have opened….
As we left, a few Toulon supporters gloated, chanting “Jonny, Jonny Wil-kin-son” while another appeared to mime a dropped pass of which there were several.  But we met others who chanted “Munster, Munster” When I spoke to one of them he told me that they love Munster so they were not gloating but showing how highly they rate Munster.  “I love Munster, they are a great team” he told me.  And so say all of us.

Munster: Felix Jones (Hurley 73); Keith Earls, Casey Laulala, James Downey (Hanrahan 64), Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne (Cronin 65), Damien Varley Capt (Casey 76)., BJ Botha; Dave Foley (O’Callaghan 15), Paul O’Connell; CJ Stander, Sean Dougall (O’Donnell 56), James Coughlan. Replacements: Duncan Casey, James Cronin, John Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Denis Hurley.

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Jonny Wilkinson (c), 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde; 1 Xavier Chiocci, 2 Craig Burden, 3 Carl Hayman, 4 Danie Rossouw, 5 Jocelino Suta, 6 Juan Smith, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 8 Steffon Armitage.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Virgile Bruni, 20 David Smith, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Konstantine Mikautadze.

Match stats: interesting to see that Zebo made 11 tackles as did Botha and Dougall while Stander made an impressive 13. http://www.espn.co.uk/heineken-cup-2013-14/rugby/match/191735.html

Match highlights from SKY: http://www.ercrugby.com/matchdaytv/?play=media&id=18260
This video from Downtown captures some of the atmosphere around Marseille and the post match lap by the players.

Other Observations
We stayed in Nice and arrived into Marseille by train about 1pm. It was easy to get to the stadium via the metro line (M2). It was much quieter on the metro than in it had been last year on the tram in Montpellier. There was no sing-off between the rival groups or jumping up and down to rock the carriage.

Like an extra from Star Wars this Toulon supporter was dressed for the expected invasion

Like an extra from Star Wars this Toulon supporter was dressed for the expected invasion

However the north side was closer to the stop before that for the stadium itself which we had not realized so it took about 20 minutes to walk around the complex. Good thing we had allowed plenty of time. A lot of people were caught out by that.
I did not see the famous double decker used to transport both sets of supporters to the game but I expect that it had a livelier atmosphere.  If you were on it please add a comment below to share your experience.
The fans mingled outside enjoying the sunshine, the mix of red with the red and black flags made for a very colourful sight.  Tradition was observed with newspapers distributed – for Toulon home games they tear and throw them in the air after the final whistle.

The Toulon tradition - a newspaper for the game

The Toulon tradition – a newspaper for the game

The stadium rows were very narrow, it was a tight squeeze to allow people pass to seats inside us.  Thankfully no one in our row went in or out other than at half time.  I was very surprised that the 2nd most expensive ticket option was for a seat in the north behind the goal post until I heard that the €80 tickets only got some supporters alongside the goal line at the side and not the expected more central positions!  The cheap seats must have been those up in the gods.  On the opposite side due to construction there were no supporters which must have been odd for players taking lineouts, etc. over there.  While those on the side were in the sun, on the North we were in the shade.  I did not feel any wind there but it was very blustery outside.  The big screen at the south end was the only clock and scoreboard I could see in the stadium and it was at a bad angle to read from our position.  It was also difficult to get a signal to text or tweet from the ground.
We met supporters from Cork, Limerick, Clare and even my home county of Tipperary.  I enjoyed trying to find a family connection with Matt Ryan (father of Donnacha) as my grandmother was a Ryan from Kilcommon / Rearcoss.  I will have to get onto the genealogy expert in my family to find out more.  It could be my new claim to fame following on from my inclusion in the TG4 compilation of good luck messages from supporters last week which sadly did not make the TV highlights, maybe because I did it portrait instead of landscape.

I await a call-up to TG4’s commentary team, instead of “Ceard a cheapfa Jerry” (Flannery) the commentator could ask “Ceard a cheapann an West Terrace view!”

So focus returns to the league with a difficult away trip to Edinburgh followed by a final home game against Ulster. We need to finish in the top 2 to qualify for a home semi-final. With Glasgow’s win over Edinburgh this is out of our control but if we can maximise our points then it may work out. It will be hard for the team to pick themselves up but hopefully they will be able to finish their season strongly. At least they are in a better league position than at this stage last season and have some silverware to play for to prove they are the best team in Ireland.

PS the accompanying blog about my sightseeing in Nice, Monte Carlo, Cannes and Marseille is available here

The cannons at the Palace in Monte Carlo

Turning the cannons at the Palace in Monte Carlo onto Toulon

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5 comments on “Toe to Toe

  1. ‏@RUMunsterRugby · @WTView another great piece! Aside from the result it was a fantastic visit to France and the respect we received from RCT fans was immense

  2. The double decker bus was a joke!! It was supposed to bring both sets of fans from O’Bradys pub every 20 minutes but it pulled up twice in a 2 hour period and the Toulon fans on the upper deck refused to get off. Because there was a bar on the lower deck only 6 Munster fans were allowed on. The rest of the fans had to walk 30 minutes to the stadium or get taxis.

    • Thanks for commenting Stacy, glad I did not try to find the bus so! It was bad enough getting to the North end from the metro! I was looking out for it arriving at the stadium so now I understand why there was no sign of it!

  3. Nice feedback: I really enjoy your writing it captures the environment and games really well , particularly the atmosphere which is always difficult.

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