Leicester wanted it more. Their backs were to the wall, their management were under pressure, they needed to show their pride in the jersey and put their bodies on the line when Munster arrived for the second leg of the December head to head games. Yet the game was finely balanced, both teams were up for it and threw the kitchen sink at each other – both during phases of play and now and again as handbags or a “bit of afters” broke out. It could have gone either way but it was Leicester who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Their performance was not a surprise after reading Mick Cleary who had warned: “the return leg has become an exercise in redemption and credibility. Leicester’s sporting manhood has been called into question and an urgent response is needed.”
It was not a game of flowing rugby, the referee was busy with his whistle and the battle of the breakdown yielded penalties for both teams – in from the side, not releasing, not rolling away – to add to the others such as obstruction, dangerous tackle, pulling down the maul, lineout etc. Twenty six penalties in all, equally distributed between the teams, making it a very stop-start game, frustrating the players and supporters of both sides.
The penalties enabled the teams to take the points and keep the scoreboard ticking over. Sometimes they kicked to touch – a statement of intent as the maul was such an effective weapon and itself a rich source of penalties.
From my position – on the South Stand Terrace near the try line – it was a game of two halves at least from a territory point of view as we had very little action in our corner of the pitch throughout! Match stats from ESPN also show a high number of turnovers:
The intensity was not paired with the same accuracy that we had enjoyed the previous week, particularly the kick-chase tactic and the tackle stats (80% for Munster compared to 98% the previous week). Both sides performances were error strewn, not surprising given the stakes – with a restart kicked out on the full, ball passed out of play, players getting isolated and kicks sliced or kicked out on the full from outside the 22 to concede territory.
When Simon Zebo was obstructed after he had kicked ahead Munster were awarded a penalty from where the ball had landed and first blood on the scoreboard as Tyler sent it through the posts.
A second penalty from a good rolling maul was also converted from just outside the 22 to make it 6-0 after 18 minutes despite Leicester having had most of the possession (79% at that stage according to BT Sport).
Leicester won a penalty just about half-way and kicked for touch to set up the maul. Munster won a turnover and the danger was averted.
A third kickable penalty opportunity was awarded approaching 26 minutes against Tom Youngs, a decision which was booed and incensed a supporter nearby. “Cheat, Cheat” he yelled before declaring that he would not respect the kicker with silence and he started chanting something along the lines of 9 points for the team in red.. There were calls to hush and it did quieten down – listening to the game back on YouTube Jerry Flannery even lowered his voice as BT Sport insisted on asking him a question at that time! The Tigers supporters were delighted when the kick was unsuccessful.
However Munster gathered the restart through Sweetnam and went back on the attack. Rory Scannell was injured approaching the half hour mark as Manu Tuilagi shoulder charged him (late) and for this offence a yellow card was brandished, his second in two games. Munster kicked for touch and did get into the 22 before they were penalised when they failed to protect the ball and were dinged for holding on.
Genge made a super charge into the Munster 22, batting defenders out of his way. It resulted in a penalty for Leicester when Munster infringed which Owen Williams put over the bar to get Leicester on the scoreboard after 34 minutes despite being down to 14 men. A second penalty opportunity 4 minutes later enabled them to tie the scores at 6-all and the number of penalties conceded at 5-all just before Tuilagi returned.
From the restart there were 16 seconds left on the clock so when Leicester kicked the ball out thinking time was up Munster had a final lineout opportunity before half-time.
Roberts won’t make that mistake again! Munster mauled their way into the Tigers 22m and forced the hosts to concede another penalty. The ball failed to turn in between the posts and it remained all square.
Bleyendaal had an early chance to make up for it within 4 minutes of the restart as the breakdown work by Hamilton was penalised and this time Tyler put Munster back into the lead.
On 49′ Munster conceded a penalty which Williams struck well to make it 9-9 and when another was conceded on 53 minutes for not rolling away the captain Peter O’Mahony was warned that they needed to improve their discipline as Leicester took the lead for the first time at 12-9. Roberts had made a great break for the Tigers leading up to that stage.
As the temperature dropped and a slight mist rolled in, Munster upped the intensity and got into the Leicester 22 and for multiple phases within 5m of the try line as they probed left and right for a weakness. A loose pass gave Leicester a counter-attack opportunity and Simon Zebo showed his great pace as he chased back. He got to Thompstone just as he had kicked the ball ahead. To me Simon was committed to the tackle but the TMO and referee conferred and decided that it warranted a yellow card as much for the repeated infringements as per his earlier warning. So fifteen minutes to go and with a man advantage for ten of those as Owen Williams put them into a 6 point lead with his successful penalty kick: 15 – 9.
