It felt like the good ol’ days, an English premiership team rolling into Thomond Park with confidence and being bowled over by the Thomond Park factor. Leicester had been the most successful visiting team throughout our European history, winning both their previous visits. Maybe that was a factor sub-consciously for them or did Munster find extra motivation from their desire to right the record after suffering home and away defeats at this stage last season? Whichever, and maybe a combination of both, this result is a big step forward in the rebuilding of the Fortress reputation of Thomond Park and is going to resonate around Europe as Munster (and the boom) is back!
This was a win built on solid foundations:
- Jacques Nienabar and the team deserve huge credit for the meanness of the defence this season. The intensity and work-rate on and off the ball, excellent linespeed in defence, hitting their target and getting up quickly to track down and hit the next, scrambling when necessary have made Munster a hard team to beat.
- The maul and choke tackles were superbly executed by Munster, and well defended whenever Leicester tried to do the same.
- Fantastic discipline to minimise penalties ensured Leicester did not get any easy possession or points.
- Totally secure under the high ball, I wondered why Leicester kicked so much ball back to them.
- Excellent kicking out of hand as the out halves pulled the strings and kept Munster on the front foot.
- A back three who chased those kicks to win back possession or at the least ensure no easy balls for their opposite numbers. Darren Sweetnam brings a certain X factor to the team which combined with the Z factor and the fancy footwork of the Earl of Thomond himself gives the crowd plenty to cheer.
- That trio were superbly complemented by the midfield whose defence and getting over the gainline in attack is a pleasure to watch.
- A pack approaching international standards again as it was back in the heyday of Munster. Of the starting 8 only Niall Scannell has yet to be capped and if he keeps injury free he must have a chance for the summer tour to Japan given his ball carrying, scrummaging and lineout skills.
- A bench (and an A team) with serious quality as the competition for places drives up the standards and the single training base is also paying dividends.
Munster stifled all the threats in a Leicester team on a good run of wins themselves. The much-vaunted battle of the nines and the attacking threat posed by Vanipola were not allowed to materialise. Indeed, Ben Youngs was totally outplayed and withdrawn from the game before the hour mark while Manu’s biggest impact was his yellow card.
An early break by CJ with Conor on his shoulder got Munster into a great position but the unusual sight of CJ not getting up after being tackled had us worried. The play went on and Munster were close to scoring only to be penalised. The cheer when CJ took to his feet was louder than if the team had scored and as he went on to win yet another man of the match award our concern was justified.
Leicester’s young fullback, George Worth was targeted and pressurised throughout as time and again Darren Sweetnam competed in the air with him under the high ball.
The ever-competitive Peter O’Mahony won an early Leicester lineout to give Munster possession. How we missed him last season!
Have to add this one in also – what a super photo!
Shortly after, Darren chased another kick and managed to bat the ball back for CJ and that led to the first kickable penalty on 10 minutes which Tyler slotted between the posts to go 3-0 up.
A choke tackle won Munster possession via a scrum and from it a super kick from Tyler got our applause (and a tv appearance) as he brought Munster deep into their 22. An offside infringement gave Munster a second kickable penalty which they took to make it 6-0 after 15’.
Five minutes later, a penalty against Donnacha for pulling down their lineout gave Freddy Burns his first – and as it turned out his last – kick at goal. The crowd let their voices be heard to protest when the kicking tee or ball was placed down closer to the posts than where the penalty had been awarded and we cheered when Poite himself went over and nudged it back to the right place with his foot! “Merci Monsieur” yelled Tony before we lapsed into silence for the kick itself. Did it make a difference? Maybe, given the kick fell short and we felt we (the west terrace match officials) had done our bit again.
George Worth was again targeted by Murray’s box-kick and we roared our approval when Taute flattened him with a perfectly timed tackle before getting to his feet quickly to drive over and win back possession. It was another statement of intent and led a few phases later to Munster winning another penalty. They again opted to kick for the posts to make it 9-0.
