At the European Cup launch Rassie Erasmus said: “When you look at the pool, you look for the easy games and when you look at this group you quickly realise that you are the easy game. We have to change that perception.”
Little did I think when I quoted that last October how events would unfold or how the team, management, supporters and broader rugby community would respond to the tragic death of Anthony Foley. The performances of the team since then have surpassed all expectations as they play to honour the memory of Foley – determined to play the way he wanted. The results have followed, with just the one loss since, away to Leicester, albeit with two close shaves both won by drop goals in the dying minutes in Ulster and Glasgow, where the team showed their grit, “never say die” attitude and pride in the jersey which honours Axel’s memory as much as the other bonus point wins. The impact has been seen off the pitch also, with “Sold out” signs at most home games since, and a genuine bond between the team and supporters as the 16th man, woman and child has raised their game. A far cry from last season when Anthony was appealing to the fans to come out and get behind the team.
Back in October the sympathetic responses of the management and supporters of Racing 92 was appreciated but probably the depth of it was not even realised through the numbness of our shock and grief. They could have insisted on the walkover given the congested nature of the French fixture list. Instead they opened their hearts and their grounds to the Red Army who had arrived for the game. In December we appreciated their thoughtful gesture of solidarity when they offered accommodation to the travelling supporters to save them the expense of hotel costs. Then as match day approached the Racing Supporters again reached out, this time to invite the Red Army to join them to form a guard of honour to greet both team buses and we learnt that they planned to display 2 large banners to welcome Munster – one reading ‘AXEL’, while the other read ‘Red Army welcome back’. Another gesture was then revealed – that the team and coaches planned to wear red tee shirts with A Foley and 8 on the back during their warm-up and that a minutes applause was planned prior to kick-off. A special bond exists forever more between the two clubs. Merci Racing 92 – you went above and beyond to show true sportsmanship and brotherhood through your response to the tragedy. Your generosity and friendship will not be forgotten. I hope we get the chance to show our appreciation to those who travel to Thomond later this month.
For the minutes applause the Munster team supported each other in their circle, while the Racing players also in a circle joined in the applause, as I did gathered in the River Bar with a large crowd of MRSC Dublin supporters. Many had come early to watch the build-up on Sky, including our youngest member, six month old Leia who managed to sleep through the first half despite all the shouting, cheering and clapping!
The game itself was exciting, a very physical contest as Munster looked to dominate the French champions. While this was a dead rubber for the home team, the depth in their squad ensured that there were many well-known names including our former centre Casey Laulala and the man who broke our hearts in Thomond in 2008 – Joe Rokocoko – with the incomparable Dan Carter to be launched from the bench.
Tommy O’Donnell made a great break in the opening minutes and his pass set Tyler Bleyendaal free. I thought Tyler was going to make a similar try-scoring start as he had against Glasgow in October but Racing defence scrambled well to deny him. Munster continued to pile on the pressure while Racing 92 conceded penalty advantage time and again to prevent them scoring. After 11 minutes Munster took the penalty kick to get onto the scoreboard. It was good to have something to show for their possession and territory.
Conor Murray put in a great tackle to force the Racing player into touch when they had a spell of possession. From the lineout the ball got to Rory Scannell whose terrific kick brought play into their 22m again. Pressure on the lineout pinned the home team back and won a valuable turnover. The pack went through several phases of pick and goes before James Cronin almost crossed the line but he was just short in the 19th minute.
From that 5m scrum Munster won a penalty when Racing collapsed it. Niall Scannell with a white chalk band across his forehead looked like an Amazonian warrior amongst a team of warriors!
Munster opted for another scrum, from which Rory Scannell took it on, bringing play just a few metres short of the tryline. Peter O’Mahony was next to carry before Murray sent the ball out to Simon Zebo. He showed his strength to take the tackle and roll over to score the opening try, his 50th for Munster and the 400th for the club in European competition.
