So now I know what a relegation playoff feels like! The last few weeks/months have been tense and it has not been a vintage season but to finish up with two bonus point wins at home and secure the required Top 6 finish is a relief and there are positives to build on for next season. The single training base and new Director of Rugby plus the return of injured players such as Peter O’Mahony and the emergence of the next generation of talent certainly give grounds for optimism. Being the lowest placed Irish province means the only way is up, right?
It was not a day for fair weather fans with heavy rain on Saturday making the pitch quite sodden. While it was not too wet during the game (feel free to correct me if you experienced otherwise on the uncovered north or south terraces) it did not really stop for long and it would not encourage the casual punter to walk up to the ticket office, unlike the lovely weather from the previous or the following day. However the diehards as CJ referred to them during the week did come along to Thomond to encourage the team to end the season in a positive manner, securing Champions Cup qualification and ensuring we went home not just relieved but with seeds of hope for next season to take us through till August.
Many of the people I spoke to who had renewed their season tickets did so to show their solidarity with the team and with the province. They know they can generally get tickets to any game on the day but signing up for the season ticket shows a level of commitment. As Patrick who also lives in Dublin said, “sure who else would we support?” If I add up the distances travelled to 5 games in Cork, 12 in Limerick (including August friendlies) and the trip to Galway this season I have driven 7,130 km to support Munster this season. That doesn’t include the trips to Leicester and Treviso or my trip to Paris for the original cancelled game. I missed one home game as it clashed with a wedding and I am lucky that I can get out of Dublin early on a Friday afternoon so I got to the Friday night games. I guess diehard is one way to put it and I am not alone! Twitter buddies Sean and Marsha both travelled from Kildare while Carmel came via public transport from Wicklow and too many to mention came from Dublin. After the game in the MRSC bar I met Andy who travelled from Antrim while Kathleen and friends (met in Leicester and Treviso) were over from London. Kathleen was delighted with the new option of an overseas members season ticket for 5 games. Not everyone can get to every game, I am sure there were family events like First Holy Communions on around the country on Saturday which impacted some folks so the new option to transfer tickets for games you can’t attend to another game and therefore bring a friend is another good innovation for next season.
The S4C recording failed so I just had the TG4 highlights to refresh my memory for this weeks edition. Scarlets were keen to secure a semi-final place and came out of the blocks, putting Munster under pressure in the opening exchanges. Scarlets took the lead after 8 minutes courtesy of Steve Shingler when Munster were penalised for not releasing. Munster barely got their hands on the ball and when they did they kicked possession straight back to the Scarlets – who had 66% possession and 74% territory in the first half according to the folks over at ThreeRedKings (no stats on my usual source ESPN this week). On a positive note though the defence was up to the task. The tackles took their toll with first Niall Scannell and then Tommy O’Donnell being withdrawn for Head Impact Assessments – Mike Sherry and Jack O’Donoghue being introduced earlier than planned to the action.
It was Jack O’Donoghue who made the key tackle to kickstart the try-scoring. His tackle knocked the ball loose, Dave O’Callaghan dived in to secure the turnover and Conor Murray was there to whisk the ball away to the back line. Saili took the pass practically standing on the Munster try line. He threaded a grubber through 3 oncoming Scarlets players and it bounced up perfectly for Keith Earls to collect at full pace. He raced past us towards half way as we yelled him on, showing his nifty footwork as he found an angle between 2 more Scarlets players before committing their fullback as he timed his pass back to Saili perfectly, just before he reached the half way line. Saili turned on the gas and touched down without anyone getting a finger to him. His celebrations were exuberant as he showed his appreciation to the supporters and pride in the jersey. Johnny Holland converted to make it 7-3 after 14 minutes.
It looked like Steff Evans was in for a try on 18 minutes. Nigel Owens had awarded it but before the conversion was kicked the protests from the crowd and the TMO in his ear advised him that the final pass from Hadleigh Parkes had been forward so he reversed his decision. Munster did not manage to clear their lines from the subsequent scrum and were penalised for not releasing so Shingler stepped up again to reduce the gap to just a point (7-6 on 22 minutes)
Dave O’Callaghan’s line break got Munster onto the front foot and when they won a penalty they kicked to touch. When Scarlets closed the gap in the lineout Owens awarded a free kick. CJ Stander charged forward and the noise levels rose again as they attacked the Scarlets line – Killer on his 100th cap for the province, followed by his front row team-mate Mike Sherry before Killer took it on again. Archer got in on the front row action with Billy Holland driving him on, then CJ before Killer had a third attempt (Holland also driving him on.) Murray passed to Rory Scannell who managed to duck and swerve his way from a few metres out between the defenders to score his third try of the season. Johnny Holland again converted on 26 minutes.
Shingler converted another 2 penalty kicks after 29 and 38 minutes to keep the scoreboard ticking over for Scarlets; 14-9; 14-12.
At half time there was a lively adapted rugby display with Mallow Barbarians playing Garryowen Lions and all seemed to have a ball judging by the waves and big smiles as they ran off the pitch past us at the end. We were also busy checking half time scores from the other games to see that Ospreys were behind but Edinburgh were ahead in their games as all 6 kicked off at the same time for the final weekend of the season so qualification was still up in the air.
