A misquote of Mark Twain which seemed appropriate, for while it is very disappointing for players, management and supporters alike to be out of the European Cup even before the final pool games, much of the coverage in the media in the aftermath of the Saracens game read like an obituary of Munster Rugby. I am not calling for the cracks to be papered over, action does need to be taken to prevent the same disappointment in the future but Munster were not the only big name to fail to proceed to the knock-out stages. Toulouse (also on 15 appearances), Leicester (12), Ulster (5) and other teams also missed out this year. Now we are clear what the new format of the competition entails and have been reminded how crucial it is to win your home games. The importance of a good finish in the Pro12 league to try to avoid future Pools of Death also provides plenty of motivation for the rest of the season. A home semi-final would also boost finances and is achievable if Munster perform consistently throughout the disruption of the Six Nations, especially with Glasgow contributing so many to the Scotland team.
All that could be done for now was to re-establish Fortress Thomond and lift the doom and gloom which had engulfed the province since the heavy defeat at Saracens. The media seemed to delight in telling us how the famed Red Army would not turn up for a dead rubber and that Thomond would be half empty. While it was not full there was a very good attendance of 17,685 there from about 21K tickets sold, just 102 fewer than the attendance in Clermont while Wasps had the biggest attendance of the weekend’s ten pool games – over 23K in their new home at the Ricoh.
The result would always be tempered by the fact that it was a dead rubber with only pride at stake, but pride is a key element of the Munster ethos and after losing to Clermont in round 3 another home defeat was not an option. When Sale decided to rest many of their front line players it gave Munster a bigger challenge as they would get no credit by merely winning! The team responded well after a difficult week, delivering a comprehensive 9 try display, almost of Barbarian style free-flowing rugby by the end when Munster had so much possession and territory. Zebo, Conway and Ronan O’Mahony in particular covered a lot of ground as in total the team ran an impressive 795m with ball in hand.
It was a bright, breezy afternoon when I arrived in Limerick but the forecasted rain did fall later that evening. Johne Murphy who broke his hand in training was interviewed on the pitch pre-match, the 27 Brass Band were back to entertain us before Cara O’Sullivan joined the choir for “Stand Up and Fight”. The stand opposite had looked fairly empty during the warm-up but seemed to fill in well as kick-off approached, while there was room to move on the terrace but not as much empty space as for some recent Friday night Pro12 games.
Munster made a great start when Ronan O’Mahony on his first European start made a break down the east wing and when tackled a quick pass by Duncan Williams set Tommy O’Donnell charging at the Sale defence before the ball was passed out quickly to the wing by Keatley, Hurley, Earls and on to Zebo who stepped inside one defender and was tackled by two others but managed to twist to ground the ball. Ian Keatley converted to make it 7-0. The tempo of the game continued to be high achieved by many offloads out of the tackle.
A high tackle on BJ Botha resulted in a penalty. Captain Peter O’Mahony indicated to take the kick at the posts to win the match first so Keatley stepped up and extended the lead to 10-0. However the referee awarded a penalty against Paul O’Connell for losing his footing trying to win back the ball which Nick MacLeod converted to make it 10-3. Another penalty for deliberate obstruction gave Keatley the opportunity to bring the score to 13-3. Sale then put together some good phases before Tom Arscott wove a path between Hurley, Conway and Keatley to score on the west wing to the delight of the travelling Sale supporters with almost 12 minutes on the clock.
Surprisingly the score remained 13-10 for the rest of the first half. Munster lost momentum when a succession of penalties conceded (side entry, pulling down maul, no arms in the tackle) lead to a team warning and it was Andrew Conway who paid the price when he was next to offend for not releasing the player as Sale laid siege to the Munster line. Maybe Sale should have taken the points on offer via the posts as Munster defended and managed to turnover possession when it was the Sale attacker who did not release the ball. Zebo brought play back up close to the half way line. During the sinbinning Munster had a chance to increase their lead but a penalty went wide and a penalty kick to touch went astray. For a defensive scrum O’Donnell moved into the backline to cover for Conway and the remaining 7 held the scrum steady so Sale could not press home their numerical advantage. Denis Hurley was injured and replaced by Ivan Dineen for his European debut.
There was a superb maul by Munster about the half-hour mark when the pack drove Sale back from their 10m line to inside their 22 before the backline got their hands on it. A try was almost scored but the ball was knocked on and frustration seemed to be building in both sides with several bouts of “handbags” breaking out as half-time approached. Maybe they were taking our rendition of “stand up and fight” too literally!
If we thought the first try came early in the first half, Keith Earls was even earlier to touch down in the second half – without even a minute on the clock he showed his class. Sale had restarted the game, Ronan O’Mahony claimed the ball and Duncan Williams’ box kick was superbly fielded and offloaded by Zebo to O’Donnell who in turn offloaded to O’Connell who was tackled. The backs then got in on the action and Ivan Dineen got his hands free to pop the ball up perfectly for Earls running an excellent line. Earls turned on the gas and raced from just inside his own half, turning Luke McLean inside out as he feinted to go wide and then handing him off as he tried to haul him down before he reached the try-line. The TMO confirmed the grounding.
Ian Keatley nearly had the try converted before the assistant referees had moved into position. Earls was replaced shortly afterwards by Pat Howard but it was great to see him back playing and incredible that he has only had 101 appearances for Munster due to all his injuries despite making his debut in April 2007 while Simon Zebo has reached 80 appearances since his debut in April 2010.