A double hit by Jaco and CJ resulted in another penalty against the visitors as CJ was on his feet competing for the ball. It was kicked for touch as Rory went off for blood injury to be replaced by Ian Keatley. A penalty against #4 Ed Slater for early pushing as Munster deployed the maul from that lineout was also successfully kicked to make it 12-0 after 27 minutes.
When Leicester conceded another penalty on the half-hour mark, there was a warning to Leicester so when two minutes later there was another penalty Romain Poite produced a yellow card for Ed Slater who went to the sinbin. The penalty kick went wide; I blamed the noise from the minis who were excited about coming on at half time as we could hear when someone opened the door in the tunnel behind us as Tyler lined up his kick 🙂
However, when Munster got possession back they held onto it for 18 phases, working hard to put the pressure on the Leicester defence until finally a clever reverse pass by Conor Murray put Simon Zebo into space with one to beat before he touched down behind the posts. While the chant of “Ze-bo, Ze-bo” rang out it was a great team try featuring backs and forwards – Earls, O’Donnell, Donnacha and John Ryan, Kilcoyne, Zebo, Stander, Keatley all doing the ball carrying while the others helped clear out and protect possession. See the breakdown of the score (all 18 phases) from The42.ie which praises the players for their: “aggressive rucking, explosive ball-carrying, accurate decision-making, sharp passing, directness and an intelligent subtle edge. All of those things are being produced with technical excellence and a relentless work rate.”
The half time mood was upbeat but we expected a response from the visitors. The update from Paris of a Glasgow win was surprising and could well mean that Racing have no interest in the competition come our games against them in January. After hearing Frankie Sheahan mention on Newstalk that his son would be with the Cork Con minis at half-time I looked to see if I could see a resemblance to him amongst the boys but failed. They seemed to enjoy their time on the pitch anyway.
The 2nd half had some scrappy moments. An early choke tackle won a scrum for Munster but the kick by Rory was judged out on the full. It was very close call! So when the resultant Leicester lineout was not straight it felt like poetic justice. However, Leicester were awarded a free kick from the Munster scrum as possession changed hands again. Super defence especially by Jaco won the home team the put-in to another scrum. This time the exit strategy was a box kick. Earls got above his bigger opposite number to get the ball to Zebo. Simon kicked through for Earls to chase and put pressure on the defence deep in their half. A poor clearance kick gave Munster a lineout in great position from which they deployed a superb maul with Donnacha urging them forward.
Conor made a break down the wing. Munster kept possession. Tommy then John Ryan brought play in closer to the posts before Jaco barged over to score the second try.
Freddie Burns was injured and had to be replaced. With half an hour remaining, the bonus point was on and yet we expected Leicester to strike back.
Darren made a break on 56’ and his super offload to Taute – running a great support line – resulted in the third try, a second for Jaco. Two minutes later, another yellow card was shown, this time to Tuilagi for trying to clear out a ruck with no arms.
The best opportunity for Tigers to score came about 64’ when a cross-field kick was collected by Thompstone. O’Connor took his offload and made one of his own to Roberts who was tackled by Zebo. When Munster were penalised at the next scrum Tigers kicked to touch. Munster ripped the ball off them and Tyler kicked to touch. It was a great turnover and it was cheered as loudly as if we were neck and neck on the scoreboard as there was no let-up in intensity, on or off the field.
Another kick was not dealt with by Leicester as the bouncing ball was claimed by Niall. It was moved out wide to Darren who gained metres before kicking it ahead for Jaco to chase. He was pulled down and while he may not have gotten to the ball before it went out of play the referee decided it was a yellow card offence for Worth and a penalty try for Munster. Bonus point secured and Munster held on to their clean sheet!
As the team gathered in a circle in midfield after clapping off Leicester I expect that they were already focusing on next weeks game and ensuring they prepare properly for that to take a massive step towards qualification for the knock out stages. As the circle broke up Jaco Taute came over towards the west to applaud the crowd. Maybe that was his last home appearance as Francis Saili is expected to be ready to play by Christmas after recovering from his shoulder injury. As short-term cover for him Jaco has won the hearts and minds of the red army as he bought into the values of the club and helped them through a difficult time. Who knows, maybe the stars (of the IRFU, Munster and Jaco himself) will align at some time in the future and he will return but if not to be he takes our appreciation and best wishes for his career back to South Africa with him. The younger players will have learnt a lot from practicing against or playing alongside him. Maybe in years to come he will be the one to encourage other South Africans to come to Munster as Trevor, Jean and Justin have done before him.
