“Punters are looking for unequivocal confirmation from the players what it means for Munster to be in the European Cup… The support is waiting. It’s frustrated but it’s there.” So wrote Ronan O’Gara in his column in the Irish Examiner and so it proved to be. I haven’t experienced such a brilliant, pulsating, noisy, positive, encouraging atmosphere at any other Pro12 Munster game in Cork previously. Maybe the stakes have never been so high for the Pro12 games played there to date!
Cara O’Sullivan led us in a rousing rendition of “Stand up and fight” and the crowd and team were certainly up for the battle from the off. From the cheers welcoming the team, the chanting and singing throughout, to the noisy banging of the war beat on the metal hoardings around the edges of the pitch, sharply contrasting with the hushed almost silence for the kickers, the crowd proved that the 16th man, woman and child is alive and kicking and willing to play their part and of course provide helpful input to the referee and his assistants as required!
Given the game was scheduled for a Friday night kick-off – on a bank holiday weekend to boot – the fact that it was sold out proves that there is plenty of goodwill towards the team. There were some empty seats as presumably some season ticket holders could not get to Cork in time for the game. I met someone from Limerick who only arrived at half-time due to traffic on that route while I had been queuing for 20 minutes on the approach to the Dunkettle roadabout coming off the Dublin road and for another 15 minutes on the exit for the Kinsale Road roundabout so only arrived about 20/25 minutes before kick-off myself.
It has been far from a great season and this win does not paper over those cracks but the regulars I spoke to have also renewed their season tickets. Hopefully the changes announced this week with the appointment of Johan Erasmus as the new Director of Rugby, along with the move (finally) to one training base from next season will lead to improvements on and off the pitch. For now, the focus remains on a strong finish to this season to secure qualification for the Champions Cup.
The game certainly tested our nerves as after scoring three great tries in the first half we watched anxiously as their lead was whittled down to a single point. CJ Stander was immense throughout, his surging runs from the base of the scrum and in open play putting Munster on front foot time and again (top of the metres run stat for Munster with 18 runs covering 79m) and he was talking and encouraging his team mates throughout. Special mention for Tommy O’Donnell also with 15 tackles made, none missed while Andrew Conway who was the official Man of the Match was superb under the high ball and scored one try plus set up two others.
The red shed was bathed in sunshine and I felt over dressed in my thermal layers but glad I had brought my shades. We spent the first twenty minutes or so shielding our eyes from the setting sun directly opposite and another ten minutes practically shivering in the sleet showers when the temperature dropped but at least the second half was dry. Four seasons in one day weather for sure!
A highlight of the early exchanges was a lovely break by Rory Scannell after CJ Stander had made the initial burst from a lineout but unfortunately there was no one on his shoulder to take the pass. From that turnover, Edinburgh then enjoyed a period of possession. When Munster managed to turnover the ball in turn they immediately handed it back by kicking the ball directly to an Edinburgh player.
However, the defence held firm and kept fighting for the ball, forcing another turnover. Niall Scannell dived on the loose ball. A few phases later, Murray’s hanging box kick was chased and secured by Conway to put Munster on the front foot.
Tommy O’Donnell took it on before passing to CJ Stander. Holland kicked it deep and Earls gave chase to put Edinburgh under pressure. Dave O’Callaghan was there to win the loose ball which was taken forward again by Dave Foley before Tommy O’Donnell was driven forward by Niall Scannell in support as the noise levels and excitement levels rose. When they were halted Murray got the ball to Johnny Holland who in turn passed to Andrew Conway. His deft offload to Rory Scannell resulted in the opening score.
Johnny Holland converted to make it 7-0 after 8 minutes. A great team try and just what we needed to settle into the game.
Max Scott made a super break and while the defence got back Saili was penalised for being offside. Jason Tovey made no mistake to take the points on offer. Then the restart went out on the full giving Edinburgh a scrum on half way. Edinburgh moved their way up the pitch before Tovey dummied and accelerated through a gap between 2 defenders, rounding Zebo to score and convert his own try and take the lead 7-10 on 18’.
Stander led the charge from the restart as Munster worked their way back into the Edinburgh half. A penalty was conceded by the visitors and Holland kicked it between the posts to tie the scores at 10-10. However, Niall Scannell was penalised almost immediately but Tovey missed that kick. The PA reminded us of the tradition of silence as Musgrave Park and got an extra cheer when he had to correct himself to call it Irish Independent Park at which point he conceded “at both parks.” As a side-note I have noticed that other newspaper journalists tend to call it Musgrave Park also, not wanting to plug their competitor.
