A unique evening in Cork for the second and final pre-season friendly as local legend Donncha O’Callaghan came home, to line out with his team Worcester Warriors against some of his old team mates. Since he had slipped away without a fuss last year it was great for the supporters to have an opportunity to show their respect and appreciation for the Munster legend. I wrote a tribute blog when his departure was announced last September in which I described him as “one of a kind,” not just for his infamous red underwear and joking pranks but also for his wonderful way with supporters. According to his post match interview in the Irish Examiner he found the experience emotional and humbling.
The cheer when his name was called out over the PA system as both teams were announced before the game was fantastic but completely over-shadowed by the cheers and standing ovation when he departed the field in the second half. It is rare for a player on the visiting team to experience such a warm welcome and appreciation but after his performances for Munster over 17 seasons it was well deserved.
Earlier, while the Worcester players waited on the pitch for the arrival of Munster several of his current team mates went over to give the big man a hug. Many of us there probably wished we could do the same. Putting the emotion of the evening to one side Donncha threw himself into the game with his usual passion, charging after the kick-off and challenging for the ball throughout. I am sure he and his family appreciated the warm welcome and appreciation for one of our own true warriors and legends, plus some inevitable slagging about his flowing locks.
The game itself was an entertaining affair with ten trys, of which seven were scored by Munster. The three conceded in the final quarter (albeit after many substitutions were made) will ensure that the players have plenty to focus on as they ramp up in preparation for the Pro12 first round game, away in Wales next Saturday against Scarlets. There were plenty of positives to enjoy. The weather conditions were much better than the previous week, suitable for running rugby. The sun just went behind the clouds and then the stand as the game started so we were not squinting into it!
There was an encouraging improvement in intensity levels and handling skills, a positive attitude and strong defence. The mass substitutions around the 50 and 60 minute marks had an impact but it is good to see the talent coming through the Academy system as evidenced when Alex Wootton won the turnover, setting up Conor Oliver who made an excellent break leading to the 6th Munster try finished off by Cian Bohane. With the internationals including Earls, Murray and Stander unavailable for selection apparently until round 3 of the Pro12 there will be an opportunity for some of the up and coming players to take this opportunity to stake a claim for inclusion before the European squads have to be submitted, as Rory Scannell did last season.
Worcester started strongly, testing the Munster defence. An early lineout did not go to hand but overall the Munster lineout, maul and scrum were potent. An excellent kick set up field position for Munster inside the opposition 22. Niall Scannell lurking at the back of the lineout claimed the loose ball and charged for the line. While he was held up short Munster retained possession and it was James Cronin who scored the first try of the evening. A Worcester player was injured in the build-up and play was stopped while he was attended to before eventually the stretcher was summoned. Every precaution was taken before removing him from the field to applause from the crowd, conveying to him our best wishes for a speedy recovery. The conversion was successfully taken by Tyler Bleyendall, book-marking his contribution to the score. It was great to see Tyler back in action after two fairly horrendous injury-raven seasons. Last time we saw him play was the Christmas game against Leinster when he could hardly kick the ball on a miserable night for the team and supporters. Hopefully we will see a lot more of him this season. Shortly afterwards Tyler had an easy penalty to convert from in front of the posts to make it 10-0.
A lineout secured by Billy set up an early maul from which Niall Scannell popped the ball up for Duncan Williams to make a break. While that move broke down it was encouraging to see the players so comfortable with the ball in hand throughout the game.
A warning from the referee to Worcester meant that the next offender could be in trouble and so it proved to be with a yellow card shown to their prop after conceding a penalty. Munster’s scrum had been solid so with the man advantage they opted for the scrum. After several resets due to repeated Worcester infringements as Munster turned the screw, the referee awarded a penalty try to bring the score to 17-0 after just 25 minutes.
The third try came after more dominance by the forwards who secured their lineout in the Worcester 22 before setting up the maul around debutant and birthday boy Jean Kleyn. Good work by captain Billy Holland, Jack O’Donoghue and Tommy O’Donnell all helped keep the pressure on Worcester before the ball was moved out to the backs and it was Simon Zebo who scored just after the half hour mark.
