Dead rubber my eye! Munster had more to play for than pride, they had to halt a losing run to commence the rebuilding of Fortress Thomond. Failure was not an option but it was a possibility! Stade Francais had a lot to play for – a quarter final spot in the Champions Cup – and as a result had brought a strong team including 2 internationals I regularly include in my fantasy 6N team – the wonderful Sergio Parisse who was so impressive at the base of the scrum, lineout and under the high ball, plus French lock Pascal Pape.
Ronan O’Gara in his weekly column in the Examiner had written from the heart: “Tomorrow has less to do with rugby than it does with character” and indeed it was, for the players, the management and the supporters. How many of the Red Army would turn up for an unsociable 1p.m. kick-off after the coldest night of the year? Coming up to 1p.m. it was not looking good. There was plenty of space on the terrace and especially looking over at the East Stand even though nearly 19,000 tickets had been sold. The papers report that over 14,000 were in attendance. I guess some were keeping warm in the bars beforehand as it did seem to fill in better after kick-off. Perhaps they missed the minute’s silence for Paddy Reid who had died during the week. The drizzle had gotten heavy during warm-up but thankfully stopped before the game but it made the ball wet and it was cold so I was expecting a lot of scrums during the game and Munster had been under pressure in the scrums in Paris!
As we had gathered on the terrace, some 90 minutes before the game, we had held our own post-mortems, discussing the recent disappointing run and the media reaction, the coaching speculation and the role of Andy Farrell, etc.
We knew Stade Francais would want to continue their demolition job started the previous weekend and that Munster needed to start well to show that they were up for the fight but it could not have gone worse as Mario Sagario conceded a penalty from the kick-off. Munster were 3 points down before they had broken into a sweat. However, the players did not retreat into their shells and even though the referee did not give them a break in the opening five minutes they worked their way into the game and indeed dominated the first half. Stats can be seen here
Munster got into a great position and when they won a penalty and kicked to the corner we cheered them on. The maul was going well when the ball was spun out to Scannell in midfield who got isolated but Munster kept the pressure on. A kick through forced Dupuy to carry the ball over their line and give Munster another scrum. Dupuy made up for it by slowing down CJ at the base of the scrum but when Stade forced the game with a forward pass it gave Munster another opportunity and kept them in the right part of the field.
From that scrum they won another penalty which they again kicked to touch. Billy Holland claimed the ball and this time the maul was successful and they were rewarded with the first try of the game after 18 minutes when Sherry touched down. We were delighted and even though the conversion went wide it was great to see the team rewarded for the pressure they had exerted.
The usually reliable Steyn missed a penalty kick a few minutes later after Stade won another penalty from their powerful scrum. It was great to see Dave Foley claim the restart and Munster went on the attack again.
Ten minutes later Steyn had another chance when Foley infringed at the lineout and this time was successful to take a 5-6 lead coming up to half-time.
Stade Francais has a lineout near halfway but they overthrew it and Tommy O’Donnell was quickest to react. The ball was spread wide quickly to Keatley and Saili as per my photo above. Keith Earls had us jumping up and down on the terrace as he dummied, his dancing feet taking him outside the defender before he accelerated to run in from half way! It looked like he had been caught shy of the line by Macalou but his momentum was enough to carry him over the line to score under the posts. Keatley converted and the place erupted! There was genuine delight mixed with relief that the team’s first half dominance and possession had been rewarded. We did not even have a replay to enjoy before the screens went black as the ref blew for half-time but we knew we had witnessed something special, a piece of magic by the Earl of Thomond. Conor pulled up a vine of it on his phone and we marvelled at the skill on display! That could well get him into contention for the Six Nations team we speculated as Joe Schmidt looked on.
It’s funny the lengths some people go to in order to get a mention in the blog! Ger and Fiona “face-timed” us at half time from their honeymoon in St Lucia I believe. There they were in their beach wear while we were in danger of frostbite on the terrace!
The team did a quick warm up before the second half started – getting a welcoming cheer as they sprinted over towards us. They got off to the ideal start, quick ball off a lineout, Sherry carried strongly before Keatley chipped over the defence for Zebo to show he also can turn on the after-burners as he scorched through the gap to claim the ball and score a try, his 41st which takes him level with Anthony Horgan at the top of the Munster try-scoring charts!
Stade Francais did not give up though and won a penalty to take them into the Munster 22. They tested the defence but a great effort by CJ Stander who got his hands on the ball while staying on his feet to win the penalty, allowed Munster to clear the danger.
With half an hour to go Donnacha Ryan and John Ryan were launched from the bench but a key turning point came just moments later when Ronan O’Mahony and Hugo Bonneval collided as Hugo was in the air and fell into Ronan. It was always going to be a card and in this case JP Doyle decided that yellow would be the appropriate colour. Would Munster manage to survive the 10 minutes? Absolutely as they upped their intensity and tackled like dervishes to hold Stade Francais scoreless, driving their quarry into touch and executing superb choke tackles through Saili and Scannell at one stage, Keatley and Sherry a few minutes later.