A driving maul led to a pile of bodies over the line but the grounding could not be confirmed by the TMO so Munster were awarded a 5m scrum. Peter O’Mahony was denied credit for a try from the base of the well controlled scrum when the referee decided to award a penalty try instead on 54 minutes. Both props and O’Mahony were replaced by Ryan, Archer and Butler respectively. A few minutes later Duncan Casey was replaced by Eusebio Guinazu.
I was delighted to see Pat Howard score after running another good line off Keatley, swerving by two defenders to score under the posts on his final appearance for Munster before he returns to South Africa. His tackling and defence had been impressive and had won a turnover right in front of us earlier so it was good to have a try also to remember his time with Munster. Maybe we will see him again some time.
Ronan O’Mahony was nearly next to score after a great break by Ivan Dineen running direct and hard up the midfield. It would have been a great reward for Ronan’s efforts but he was hauled down just before the line. Archer took it on next before Zebo finished off the move, scoring his 13th try in 24 European games.
JJ came on for last 12 minutes and we were confused when the announcer said that he had replaced Zebo but it was Keatley he replaced. Dineen was again involved in the next try, getting his pass away to Zebo who in turn gave a great offload to Conway out of the tackle to score in the corner. The conversion came off the post to make it 44-10.
What was great to see was the ruthlessness as the players continued to tackle, turnover possession and make breaks as if there was more at stake than just pride. In the final ten minutes O’Connell won another turnover and Pat Howard brought it up one wing before it was spun quickly out to the other. Then they kept it tight and after some more pick and goes Tommy O’Donnell scored the 7th try when he drew the defender off the line by feigning a pass before diving into the space left behind, with the support of Archer who then helped him try to relieve the cramp in his leg as the conversion was being taken. The forwards made the next try also with Butler and Archer prominent before Williams finished it off under the posts.
The final try featured more offloading out of the tackle, evident throughout the game which was very impressive. Hanrahan to Zebo and back to Hanrahan whose offload put Conway through for his second try.
A record score was posted and Munster became the 2nd team to achieve 100 European wins but the real work starts on February 14th in Cork when the push to the top 2 in the Pro12 recommences. In the meantime all the best to those involved in the Irish camp while the others head to Lanzarote for some warm weather training and team bonding opportunities.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Denis Hurley, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; James Cronin, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha; Dave Foley, Paul O’Connell; Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony – capt.
Replacements: Eusebio Guinazu, John Ryan, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Paddy Butler, Ivan Dineen, JJ Hanrahan, Pat Howard.
Match highlights: http://www.epcrugby.com/matchdaytv/?play=media&id=20035
TG4 Player provides about an hour of highlights for the next few weeks: http://nasc.tg4.tv/1EMaYwc
Daryl’s full set of photos from the game are here
Commiserations to the A team who bowed out of the British and Irish Cup on Saturday and best wishes to the three of their number who now join up with the Ireland U20s squad for their six nations campaign. I am sure the experience will stand to the younger players (excluding DOC :-)) and we will see the benefit as some of them are called up to the senior panel during the Six Nations. Given their bad luck with injuries (Johnny Holland, Barry O’Mahony, Alan Cotter, Luke O’Dea, Cathal Sheridan…) while other players like John Ryan, Dave O’Callaghan, Ronan O’Mahony and Ivan Dineen were promoted to the senior squad their achievement in getting to the last 8 is noteworthy.
Last week I mentioned meeting Becci and Rob in London and how Rob had sent me a tweet the previous year of me on his TV so this week it was Becci’s turn to send me this photo of Tony and I celebrating a successful penalty kick in the first half. I received a text from Cork, an email from Norfolk, a tweet from Cork and a WhatsApp message from Kildare about my appearance on TV!
Conor requested some more positivity from my blog this week so I am pleased to report that I am saving 20% on my fuel costs getting to matches as a result of the recent dramatic fall in fuel prices 🙂
It was great to meet Daryl as we exited the terrace for a chat as he recently moved to Swansea so I was getting tips in case I go over to an Ospreys game. In this photo he took of us before the game you can also see John who is behind Imelda. I had brought 2 tickets to Clermont when requested by John on behalf of his friend who could not travel and found a good home for them. Imelda is my witness that I gave him the money for the tickets before the game. John was telling me that this was his 201st home game in a row since 2001! Truly one of the “brave and faithful“!
Bernie and Ed also met us outside and Ed was asking me about the quote from Anthony Foley during the week that money was not the issue with recruiting players. I replied that what I had thought interesting in the article was a reference to the IRFU restrictions on which positions they could recruit. Hopefully Tyler Bleyendaal who recently arrived in Ireland will make a good recovery from his neck surgery and become a valuable addition to the squad.
Paul who I got to know on the Glasgow trip was May was one of the flag bearers for the guard of honour on Sunday and after the game I met up with him and his wife Linda in the bar.
Patrick and Eilis also stopped for a chat and Patrick told me he had gotten a lot of mileage out of my mention of meeting him and his Leinster supporting son after the game on Stephens Day. I caught up with Audrey last seen in Clermont and she introduced me to Dee Dee. There was a singsong going on and people were in good spirits. This was not a wake, there is no need for an obituary. Munster will focus on the Pro12 and I will continue to support them. When their league campaign resumes on February 14th I look forward to checking out the newly roofed red shed East Terrace at the redeveloped Musgrave Park.