Like the popping of a champagne cork, the outpouring of excitement, relief and delight after an hour of cut and thrust with neither side making a breakthrough was euphoric as we watched Conor Murray block down the box-kick, chase after the ball, gather it and score in the corner.
Jumping for joy, cheering, waving flags, the noise levels would have gone through the roof had there been a roof. Storm Brian could do its worst but could not dampen our delight. Ian Keatley, supported by Rhys Marshall to steady the ball in the swirling wind added the conversion to rapturous acclaim and throw down the gauntlet to the visitors.
Playing in their special Irish Heart jerseys in honour of the first anniversary of the death of Anthony Foley, I believe he would have been so proud of the heart and grit shown by his team.
The previous hour had been an absorbing contest. Racing 92 had made a statement of intent with the star-studded team they had named the previous day. An early tangle between Dan Carter and Chris Farrell thankfully did not end the former’s participation. A few minutes later it was Peter O’Mahony’s turn to require medical attention but to our delight he was soon patched up and back into the action.
The scrum up against a huge French pack did very well, more than holding their own and as per the photo below put in a dominant performance to win a penalty for Munster.
Despite playing with the wind advantage in the first half, Racing were pinned back for a long period as they conceded penalty after penalty in their own half approaching the quarter-hour mark. Unfortunately Munster could not turn that pressure into points. Leone jumping at the front of the defensive lineout by Racing allied to the windy conditions proved challenging for the hooker and lineout caller.
Then Racing had their period of possession but the defense was immediately up and in their faces, until eventually they made a mistake. I could hardly believe that we were nearly at half time with no break in the deadlock. The stats show the dominance in possession and territory for Racing in the first half but they could not find any weakness to exploit.
Nil all at half time is not a typical rugby scoreline but with the wind advantage to come and the expectation that the heavier French pack would tire in those conditions given the pace of the game there was hope. The much improved discipline of the team over the previous two weeks (just 3 conceded in the first half) combined with their workrate and doggedness gave us plenty of encouragement. It was fast, frenetic at times, gladatorial, the pressure and tension were unrelenting. There were errors, knock-ons and lost lineouts but in the conditions and that pressure cooker atmosphere it was understandable.
The crowd more than played their part despite the stress they were under. Each big tackle, turnover, blockdown and the delicate juggling skills displayed by Rhys Marshall were greeted as rapturously as if they were in fact scores as were the knock-ons or accidental running into his own man by the visitors. Likewise, the excellent touch finder by Zebo returning a kick by Pat Lambie which just found the white wash and the sublime one deep in the second half by Ian Keatley to pin back the visitors were cause for celebration. Magic moments included the around his back pass by Simon Zebo to Keith Earls which nearly resulted in a score and if it had we would have been watching it on repeat for years to come!
The new front row unleashed by Racing in the 52nd minute nearly paid dividends when as their maul surged for the try-line but the resolute defence bolstered by John Ryan after a great shift by Archer held firm.
Cometh the hour, cometh, the man. From a scrum on the Racing 10m line, Murray blocked the box-kick down. The ricochet off his midriff bounced kindly and he gave chase, collecting the ball just before the 5m line and diving over the try-line before anyone could get a hand to him.
Rhys Marshall stretched out on the cold pitch to hold the ball steady as willed on by the Red Army Ian Keatley put the ball between the posts despite the incredibly difficult conditions on the east side!
A penalty kick went to the right of the posts in the 65th minute but was followed up by a sublime kick to touch which put Munster back into a great position on the 5m line. Another lineout soon after, again thrown in by Kevin O’Byrne making his European debut was secured. The maul formed and probed this way and that. Eleven phases later Conway dived in at the corner after Munster stretched the defence through quick passes by Simon and Rory who got the final pass away out of the tackle to Conway.
In the buildup the pack had been superb, driving hard at the defence, forwards and backs working tirelessly to protect the ball and keep the pressure on, hunting in packs as exemplified by Tommy on his 150th appearance driving Killer on but there were too many such contributions to give all their due.
