As thoroughly as the ground staff swept away the surface water and forked the pitch to aid drainage, the team did likewise to the challenge posed by Castres in the final pool game. It took a while to break them down but the intent was visible from the off with the linespeed and workrate of the team. Fair dues to the workrate also of the ground staff who worked tirelessly in lousy weather to get the pitch ready. By the end of the game there was not much evidence of damage from the scrums in particular from my vantage point on the terrace which is testament to their efforts.
Five hours on the terrace waiting for kick-off is a new if unwanted record! However any day your team qualify for the 17th time for the playoffs of the European competition and do so in style to secure a home quarter-final has to be a good day.
I had picked my way through puddles from the LIT carpark to the west terrace, glad I had worn my boots and long waterproof coat to the game. It had rained incessantly the whole way down from Dublin but the forecast was for it to improve and it had never struck me that the game could be in doubt until I arrived. I could see them working on the pitch and we were told that the referee would be doing an inspection at noon. Twitter updates were shared. As time passed by and there was no sign of anyone beginning to warm up concern grew. About 12.30 we were told that the game was delayed by 3 hours and we could leave and return later. Many did so and unfortunately some were unable to return due to travel plans / other arrangements including Mark and his friend who had to travel back to West Cork. John had to make some phone calls to get cover for his shift but managed to do so while those availing of public transport had to make new arrangements also. I went out to get some food. The bars and supporters club were packed so I headed back into the terrace to watch the Leicester v Racing game on the big screen. The snow covered ground looked less playable that Thomond but that game went ahead on schedule.
So how did we pass the time? Besides watching the game we were chatting about life and rugby in general. There had been good representation from the west terrace south at the game in Paris so I was curious to hear their first-hand accounts. None envied the Parisians their state of the art facility. There is something special about Thomond. There was also talk about the media coverage during the week and many of us had read Donncha O’Callaghan’s article in the Times about it which struck a chord. Anne, Brian and Eoghan had been at the A team game in Cork on Friday and it was good to hear that GG got a warm reception there after what must have been a horrendous week. Congrats to the A team who won their final pool game in the B&I Cup and as a reward get to pit themselves against Leinster A in Dublin at Easter in their quarter final! If you missed it the twitter feed from Munster Rugby of the game by Sam Armold is great craic.
We were sheltered from the wind and the worst of the showers by the west stand. At 2pm someone said it was time to reboot, our normal pre-match routine should kick in! “Welcome back” came the announcement over the P.A. to our amusement as we had remained in situ. Only the soloist for Stand up and Fight and the flag bearers were allowed onto the pitch pre-game. The choir and 27 Brass Band were not. The heat from the flames launched skyward as each Munster player was announced had us feeling toasty as eventually 4pm came around.
Good intensity and linespeed on limited possession was the main feature of the opening quarter as Munster employed the kicking tactic. Simon Zebo was in full control at full back and dealt with several early garryowens, calling for the mark and pushing the visitors back up-field.
We were busy singing Stand up and Fight (and featured in another tv appearance) when a scuffle broke out after Munster won a penalty from a strong scrum in the 12th minute. We were not so impressed to see that penalty reversed and it was only watching back the highlights on TG4 that I saw what Jean Kleyn had done to warrant the reversal. Castres took the lead through that early penalty but overall Munster managed to keep the penalty count down to single figures (6) in this game after recent high numbers.
It was good to hear that Jean does appreciate what we bring to the game as he said in his post match interview: there were times in the second half when the fans really carried us through. Whenever The Fields of Athenry starts, you just get pumped.
Scannell, Stander and Cloete carried well after a Munster scrum in the build-up to the first sustained period in the visitors 22. Wave after wave of willing carriers got close to the line as Castres conceded penalty after penalty to stem the tide. It was disappointing to see Dave Kilcoyne limping off after injuring his knee in those phases but we are fortunate to have a player of the caliber of James Cronin to take his place. From the penalty opportunity Ian Keatley tied the score at 3-3 after 17 minutes.
Again Scannell carried strongly in midfield and got over the 10m line. A knock-on gave Castres a scrum but excellent pressure from the pack won a penalty for Munster and you could feel them ratcheting up the pressure. Murray took a quick kick which was chased by Zebo and Conway. It was called back and but a marker had been laid down by the pack. Munster took the three points on offer through Keatley with Murray stretched out on the wet pitch to hold the ball steady in the swirling wind.
More penalties were conceded and the referee issued a team warning to Castres. Munster kicked for touch. From the lineout they drove for the line. Holland came close. Possession was retained. They probed wide through Conway then back though Kleyn and the phases kept coming as did the referee’s outstretched arm. Eventually the referee had no option but to blow it up and send #13 Thomas Combezou to the bin. From a scrum Munster won another free kick. Murray took it quickly and passed to Keatley whose pass was flicked on by Zebo to Earls who dived in at the corner. The excellent conversion made it 13-3 after 34 minutes.
A super break by Chris Farrell with Murray in support looked certain to yield a second try before the break but Conor decided to pass to Conway and the attack broke down.