Pre-match Duncan Casey was interviewed pitchside to plug the Munster Rugby podcast he hosted which launched this week. It is well worth a listen as he chats to Conor, Francis and Wally.
BT posted the highlights video here while currently on YouTube you can see the full game (it may be removed)
The ESPN stats are impressive and highlight the great discipline and defensive effort
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: Ian Keatley for R Scannell (25-35 mins, blood) and for T Bleyendaal (72 mins), Jean Kleyn for B Holland (57 mins), Thomas du Toit for D Kilcoyne, Jack O’Donoghue for T O’Donnell (all 57 mins), Duncan Williams for C Murray (63 mins), Andrew Conway for S Zebo (68 mins).
LEICESTER: George Worth; Peter Betham, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Williams, Adam Thompstone; Freddie Burns, Ben Youngs; Ellis Genge, Tom Youngs (capt), Logovi’i Mulipola; Ed Slater, Graham Kitchener; Mike Fitzgerald, Brendon O’Connor, Lachlan McCaffrey. Replacements: Luke Hamilton for M Fitzgerald (HIA, 42 mins), Jack Roberts for F Burns (HIA, 51 mins), Greg Bateman for L Mulipola (51 mins), Sam Harris for B Youngs (55 mins).
Match report from the Irish Times and Independent and The42.ie while the ThreeRedKings have some super tweets of the highlights and a blog out also. The Guardian perspective is also worth reading, they are very complimentary of the Munster players.
Also adding this from a different article in the Irish Times: “That was a great performance in a great atmosphere,” Cockerill conceded. “When they come to Welford road next week we need to stick a stake in the ground. We need to meet them head on. I’ll be buggered if we are going to concede the Pool. That’s not what Leicester is about.”
The International Red Army
Bernie and Eddie told me to look out for their friend, Frenchman Fabien who was over for the game and going to the Leicester leg also. In fairness he was hard to miss with his red wig, red shorts and red painted face! I found him in the MRSC bar after the game and said hello. He and his friend Romain are heading to Cork, Cashel, Kilkenny and Dublin before going over to Leicester. A few weeks ago I met another French supporter and regular reader Arnaud in Limerick. There were other two French men from Clermont in front of us at the game also wearing their Yellow Army jackets – why they were in Limerick and not Belfast I am not sure!
Rob was looking forward to his first ever European home game in Thomond park (an item on his bucket list to tick off before his 40th) which made getting up at 5 a.m. to take the early flight to Shannon from Manchester worthwhile. Given I had met him at some away games (Saracens, Leicester and earlier this season for his day trip to the Leinster game), all of which Munster had lost I hoped he was not the unlucky factor! He was disappointed to miss the Sale victory 2 years ago despite living close by as he had a prior commitment but he is proud of the fact that he saw some of the younger players on their way up when he supported the A team captained by Jack O’Donoghue playing in Rotherham a few years ago. Co-incidentally the Munster A team won there this weekend! When Rob got in touch to say he was coming to the game and had a ticket for the west terrace I asked him which side (north or south) as there is a walkway between them where the minis enter the pitch so you can’t cross over. He had not realised that and his ticket was for the other side but we got in touch with MRSC and they sorted it out with Ticketmaster so he could change his ticket and meet the characters he reads about through this blog which he has been following since the early days.
Kudos also to Sean – a very passionate Munster supporter – who went out of his way to provide a lift to Dublin airport after the game for a person who only “knew” through twitter. It is that type of camaraderie which makes the Red Army special. We three and many others will be in Leicester next Saturday, bring on the second half! Doesn’t 8 in a row sound perfect as we approach the 8th Sunday in the #8MassesForNumber8?
All photos by Gayl – check out the full collection on https://www.facebook.com/wtview/
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