Munster were determined to fight to the final whistle and through the pack and their maul put the pressure on Leicester who in their turn earned a team warning for infringing. It looked like Munster had crossed the try line but probably did not ground the ball as the referee awarded a penalty instead which was kicked to touch. Another lineout secured and mauled as the clock ticked down on the sinbinning. The referee’s arm indicated advantage again as the Tigers tried to collapse the maul but Niall Scannell broke from the back to score the try. Tom Youngs was sinbinned for being the one to concede the penalty as Tyler stepped up to take the crucial conversion. We watched the flight of the ball as it headed towards the post, thinking it was not going to make it as Tyler had slipped as he was kicking but it managed to creep in over the bar and Munster were back in the lead and back to 15 players. Could they hold on for 4 minutes and claim victory?
The referee got in the way of the pass from the ruck by Duncan Williams so Munster had to put in to the scrum. The travelling supporters were feeling jubiliant as the Fields rang out. CJ Stander charged forward and yet again we heard the shrill blast of the whistle as Munster were penalised. Owen Williams stepped forward to take the kick at goal from a few metres inside his own half. A hush descended as he eyed up his target. The 52m kick cleared the bar with a few extra metres to spare and Leicester were back in front. The home crowd was ecstatic. From the restart there were just 30s left and Leicester kept possession and the historic double over Leicester was denied by a fantastic ballsy kick from his own half by MOTM Owen Williams.
Leicester: George Worth; Peter Betham (Tom Brady 71), Jack Roberts, Manu Tuilagi, Adam Thompstone; Owen Williams, Ben Youngs; Ellis Genge (Logovi’i Mulipola, 60), Tom Youngs (capt), Pat Cilliers (Greg Bateman 50), Ed Slater, Graham Kitchener (Mike Fitzgerald 50), Luke Hamilton, Brendon O’Connor, Lachlan McCaffrey (Mike Williams 60). Subs not used: Harry Thacker, Will Evans, Sam Harrison
Munster: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls (Andrew Conway 69); Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray ( Duncan Williams 72); Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin 50), Niall Scannell, John Ryan (Stephen Archer, 74), Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland (Jean Kleyn 50), Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell (Jack O’Donoghue, 62), CJ Stander. Subs not used: Rhys Marshall, Ian Keatley
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
The 24k+ attendance ensured a noisy atmosphere. The large travelling contingent made themselves heard with great renditions of “The Fields of Athenry”, chants of Munster and Tigers… The terrace is so close to pitch, within spitting distance and they have great involvement with their juniors before and during half time. I had hoped to meet regular Monday evening commenter Peter who had travelled up from Wales for the game but he forgot to bring his phone so we couldn’t find each other. I did meet one of my former managers Paul who saw last weeks blog thanks to MRSC sharing it on their social media pages. It was nice to hear he thought it was great. I appreciate the share by MRSC as with their huge following it always drives up my views by a thousand or more and some of those then following the blog by email or facebook. If you are a first time reader this is written a bit tongue in cheek – trying to cram in as many clichés as possible! A far cry from my blog about the Maori AB game which earned a comment from Margaret: “A wonderful article-beautifully crafted!”
The Tigers fan beside me was enjoying his beer from a large (2 pint) glass and we enjoyed the company of him and his partner. As Owen Williams lined up one of his later penalties and the stadium hushed, someone nearby nearly had us laugh out loud as he loudly whispered a few lines from the Bjork song “It’s oh so quiet!” At half time prizes were “shot” into the crowd – I think it was a tee shirt folded small enough to fit into the gun while the minis had a competition to catch balls and there was a Santa and Elf on the pitch also.
If we had been offered 6-4 from the head to head with Leicester at the start of the season we would have been happy with it as a marked improvement from last season. While 9-1 would have been super and I was quietly confident that the team could deliver it was not to be. With Racing out of contention after three consecutive losses, the games in Paris and Limerick in January have an unexpected dynamic. Will they want to prove a point in front of their home support or will they throw in the towel and focus on the Top 14? After getting to the final last season and winning their domestic title it was not expected that they would lose both of their back to back fixtures. Interesting weeks ahead to determine the quarter finalists!
Highlights from BTSport are here
Post match thoughts of Rassie Erasmus are here from The42.ie
In case you missed it Anthony Foley was inducted into the RTE Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday and they put together a lovely montage with contributions from Peter, Gaillimh and more, which you can see here