A knock on gave Munster a scrum just outside their own 22, from which they again quickly got the ball out. Murray passed to Holland who put in a long pass to Saili. From him the ball was taken on by Conway, who after shrugging off the defender raced over the halfway line before kicking ahead. The bounce suited the chasing Zebo who gathered it and touched down in the corner. The conversion was missed but the chants of “Ze-bo, Ze-bo” added to the party atmosphere approaching the half-hour mark.
Shortly afterwards, from another scrum in their own half but on the other side of the pitch, this time it was Johnny Holland who made the break over the half way line before passing to Earls. Saili carried it on and then Archer and Killer were roared on in turn before CJ got over the line but was held up. During a break in play to treat Dave Foley for an injury, “Stand Up And Fight” rang out around the grounds.
When play resumed, from the resultant 5m scrum Conor Murray was forced backwards but Munster retained possession – both Scannell brothers and both (unrelated) Hollands plus CJ were involved before Billy’s pass to the supporting Andrew Conway allowed him to jink through to score the third try as the sleet began to fall. With 34 minutes on the clock the score was 20-10 as the conversion did not have the distance to reach the posts. I was thinking optimistically of a bonus point by half-time but it took an awful lot longer than that… in fact it looked like it may not come at all as the weather deteriorated leading to poor handling and underfoot conditions.
A penalty awarded from a scrum infringement gave Edinburgh the final score of the half. Thankfully the sleet stopped as the teams departed for their break at 20-13 and the big screen showed the image of a beautiful rainbow behind the east terrace which I hoped was a metaphor for the financial boost, estimated at half a million euro which participation in the Champions Cup would provide.
There was a lively game of mini’s at half time and one person was selected to present the man of the match award from those who had tweeted a stadium selfie while the drummers also entertained us.
Just minutes after the restart Jason Tovey converted a penalty opportunity to reduce the margin to 4 points. Tommy O’Donnell won a great turnover to relieve pressure when Edinburgh came on the attack again. Earls chased a garryowen and put Edinburgh under pressure with some great counter-rucking by the arriving support players before Archer was pinged for knocking on to give Edinburgh a scrum.
When it collapsed the referee called in all 6 front row players for a chat. A penalty against Munster made it 6-1 on the penalty conceded stats with 50 minutes played (it ended up at 9-9). From the lineout Edinburgh knocked on and Munster had a scrum. CJ broke from the back and was tackled high in midfield, protests rang out around the ground and when the TMO reviewed it at each replay we protested again wondering if it was worthy of a yellow card. It was adjudged to be just a penalty offence which Holland kicked to touch. However, the lineout was knocked away just as Dave O’Callaghan was set to claim it and the forwards poured forward to put Edinburgh under pressure. James Cronin – freshly arrived off the bench – stormed through the middle and won the turnover and penalty which Holland again kicked to touch.
Edinburgh disrupted the maul and forced a knock-on. From that scrum Archer was penalised and the visitors cleared the danger. They enjoyed a spell of possession but eventually one of them came in from the side to allow Munster escape out of their own half. “Stand Up And Fight” rang out again as the crowd urged the team on to make a breakthrough as we entered the final quarter.
Another Munster knock-on meant another scrum as “The Fields of Athenry” was sung with gusto. The scrum collapsed, a penalty conceded and a warning was issued to the Munster captain as Sam Hidalgo-Clyne stepped up to make it a one point game with 15 minutes remaining.
It was a worrying sight to see CJ requiring attention as Munster won the next penalty but he shrugged it off and carried on as the warrior we know him to be. A superb maul from that lineout got our pulses racing as we yelled them on towards the line. However it was followed by groans of frustration and disappointment as the referee saw nothing wrong with Edinburgh’s defence and instead adjudged Munster had knocked on with the line almost at their mercy. From that scrum he penalised Munster again. John Ryan replaced Stephen Archer while John Andress who will join Munster next season replaced their tight-head, Scottish international WP Nel.