This time from the opposite wing, as Conor Murray steadied the ball Ian Keatley lined up another difficult conversion attempt. The smile on his face as the ball again split the posts was brilliant and reflected the joy we were all feeling at the 14-0 scoreline.
Racing showed their pedigree though and stepped up their efforts to ensure they did not again leave Thomond Park empty-handed. Their reward came in the 75th minute. Leone Nakarawa who had been a thorn in the side of Munster throughout the game, especially in the lineout, scored a try, converted by Teddy Iribaren which meant we were in for a tense end game again. Maybe tiredness was a factor as the penalty count went up with Racing pushed hard to get more from the visit than their losing bonus point. In the final minute when they lost possession off their own lineout and Keats kicked the ball out it was cheers and smiles all around as the referee blew the final whistle.
Post match comments from Rassie in The42.ie
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander
Replacements: John Ryan for Archer (52 mins), Mark Flanagan for Kleyn, Andrew Conway for Sweetman (both 55 mins), Kevin O’Byrne for Marshall (63 mins), Jack O’Donoghue for O’Donnell (71 mins), Liam O’Connor for Kilcoyne (77 mins)
Not used: Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan.
RACING 92: Pat Lambie; Joe Rokocoko, Henry Chavancy, Anthony Tuitavke, Louis Dupichot; Dan Carter, Maxime Machenaud (capt); Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat, Ben Tameifuna; Bernard Le Roux, Leone Nakarawa; Wenceslas Lauret, Yannick Nyanga, Antonie Claassen.
Replacements: Dimitri Szarzewski for Chat, Viliamu Afatia for Ben Arous, Census Johnston for Tameifuna, Rémi Tales (all 52 mins), Albert Vulivuli for Dupichot (57 mins), Edwin Maka for Nyanga, Teddy Iribaren for Machenaud (both 71 mins), Baptiste Chouzenoux for le Roux (all 71 mins).
Before the game a pigeon gave us hope of good luck when it kindly left a deposit. Then we had the unusual sight not of a pitch invasion but of a terrace invasion as Paul managed to climb up into our section from the seated area in front of us to take his normal position! It was great to have Imelda back amongst us for the game and she can tell Tony how absence does make the heart grow fonder as Ger and I reminisced about his unique catch phrases! George had brought along a visitor from the East side who may have started a new tradition when he brought back some spare glasses of wine for the ladies at half time. T3 is welcome back anytime! He avoided the worst of the rain blowing into the east side but the swirling wind did manage to blow the rain in onto the west terrace on occasion.
One of the highlights watching the warm-up was seeing Ronan O’Gara out on the pitch in his Racing tracksuit, kicking the ball, re-familiarising himself with the conditions and discussing how to handle the wind with Dan Carter. There was a broad grin on his face as he was kicking in front of us, hearing us try to distract him into dropping the garryowen.
We also enjoyed seeing the choir performing on our side during the warm-up. I recognized some of the faces from last weekends trip to Castres and our discussions in Toulouse and Gatwick airports about cancelled flights!
The minutes applause prior to kickoff to honour the contribution of Anthony Foley was a fitting tribute to the man, Ronan O’Gara and Donnacha Ryan had presented a framed picture to Peter O’Mahony but we did not see what was framed. Did anyone on the east side see?
At half time I was delighted to see my home club Thurles RFC take to the pitch for the minis. The enthusiasm of the youngsters is infectious and helps to develop the next generation of players and supporters.
It was another special night at Thomond, the cauldron like atmosphere the singing, the tension, the banter, the camaraderie, the drama! As Tommy made his 150th appearance for Munster on the night they played their 160th game in the European competition, there were debuts for Kevin O’Byrne and academy player Liam O’Connor while Rhys Marshall made his first start in Europe. Meanwhile the A team put in another big win in the British and Irish Cup game on Friday night in Cork to show that the Academy continues to develop talent. It was great to see Bill Johnston back from injury and kicking 6 from 6 in difficult conditions while Darren O’Shea also returned from injury to feature in that game. The A team match report is here