A great chase of the restart by Earls gave Munster the perfect start to the 2nd half when he won a penalty for Munster but unfortunately the resultant kick went wide. The next major incident was when Shingler chipped ahead in the Munster 22. There were chants of “TMO, TMO” from the visiting supporters when he appeared to be tripped. The TMO reviewed the incident to see whether he had been taken out but there was nothing conclusive.
Approaching the hour mark the score was still 14-12 but when Barclay failed to gather a pass, Evans flicked the ball up to Parkes. When he could not secure it Scannell was there to take advantage. Rory scooped the ball up and set off with Ronan O’Mahony (on for the injured Andrew Conway) in support. As Parkes tackled him Rory got the pass away to Ronan who raced clear from the half way line to score the 2nd long distance try of the day and the third for Munster.
Shingler converted another penalty opportunity just minutes later to keep Scarlets in touch (19-15) when Munster were penalised for not driving straight in a scrum. However, a super maul on 68 minutes – Duncan and Ronan even joined in – earned the bonus point try scored by CJ Stander when the maul was taken down and he surged forward again, driven over by Copeland and O’Callaghan. The TMO had to check it but was happy with the grounding.
Bonus point secured and the good news kept coming as Edinburgh were beaten at home by Cardiff and Ulster romped to victory in Swansea while Connacht took the lead in Galway. There was still time for more in Thomond Park though. CJ broke from the ball of a scrum and passed to Scannell who again managed to score despite the efforts of three Scarlets players to stop him getting through. Johnny Holland converted it to bring the season to an end.
CJ Stander was named Man of the Match again :-). What a great end to a great week for him personally as he was recognised by the Irish supporters and his Irish team mates alike scooping both the IRUPA players player of the year award and the supporters player of the year award! That try also brought him to 7 for Munster this season confirming his position as joint top try scorer with Mike Sherry and Simon Zebo.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo (Ian Keatley ’64); Andrew Conway (Ronan O’Mahony ’24 to ’31, permanent ’38), Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Johnny Holland, Conor Murray (Duncan Williams ’58); Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin ’56), Niall Scannell (Mike Sherry ’3), Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’71); Dave Foley (Robin Copeland ’62), Billy Holland; Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell (Jack O’Donoghue ’8), CJ Stander (captain).
SCARLETS: Liam Williams; Gareth Owen, Steff Hughes, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans (Aled Thomas ’72); Steve Shingler, Aled Davies (Gareth Davies ’53); Rob Evans (Dylan Evans ’75), Ken Owens (captain), Peter Edwards (Rhodri Jones ’68); Jake Ball, David Bulbring (Morgan Allen ’55); Lewis Rawlins (Tom Price ’64), James Davies, John Barclay. Replacements not used: Ryan Elias, Jordan Williams.
After the formalities were over the players showed their appreciation for the diehards and we said farewell to each other until next season!
How cute does Keith’s daughter Ella May look?
Up the Deise – the Munster Monster Quiz Final
On Friday I got a text from Dee to ask if I was available to join her Waterford team for the final of the MRSC 6 counties quiz as 2 of the original members could not travel to Thomond. As there was a team of players taking part – Duncan Casey, Keith Earls, Ian Keatley and Dave Kilcoyne – it took a while to get underway. When they arrived they were besieged for photos and autographs but eventually we were down to business. It was great to have the electronic voting for instant results and feedback after each round. There were prizes on offer for the top 4 teams of the 20 competing, including the MRSC London team who had qualified from the heats around the province (and London). The players had an advantage in the question as to which player was youngest and I suspect it may have been they who choose Duncan Casey as MOTM from the previous game v Edinburgh as one team had selected him even though he was not on the team!
It was good craic, I made some valuable contributions to our team effort, including knowing Paulie’s middle name and recognising the Lotus temple from Delhi which I had visited in 1993. We moved up the leaderboard and with one round to go there were 4 teams tied in 3rd place so it was all to play for in the final round. We ended up joint 3rd and in the play-off the man representing Clare was very quick on the buzzer and edged out Bruce but we were delighted to get a One4All voucher each presented by Ian Keatley. See Linda Molloy’s photos from the evening here Thanks to the organisers for the quiz and to MRSC for their efforts throughout the season. As I know from the time I spend on the MRSC Dublin committee lots of volunteers give their time willingly and it is nice to be appreciated.
One of the Limerick teams won the top prize. That team included James who teasingly calls me the Blog Queen as that was how we met, when a mutual friend Eddie suggested I write a blog about James and his wheelchair rugby 7s team (see here). His fiance Sinead was on another Limerick team on the night so there was plenty of banter between them during the quiz but all remains on track for their August wedding.
A reminder to subscribe to get future editions by email and to check out https://www.facebook.com/wtview/ for links to interesting news articles, podcasts, this blog etc over the summer.
Finally I wanted to pay tribute to Joanne Brennan who sadly passed away on May 1st. I enjoyed her company at the 7s event last August and her tweets over the past few years from her own account and the @RugbyIre account. May she rest in peace.