Our nerves were strained further when Conor Murray misjudged a penalty kick, allowing Edinburgh to clear their half, followed by Zebo kicking the ball out on the full as the clock continued to tick down. Edinburgh looked to be making progress but Munster, with Conor Murray prominent held them up to win the turnover. “Munster, Munster” we urged them on.
Cronin chased a garryowen to put Edinburgh under pressure.
They kicked the ball away, only as far as the waiting Holland who chipped and chased after it to tackle the receiver. Cronin arrived in support and again he was immense, driving through to force another turnover. John Ryan picked up the ball and charged forward. Munster won another penalty when Scott went off his feet in the resultant maul.
James Cronin proved the benefit of a strong bench and the importance of impact subs. His fresh legs raised the energy levels as he generally made a nuisance of himself, fighting to turnover the ball and make it difficult for Edinburgh at the breakdown, giving us plenty to cheer.
Johnny Holland found an excellent touch from that penalty with 6’ left. Time for one huge effort. Copeland took the lineout cleanly. “Heave” we urged as the maul motored forward. Edinburgh desperate to stop the momentum came in from the side conceding another penalty, again kicked to touch.
“I spoke to them and said we’re going to the corner, this is the game and this is the season” CJ Stander is quoted as saying post match here
The “Fields of Athenry” rang out during an injury stoppage as we sensed that this was the last stand opportunity to go for the 4th try and deny Edinburgh a losing bonus point. From that lineout it was Billy Holland who secured possession and the maul was set again. More roars of encouragement from the crowd as even Earls joined the maul, taking a leaf out of his father’s book. Murray indicated they had scored but the TMO could not confirm if a try had indeed been scored. However, Munster were given a 5m scrum, a huge moment in the game with 4 minutes left.
CJ picked and drove from the back of the scrum, Jack O’Donoghue was next to take it on. Murray got the pass to Saili running a great angle. He was driven over the line by Cronin, Rory and Billy under the posts. Johnny Holland converted to make it 27-19. Munster secured the kick off and held onto possession, winning a penalty when an Edinburgh player infringed. The cheer that greeted the final whistle when Billy Holland had thought about charging at Edinburgh before swivelling and kicking the ball out to bring proceedings to an end nearly raised the roof of the Red Shed!
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Johnny Holland, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Dave Foley, Billy Holland; Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander (capt).
Replacements: James Cronin for Cronin (55 mins), Mike Sherry for N Scannell (58 mins), Robin Copeland for Foley (63 mins), John Ryan for Archer (69 mins), Jack O’Donoghue for O’Callaghan (75 mins). Not used: Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, Ronan O’Mahony.
EDINBURGH: Blair Kinghorn; Damien Hoyland, Matt Scott, Andries Strauss, Tom Brown; Jason Tovey, Sean Kennedy; Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford (capt), WP Nel; Anton Bresler, Ben Toolis; Jamie Ritchie, John Hardie, Cornell du Preez.
Replacements: Dougie Fife for Kinghorn (10 mins), Stuart McInally for Ford, Chris Dean for Brown (both half-time), Magnus Bradbury for Ritchie (53 mins), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne for Kennedy (55 mins), Rory Sutherland for Dickonson (58 mins), John Andress for Nel, Alex Toolis for Bresler (69 mins).
Post match interview with Billy Holland about the importance of the crowd:
People were not rushing away after the game and it was great to see some of the players coming out to midfield to thank the crowds still standing on the north, east and south terraces for their contribution to the cracking atmosphere. It was nice to meet the Waterford and Cork based regulars from the west terrace as we were leaving and also Ian whose encouraging words about my writing were appreciated as always. Getting an email from Munster Rugby thanking me for my support and encouraging me to go along next weekend immediately after the game was a nice touch.
Hopefully there will be a good crowd in Limerick for our final game of the season as Scarlets will come at us with all guns blazing as they seek a play-off spot. As the league table shows we are still at risk of being overtaken by Ospreys or Edinburgh for Champions Cup qualification. They play Ulster and Cardiff respectively next weekend with all games kicking off at 3pm so it will be a tense afternoon. They both also have home advantage. Hopefully Munster will not be depending on favours from others but will secure Champions Cup qualification in Thomond. Hope to see some of you there.
Note: even if Munster beat Scarlets they cannot overtake them in the league standings due to their inferior number of games won (see the rules in my blog https://westterraceview.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/meritocracy/)
Daryl Feehely has 62 photos available from the game available here .
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