Simon Zebo’s score captured by Sportsfile:
The conversion failed to turn in and the score of 0-8 did not seem to be an adequate reward for the pressure being exerted by Munster. A great choke tackle by Peter and Donnacha stopped another promising Racing attack. The steamy scrum gave an idea of how cold it was in Paris. Time and again when Racing had the ball they were driven backwards by the very aggressive defence we have enjoyed seeing throughout this season.
Conor Murray competed in the air for a garryowen from Imhoff before Jaco Tatute kicked the ball deep into their 22 again. Conway could not get there before it crossed the line but it was another great position to put the Racing lineout under pressure approaching the half hour mark. Hats off to Donnacha for his excellent anti-mauling technique as he put Racing under tremendous pressure, coming through the middle to disrupt them and win the turnover.
While Munster did not score a try from that pressure, Racing conceded a penalty in the 32nd minute which Bleyendaal converted to move them to 0-11. Just three minutes later, CJ Stander charged forward to block the kick from Dambielle. Rory Scannell collected the ball and got over the gainline. When he was tackled the ball was recycled quickly to Peter O’Mahony. He passed to CJ who was back in position and more than ready to charge for the line, to score the try despite the efforts of two tacklers. It was the look of pure joy on Peter O’Mahony’s face as he slid in beside him celebrating the score that made me smile even more broadly as the scoreline moved to 0-18 thanks to the successful conversion.
Poor Casey Laulala got a boot in the face as he tackled Tommy and had to be bandaged up. Tommy looked to be in trouble a minute before half-time as he had kicked a ball out of his own half and seemed to be tackled as he kicked. Given his ankle injury the previous week it was worrying but after treatment he was good to continue as was Casey. (updated Jan 9th – Tommy injured his other ankle and went off early in the 2nd half. His foot is in a moon boot so doubtful for Glasgow)
Munster had a lineout to finish the half and when their maul was stopped Conor Murray’s grubber bounced well for Andrew Conway hugging the try line to gather and score. The TMO confirmed he did not have a foot in touch and was not ahead of the kicker as the crowd could be heard singing the Fields of Athenry. The conversion made it 0-25 which was a much better reflection of the dominance of the team. Great photo of Andrew Conway scoring from Inpho:
Starting the second half Racing 92 came out with more intent and won 2 of their 4 penalties against Munster in the opening two minutes. Donnacha Ryan stayed down injured momentarily and we watched anxiously for him to rejoin the fray. Conor Murray stripped the ball in a choke tackle. A missed pass gave Racing 92 a sniff but Ronan O’Mahony covered back well and the support arrived quickly to ensure no turnover.
Tommy was replaced by Jack O’Donoghue. It was not quite a turning point in the match but when Racing were awarded a free kick from a Munster put into the scrum after 49′ and opted to scrum, the force exerted by the Munster pack to win a penalty against the head was a sure declaration of intent and was cheered as loudly as all the earlier scores. Watching them drive the Racing 92 pack backwards at pace was a thing of beauty!
That penalty brought them deep into the other half. Repeated infringements – side entry to try to stop the Munster maul, collapsing the next maul which lead to a team warning – were kicked to touch. We were of course protesting that no yellow card was shown to the French team for all the penalties they had conceded in their own 22 in both halves (10 conceded in total versus 4 by Munster). The lineout continued to function well, and in the 54th minute launched another maul. This time the pack got motoring – Niall Scannell at the back touched down for the valuable bonus point try and we could relax a little with the score at 0-32 after 55 minutes. It also allowed the substitutes to be used early, Saili and Earls (making his 50th European appearance) replacing Taute and Ronan O’Mahony while Dave Kilcoyne came on for James Cronin. Niall Scannell’s bonus point try captured by Sportsfile:
Keith Earls had a great take in the air but was pushed into touch. He got up and faced off against one of the tallest men on the pitch!