Rory Scannell was forced off through injury after tackling the man mountain that is Sergio Parisse. Hopefully it is not too serious an injury as he has proven himself a great addition to the team in attack and defence throughout this difficult period as evidenced by the huge cheer he got as he left the pitch. Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino replaced him with Earls moving into midfield.
A lineout error near the Munster 5m line brought Stade Francais back into the game as flanker Jonathan Ross took advantage of the over throw to touch down near the posts and Steyn converted to bring the score to 19-13.
A high tackle on CJ Stander gave Munster another penalty opportunity which they again opted to kick to touch. Foley claims and the maul made ground before it goes wide to Earls and then Zebo to made progress up the opposite wing where the tackler does not roll away to give Munster a penalty. Taken quickly by Conor Murray and while he did not get there himself the ball was recycled and captain CJ Stander crashed over to score the bonus point try. Ian Keatley kicked the conversion to restore the lead to 26-13 with just over 10 minutes left.
The fresh legs of Niall Scannell and Robin Copeland were followed a few minutes later by Tomas O’Leary and Jack O’Donoghue to give new impetus to the team and the crowd again showed their appreciation for those replaced.
Watching a scrum near us in the 76th minute, when we saw a hand going in – to hook the ball – we roared out in protest, the Assistant Referee had also seen it and called it to the referees attention to give Munster the penalty. Liam O’Connor, an Academy prop got on for a few minutes of action when he replaced Kilcoyne for the subsequent lineout.
Stade Francais were still looking for at least the losing bonus point as the clock ticked down and played Barbarian style rugby looking for a breakthrough. The black defensive line kept them at bay but they won an important penalty just before full time. The defence held firm, conceding no penalties until an important choke tackle started by Zebo brought proceedings to an end.
The referee had us puzzled by some of his calls, especially at scrum time and some of his signalling would appear to indicate advantage one way and yet meant the other. I was also surprised that the Assistant Referees both wore dark tops which could have been confused with the Munster kit.
The Stade Francais players came over to thank their supporters in the west side and we were delighted to see Francis Saili encourage some of his team-mates to come over to thank the Munster faithful still clapping and waving flags on the west terrace and stand. Not a lap of honour but an opportunity to say thanks for keeping the faith and for our contribution to the atmosphere and occasion. Kevin had been in great voice, leading us throughout the game in song, singing Stand Up and Fight, or The Fields of Athenry as we had helped to create a great atmosphere. We had urged on every maul and tackle and cheered every turnover.
After the game the loud and friendly group of Stade Francais supporters were eagerly collecting / swopping flags and scarfs and were still singing. It was nice to meet Allan who was with the MRSC USA group after the game, he was impressed by Tony’s cap with all the pins and wanted to make a contribution to it so Tony swopped one with him. He was telling us that this is their 4th visit and they are on a 100% success rate so far so they are very welcome back!
There was a large gang of the MRSC Dublin regulars in Limerick and I also met James, Carmel and Paddy in the bar as I thawed out, plus Miriam, Daryl, Eddie and Bernie outside. Everyone was in great form. The win today does not paper over the well-publicised cracks but it does restore hope for the rest of the season as this was the level of intensity, pride in the jersey and commitment in attack and defence that have traditionally been our strength and helped Munster achieve so much over the years.
Thanks to those who have encouraged me over the past weeks also, especially those who took the time to share my blog and/or comment on it. I have often wondered if people check back to see my response to their comment so I was glad to see regular commenter Peter did so last week and appreciated the link I included in my reply to Quinny’s article in the Independent during the week.
Remember you can follow me on facebook/WTView where I have saved some other photos I took at the game, Twitter (@WTView) or enter your email address to subscribe to my blog which will be coming to you from Treviso next weekend. I look forward to meeting some of you there! Arrivederci.
Highlights are available on the Sky site
Munster Rugby: Simon Zebo; Keith Earls, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Mario Sagario, Dave Foley, Mark Chisholm, Billy Holland, Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander (capt).
Replacements: John Ryan for Sagario, Donnacha Ryan for Chisholm (both 49 mins), Lucas Amorosino for R Scannell (61 mins), Niall Scannell for Sherry, Robin Copeland for Holland (both 69 mins), Jack O’Donoghue for Stander, Tomas O’Leary for Murray (both 74 mins), Liam O’Connor for Kilcoyne (77 mins).
Stade Français Paris: Hugo Bonneval, Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, Jonathan Danty, Paul Williams, Julien Arias, Morné Steyn, Julien Dupuy, Zak Taulafo, Laurent Panis, Rabah Slimani, Paul Gabrillagues, Pascal Papé, Sekou Macalou, Jonathan Ross, Sergio Parisse (capt).
Replacements: Sylvain Nicolas for Macalou (58 mins), Hugh Pyle for Papé (65 mins), Heinke Van der Merwe for Taulafo, Paul Alo Emile for Slimani (both 61 mins), Julien Tomas for Dupuy (74 mins), Jules Plisson for Steyn (74 mins). Not used: Zurabi Zhvania, Jérémy Sinzelle.
PS: Gerry Thornley agreed with me that the 14,000+ in attendance made the noise of twice that many! As he wrote: “those that were in attendance were up for the fight, both in spirit and in song. Better a noisy semi-empty stadium than a quiet full one.”