The clock had gone red and our nerves were being tested as Munster continued to push for a score to top off one of their greatest comebacks ever. A penalty, a try, a drop goal, anything would do but any mistake, knock-on, penalty conceded or dropgoal blocked down would leave us with the bitter taste of defeat. Patience and composure on the field were not matched by the baying hoards of the red army who dominated the terrace and stands at that end as we urged on each ball carrier or player clearing out at the ruck to protect the ball. One drop goal opportunity was thwarted by Cusiter and they had to go again and again until with the last kick of the game Ian Keatley displayed nerves of steel to take on the responsibility for our hopes and dreams as Sale tried to block him down. Anxiously we watched the ball sail through the posts before turning eyes to the referee to see what he was going to indicate as it can be hard from some angles to be sure. His arm went up and signalled the start of our celebrations! The Sale players were shattered, several of them just lying on the ground wondering what on earth had happened while the Munster players jumped for joy, JJ Hanrahan being the first to get to Ian Keatley before he was swamped by more of his team mates.
Sale got our hearts racing early on when instead of kicking for touch the ball was booted downfield, aided by the strong wind and Munster had to scamper back to clear the danger. Sale were first to score with a penalty awarded from a scrum but Munster responded well, CJ Stander was outstanding taking on the ball time, batting aside defenders before Keatley got the ball to Zebo whose kick ahead was not cleared and Munster won a penalty. Sale defended the maul from the lineout so Munster attacked the line through CJ, Peter, Conor and Stephen before Dave Kilcoyne forced his way over to be awarded the first try by the TMO. Everything seemed to be going to plan. But the script went out the window as it was Sale who scored the rest of the points in that half.
The TMO was busy again when asked to review the tackle by Felix Jones on Mike Haley – the theme music from Jaws added to the tension and the big screen did not show the replays to help us judge. Sale were awarded a penalty which Cipriani converted to reduce the gap to 6-7. The first half also saw the referee Mathieu Raynal retire with a knee injury to be replaced by Laurent Cardona.
Munster could not get any momentum going as knock ons and uncharacteristic fumbles and missed tackles were punished by Sale. A second penalty awarded against Munster at the scrum was converted to 3 points by Cipriani from inside his own half, aided by the strong wind at his back to restore the lead to Sale (9-7). Another penalty this time against Peter O’Mahony who was judged to be off his feet poaching the ball was kicked to touch and Sale launched their maul on the side nearest me. Phase after phase they probed the Munster defence until finally over at the opposite side Magnus Lund burrowed in under Dave Kilcoyne to score their first try. Cipriani converted to bring it to 16-7.
As we approached the half hour mark Sale launched an attack from the far side towards our side. Andrew Conway broke the line and made the tackle but the ball had already been offloaded to Johnny Leoto who with a player outside him put the defence into two minds and he touched down to leave us feeling shell-shocked, wondering where the team from the Aviva game had gone. Cipriani converted and to compound our woes on 33 minutes, 23-7 down, the TMO was again called upon to review Tommy O’Donnell who was given a yellow card for making contact with Chris Cusiter before he got the ball. Incredibly Sale did not make their numerical advantage count during his time in the bin. Denis Hurley took his role in the subsequent scrums and Munster even won a penalty with the last scrum of the half before heading down the tunnel to regroup.
Sale came close to opening the second half with a try but the defence held firm before a poor pass from Cipriani was gratefully received by O’Mahony and Munster finally began to exert the pressure, forcing Sale to defend. Cronin and Botha came on for Kilcoyne and Archer on 44 minutes. 19 phases of attack led to a Sale knock-on near the posts. From the resultant scrum Munster won a penalty and opted for the lineout which Peter O’Mahony claimed. Sale again defended the maul so first Tommy, then Peter and CJ took on the ball carrying duties before Sale got the ball but only cleared it as far as Felix who set up a counter attack with Andrew in support. Unfortunately he could not hold the pass but fortunately the referee had indicated advantage to Munster so the pack took it on again. This time when the ball got to Andrew he made no mistake, spinning out of the tackle to score his first European try for Munster! Ian Keatley added the conversion and the tide was turning albeit there was still a long way to go from 23-14 down.
JJ Hanrahan replaced Denis Hurley in midfield. Right in front of me I enjoyed the sight of Peter O’Mahony throw himself in front of the Sale jumper in their lineout to pluck the ball out from under his nose. Hard to believe he was playing just his third game and second start since his shoulder surgeries as he throws himself into the fray time and again seemingly without a care. He only knows one way to play!