It was disappointing for the minis not to get to play at half-time but hopefully they will get another opportunity later in the year. There was applause in honour of the recently deceased Dolores O’Riordan when they played The Cranberries during the break as they had also done during the warm-up. A sad day for her family, friends and fans.
Munster came out determined to put more points onto the scoreboard and wasted no time. An early penalty was kicked to touch. While that lineout was stolen, they had not long to wait for the next penalty opportunity. This time they made no mistake and a powerful maul marched inexorably for the line. Rhys Marshall scored the try. Another successfully conversion by Keatley made it 20-3.
Another scrum won another penalty, this time kicked to touch down the east sideline by Rory Scannell. Munster through CJ Stander driven on by the pack was over the line but could not ground the ball. From the resultant 5m scrum their dominance continued to win more penalties. Keith Earls crossed the line but was called back to our disgust. The scrum seemed to yield a try for Conor Murray but from the replay the TMO/referee decided he had lost control. A change of props did not improve the scrummaging by Castres as Munster went for the jugular. Their efforts resulted in a second yellow card (after a short reprieve for the new prop as he got off for “a first offence”) but it was only a matter of time. Munster called for the scrum again and this time got their just rewards with a yellow card for the replacement tighthead prop. Munster opted for the scrum again and this time a penalty try was awarded in the 56th minute.
There was still plenty of time for the bonus point try and what a try it was. Shortlisted for try of the round (vote here) it was started by Keith Earls on the half-way line. He danced his way over the 10m line and got midway to the 22 before linking up with Simon Zebo who finished the move with a most ungraceful swan dive after the twinkle toes shown by both players in the build up.
Having secured the bonus point and with it third seeding, it was time to give the remaining substitutes some game time. Alex Wootton came on for the battered Keith Earls and was only on the pitch a few minutes when the ball squirted back towards him. He scooped it up and managed to twirl his way past a few tackles before scoring the 5th try. JJ Hanrahan added the extras.
On 75 minutes Darren O’Shea won a Castres lineout and Jack O’Donoghue carried it forward as the replacements continued to make their presence felt.
Fun moment watching the interaction between Ian Keatley and Keith Earls on the big screen when the latter was named Man of the Match. Both men had great games and will join the other 8 Munstermen heading to Ireland camp with a spring in their step – James Cronin was a late call-up due to the injury to Dave Kilcoyne. Hopefully Killer will be back in action soon. All but Zebo from the starting Munster backline were included along with four forwards (yes you read that right, what is the world coming to when Munster provides 6 / 16 backs but only 4/20 forwards?)
Castres had a scrum in a good position but there was no let up in intensity as they were driven back and conceded another penalty. Sometimes when there are a lot of substitutes there can be a drop in cohesion and performance but that was not the case.
As the clock ticked down there was time to kick one final penalty to touch. Darren secured the ball and the maul formed. Niall Scannell had it at the back, then Peter but somehow it was James Cronin who popped up with the ball after scoring the final try of the game. Andrew Conway held the ball steady as JJ Hanrahan kicked the conversion to bring proceedings to an end.
Bigger challenges lie ahead but this was a comprehensive performance given the conditions and the disruption to preparations.
Photos from MRSC photographers are on their Facebook page here
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer, Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony (c), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: James Cronin for Kilcoyne (18 mins), John Ryan for Archer (43 mins), Niall Scannell for Marshall (49 mins), Darren O’Shea for Holland (62 mins), Alex Wootton for Earls (63 mins), JJ Hanrahan for Keatley (65 mins), Jack O’Donoghue for Kloete (66 mins), Duncan Williams for Murray (69 mins).
Castres Olympique: Geoffrey Palis; Kylian Jaminet, Thomas Combezou, Robert Ebersohn (c), David Smith; Julien Dumora, Rory Kockott; Antoine Tichit, Jody Jenneker, Damien Tussac, Alexandre Bias, Thibault Lassalle, Yannick Caballero, Steve Mafi, Alex Tulou.
Replacements: Kevin Firmin for Jenneker, Tudor Stroe for Tichit, Victor Moreaux for 5 (all 48 mins), Daniel Kotze for Tussac (54 mins), Tussac for Tulou (56-66 mins), Yohan Le Bourhis for Palis, Afusipa Taumoepeau for Combezou (both 61 mins), Yohan Domenech for Kockott (71 mins), Baptiste Delaporte for Tussac (66 mins).
Footage in this post match interview with the two Chris’s gives an insight into the conditions after the heavy rainfall pre-game.
I had parked in LIT and planned to let traffic ease before heading back to Dublin but after the long day and almost 7 hours spent on the terrace I decided to go straight back. Big mistake. The carpark was a log jam. Eventually we got out the back exit and turned right. I had Dee, Joe and another Dee for company. Joe plotted a route to avoid the traffic, guiding me through Parteen and O’Brien’s bridge (I think!). I was glad to rejoin the motorway at Birdhill and it was plain sailing from there. I was tired after the thirteen hour day. It was a pity that Sean who had planned to travel with me was unable to go but hopefully he will be back to SUAF soon. With no game next weekend I am planning to start my new Q&A feature with readers of the blog. Hopefully it will inspire some more of you to volunteer to participate 🙂