Then the backs grabbed the spotlight in style – a chip over the top by Tyler was gathered by Simon and offloaded to Rory Scannell whose pass to his midfield partner Dan Goggin continued the attack. For the second week in a row Dan’s pass to Darren resulted in a try as he rounded the defence to touchdown nearer to the posts. Again the try was converted and a half-time score of 31-0 was good reward for the efforts of the team.
Earlier in the half, Ronan O’Mahony chasing a box kick collided heavily with their fullback Jackson Willison right in front of us near the halfway line. Thankfully, after treatment, both players were deemed fit to play on.
There were very few faults to be found in the first half so the mood was positive during the interval. There was real intent and purpose about the team and while the opposition was not at the standard of many teams to be faced this season it was a major improvement over the performance at the same stage last season when Munster lost to both Connacht and Grenoble before beating London Irish in the three friendlies.
In the second half, Ronan O’Mahony (the eventual man of the match) showing no ill effects from his earlier collision finished off the attack set-up by another good Munster maul after the first raft of replacements took to the field, Ian Keatley and Tomas O’Leary both being involved in that score.
The clean sheet of the season (after last weekends 17-0 win) lasted until the 60th minute when Worcester stretched the defence and Josh Adams broke through down the west side of the pitch. Ryan Lamb converted to make it 38-7. The second batch of mass substitutions followed and gave Munster the perfect response through the Bohane try to make it 45-7.
Worcester again broke through down the west side to reduce the deficit, this time scored by GJ Van Velze . Another excellent conversion by Lamb made it 45-14. However, just 2 minutes later, Ian Keatley showed his pace and a clean pair of heels to run in under the posts after intercepting a Worcester pass inside his own 22. He then maintaining the 100% kicking record of both teams as he also converted his try.
In the final play of the game Perry Humphreys scored the third for Worcester, again successfully converted by Lamb to bring the evening to a close. People went home in good mood, pleased with the performances and daring to be optimistic about the coming season. It was great to see some of my Thomond Park west terrace friends there, albeit we are east terrace folks in Cork! Ian came over to say hello and to wish me all the best with the blog this season while the mascot Oscar did his best to mess up my hair while giving me a hug! Next weekend I will be catching up with the MRSC Dublin gang to watch the match against Scarlets. Hopefully Munster will kick off their league campaign in style but it will be a step up again in intensity. The dress rehearsals are over, a good start will set the team up well for the season and build momentum before the European adventure kicks off in October.
Munster XV: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Dan Goggin, Rory Scannell, Ronan O’Mahony; Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams; James Cronin, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland – capt., Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, Jack O’Donoghue.
Replacements from: Duncan Casey, Peter McCabe, John Andress, Brian Scott, Darren O’Shea, Dave Foley, Conor Oliver, Robin Copeland, Tomás O’Leary, Ian Keatley, Alex Wootton, Cian Bohane, Colm O’Shea, Stephen Fitzgerald.
Worcester Warriors: Jackson Willison; Dean Hammond, Wynand Olivier, Max Stelling, Cooper Vuna; Tom Heathcote, Jonny Arr; Val Rapava Ruskin, Niall Annett, James Johnston; Donncha O’Callaghan, Darren Barry; Alafoti Faosiliva, Carl Kirwan, GJ van Velze (c)
Replacements used: Marco Mama, Na’ama Leleimalefaga, Mike Daniels, Jaba Bregvadze, Tevita Cavubati, Josh Adams, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Ryan Lamb, Phil Dowson, Luke Baldwin, Perry Humphreys, Jamie Shillcock.
It is a week of homecomings as the Olympic athletes returned to Ireland. I went out to Dun Laoghaire to welcome home Annalise Murphy, the men’s and women’s 49ers sailors, the irrepressible badminton player Scott Evans and 4 members of the Irish hockey team. You can see some of my photos of that evening on my facebook page. The homecoming in Skibbereen / Lisheen should be amazing too, especially as Paul O’Donovan added the World Championship gold medal to his CV in Rotterdam this weekend. What an inspiration they have been! Indeed our Olympians have been great ambassadors for their sports and Ireland should reap the rewards in the future generations of rowers, sailors etc. As I wrote in my pre-season blog I would love to see the O’Donovans (and Irish hurdling record setter Thomas Barr) introduced to the supporters at a Munster game so we can show them our appreciation also.
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