Conor Murray called the TMO into action again on the hour mark but was judged to have been held up in the corner near me but three minutes later he did score in the far corner!
Keatley added another excellent and difficult conversion and Munster were in touching distance at 23-21. Cipriani had his only chance of the half to score when Munster were pinged for collapsing a maul and he kept his 100% kicking record intact to bring the score to 26-21. When Munster won a penalty minutes later I thought they would go for a lineout as they were physically dominating Sale but instead they opted for the posts and Keatley added another 3 points (26-24) with assistance from Zebo when the ball was blown off the tee, to set up the dramatic finale. With an anxious eye on the clock I watched with bated breath as Munster did what Munster do so well! In the 78th minute the pack got their maul motoring and it was a thing of beauty as Duncan Casey who had another 100% return from his lineout throwing was tucked in at the tail of the maul. Keatley’s plans for a drop goal had to be postponed so Jones and Zebo took it on and made ground to get into a decent position. Time seemed to stand still as we watched Ian take aim and let fly… Score!
Next week will require a huge effort as Saracens travel to Thomond on top of the pool after their bonus point win over Clermont. A more clinical performance will be required and the supporters will need to come early, be red, loud and proud to remind Saracens of the fortress they experienced there 2 years ago as recorded in that blog.
Analysis of the team effort to manufacture the winning score from JJ’s booming touch finder to Ian’s kick by Murray Kinsella is well worth checking out from The Score.ie
It was a lot easier to leave the ground than the 10-15 minute queue we had encountered on arrival. I met Kevin and Joan from the West Terrace and everyone in red was in great spirits! There was a live band playing and a special mention for the Sale supporters band which had added a lot to the atmosphere during the game and half time.
Post match interviews with CJ Stander, Sale Captain David Seymour and Ian Keatley – including both CJ and Ian giving great credit to the travelling support: here
Post match analysis from dropgoal guru Jonny Wilkinson plus thoughts of Will Greenwood and Alan Quinlan is embedded here:
Match stats prove it was a game of 2 halves:
Munster: Felix Jones, Andrew Conway, Andrew Smith, Denis Hurley (JJ Hanrahan 55), Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin 44), Duncan Casey, Stephen Archer (BJ Botha 44); Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony Capt., Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Eusebio Guinazu, James Cronin, BJ Botha, Billy Holland, Robin Copeland, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Gerhard van den Heever.
I had noticed a smell in the stadium and was surprised to still get it in the street about 10 minutes walk away where my friend Avril had parked to wait for me. She told me that there was both a water treatment and dump nearby which probably explained it. A man on my flight to Liverpool the previous day had told me that the stadium was a dump and had no atmosphere but I was right when I told him that that the Red Army would create their own atmosphere! It’s no wonder that both CJ and Ian mentioned it in their post match interview. Avril brought me back to her home for food before we went for a walk around Sale, ending up at the old Sale ground near her home where I met some Sharks supporters who invited me to join them in the pub. That clubhouse was busy.
As I had not checked in online I had to queue to get my boarding pass and who was ahead of me checking in for the Cork flight but the Munster team! As CJ left the check in area he spotted me and said hi. I was surprised and delighted that he recognised me from our meeting in Glasgow in May. Airport security was slow but I had Donncha O’Callaghan for company! After meeting him twice (at Donnybrook and at the Aviva) recently he recognised me and as we wound our way through to the security check points we chatted about rugby, the hallowe’en outfits his girls have planned (they want him to go as Tigger!) and Christmas puddings as I was telling him I could be helping my mother make hers next weekend as I will be home after the Saracens game. I thought that was a surreal conversation but it was topped by the doctor I sat beside on the flight who was talking about botox and vasectomies! There were several Man City supporters on the flight back also.
At the departure gate I met Sean and John who promised to check out the blog, while back on Irish soil I met 2 brothers who exemplify the lengths to which people go to support this team – they had gotten up at 2.30am to drive from Waterford to Dublin for the early Ryanair flight and were heading back there on Saturday night. See you on the terrace next week guys!
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Some photos from my sightseeing in Sale thanks to Avril for being a great hostess and chauffeur! Before the game we had checked out the indoor ski facility the Chill Factore.
After the game we enjoyed a lovely walk taking in the autumnal colours along the canal and in the parks on a lovely sunny day.