A slip by Zebo gave Racing space and Matthieu Voisin took his chance to open the scoring for the home team. Dan Carter’s conversion made it 7-32 approaching the final quarter-hour of the game. Stephen Archer and Duncan Williams came on for John Ryan and Conor Murray. Keith Earls continued to probe the defence and combined well with Zebo approaching the final 10 minutes.
More picks and goes kept Racing pinned back deep, defending their line. Dave Foley came on for Donnacha. As the camera focused on Donnacha stripping off the tape around his head, he got another cheer- he was immense and along with his second row partner Billy Holland had the top tackle count – Billy top with 17 to Donnacha’s 15! Rory Scannell, another who had a great game, had to go off for a blood sub so Jaco returned temporarily.
A knock on by Chavancy in the 75′ and crossing in the 79th minute were to be as close as Racing 92 got to adding to their score as time ran out.
Highlights on the Sky website:
Stats from ESPN are here and include the below:
RACING 92: Juan Imhoff; Joe Rokocoko, Casey Laulala (Henry Chavancy ’57), Anthony Tuitavke, Teddy Thomas (Dan Carter ’57); Benjamin Dambielle (HIA – Dan Carter ’12 to ’18), Xavier Chauveau; Khatchik Vartanov (Julien Brugnaut ’50), Camille Chat (Virgile Lacombe ’50), Luc Ducalcon (Cedate Gomes Sa ’50); Gerbrandt Grobler, Francois van der Merwe (Ali Williams ’62); Chris Masoe (captain) (So’otala Fa’aso’o ’57), Matthieu Voisin, Antonie Claassen. Replacements not used: James Hart.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Jaco Taute (Francis Saili ’56), Rory Scannell (blood – Jaco Taute ’74 to ’76), Ronan O’Mahony (Keith Earls ’56); Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray (Duncan Williams ’66); James Cronin (Dave Kilcoyne ’56), Niall Scannell (Rhys Marshall ’62), John Ryan (Stephen Archer ’66); Donnacha Ryan (Dave Foley ’74), Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (captain), Tommy O’Donnell (Jack O’Donoghue ’58), CJ Stander.
It is great to see Munster top of the pool, three points clear of Glasgow, and also to have three Pro12 teams in the top 8 currently. It will be interesting to see how it changes over the final rounds. Leicester hope to still be in the hunt for qualification when they host Glasgow in the final round if they also do the double over Racing next weekend.
From The 42.ie: here and the Irish Times: here plus the account of one supporter who was collected at the airport and hosted by a Racing supporter here. Also worth reading Billy Keane in the Independent who wrote about the generosity of Racing and the values of Axel here
The Racing video report on the interaction between the supporters features several familiar faces from the supporters I meet at home and away games. You can read more about their experiences on the MRSC page here
Ronan O’Gara pre-game in his red tee shirt was interviewed by Sky:
Some great action shots in this tweet from the Champions Cup:
Along with a good number of the Red Army I am heading to Glasgow next weekend for the likely pool decider and to Thomond the following weekend for the visit of Racing 92 and the return albeit to the away dressing room of Ronan O’Gara. After the final whistle you could see Donnacha having a great catch up with Julien Brugnaut and this photo shared by Munster Rugby on Twitter captures the post game reunion with Ronan, Casey and Julien. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster for us all, there was so much in the press during the week about the return to Paris. It will always be remembered for the sad events last October but this performance was a fitting tribute and another part of the healing process. As Simon said, they have “someone special upstairs” driving them on.
If you missed it I recommend Billy’s diary this week in which he writes about the last trip to Paris and the support from the rugby community since then. There was also an interview with Ronan in the Irish Times and his own column in the Examiner this week which are worth reading. I put links to those and other interesting articles on the blogs facebook page so please follow that page also. During the week I must save up my blog from my visit to Scotstoun for the Pro12 semi-final in 2014 and the tourist one I wrote about my sightseeing in Glasgow. Hopefully we will have a happier result from next weekend.
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