Warriors one and all, the Munster team wore the Irish Heart Foundation logo on their jerseys and showed us how big their hearts were as they faced up to the star-studded team of three-time champions Toulon. Tackling themselves into the ground, they repelled everything Toulon threw at them from the first minute when Zebo and Ashton collided over the try line right through till the final phases of an absorbing hugely contested encounter.
Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland and CJ Stander led the tackle count with 18/19 each and were prominent in the maul and counter-mauling efforts. Peter O’Mahony terrorised them in the lineout stealing two but making many other set pieces a mess for them. Conor Murray was everywhere; a poachers try, a tackle here, a kick through there…how fortunate we are to have such a world class player in our team. He took a knock in the closing minutes and was replaced by James Hart who put his body on the line in the tense finale as Munster looked to close out the game.
The young midfield may have been outweighed and out-ranked in terms of international experience but they would not take a backward step and their tackle technique had to be and was spot on! The French media were impressed by the backs (they knew what to expect from the pack) but it is great to see Sammy included in several teams of the weekend. At just 21 years old his potential is huge while Rory brings so much to the team with his left boot, skillful hands, excellent tackle technique and ability to make a break.
Hats off to Jack O’Donoghue playing in the less familiar role of 7 given the injuries to Chris and Tommy who worked his socks off and made a super break in the build up to Murrays try. Recent regular man of the match Robin Copeland came on when fresh legs were needed as did Gerbrant Grobler to keep the momentum going.
The front row were excellent and when they were replaced en masse the new, fresh front row demolished the Toulon scrum to win a penalty which was celebrated by the whole team as a momentum changer in the 2nd half.
Take a bow Ian Keatley, 100% success rate off the kicking tee, constantly looking for gaps to exploit and executing some lovely kicks from hand to pin Toulon back, driving the team on and putting in some big tackles also, as let’s face it there weren’t any small tackles in that game!
What an experience for our young wingers Alex and Darren – an early replacement for Simon who never quite recovered for his opening minute encounter with Chris but who was desolated to have to go off in his final European game in Thomond Park (for now). The Toulon winger had calves like a back row, he is huge and fast and the wingers had to be alert to his threat and the offloading game as Toulon looked for space. Tackle low, tackle hard, get up and do it again, and again.
What can you say about Andrew Conway – injured since January but his match fitness was proven time and again during the game. He produced a piece of magic in the 74th minute which we will be talking about for years to come. The athleticism to stretch over the sideline to catch the ball, his acceleration from a standing start as he wove his way avoiding his own players and evading tacklers, the step, confidence and courage to back himself and head infield to make the conversion easier as those 2 points were crucial, all at such a tense moment in the dying minutes of an exhausting encounter. Watching the game back he had been involved so often – saving a try in the opening minutes as he pushed their winger into touch, chasing box and grubber kicks; he is great credit to himself and to the medical / S&C team who got him back in time for the game.
Thomond Park was at it’s best too. The ground staff had the pitch perfect and the crowd were perfectly tuned up and tuned in to the enthralling game. As we waited for Nigel to blow the whistle to start the game Kevin launched into “Stand up and fight” and we all rowed in behind him. We cheered, we yelled, we urged them to “heave”, we tried to intimidate them under the high ball and to drown out their lineout calls. “Keep them out, take him down, give them nothing…” and other words of encouragement punctuated the chants of “Munster, Munster” When Zebo could not shake off his injury and had to be replaced we chanted “Ze-bo, Ze-bo” as the visibly upset full back made his way off the pitch.
We provided helpful input to the Assistant Referees and the TMO about forward passes, late tackles, knock-ons and offsides. During the warm-up Nigel had been running over towards us and a man behind me yelled out to him that “they were offside all day.” Nigel smiled in response. There was plenty of tension on the terrace. Three time champions, a team sheet of household names, a club with a huge budget. We were missing key players – Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Chris Cloete, Tommy O’Donnell, Tyler Bleyendaal, Jaco Taute, Duncan Williams…. While Munster had reached the semi-final the previous year we had defeated Toulouse in the quarter final but they were on the wane. Toulon had not impressed in the pool stages but had just demolished Clermont 7 tries to nil and posed a much tougher test.
The visitors edged ahead through a penalty (for not rolling away which seemed a bit harsh as you could see Rory trying to get away) in the 8th minute. A second three pointer ten minutes later through a drop goal made it 0-6, both kicked by their starting flyhalf Anthony Belleau but it had taken a lot of effort to keep them to that low number as Toulon were on the attack from the off. CJ was kicking himself when he almost squeezed in to the corner in the 12th minute only to be forced into touch. Minutes later Conway had given superb chase to a kick but could not get hold of the ball but those efforts gave us some encouragement that it was not all one-way traffic.
I read that the TMO review of Murray’s try lasted six and a half minutes and it certainly felt like a long time. I had seen Conor wave his hand to indicate the knock-on but did not realise on first viewing that he had then grounded the ball. What a wonderful, opportunistic try! It probably had the TMO frantically searching the rule book to ensure it was valid! The knock-on was confirmed, the offside line was checked, there was a chat to the Toulon players before finally Nigel’s hand went up. The cheers would have raised the roof if we had a roof. The conversion was slotted perfectly and we were in the lead after being under the kosh for wave after wave of Toulon attacks!
The build up to that try as I had mentioned earlier featured a great burst through the defence to get over the gainline by Jack. The ball was recycled and Ian put in a superb grubber which was chased by Conway. Toulon scrambled back and secured the ball only to knock it on over the try line and Murray pounced.
Just after the half hour mark Darren and Conway combined down the east wing.
The ball went dead but an earlier push on Sweets as he chased his kick resulted in a penalty which Ian put between the posts to extend the lead to 10-6. Later, a long-range penalty from half-way was attempted by Conor but was unsuccessful.
We expected Toulon to regroup at half time and we were prepared for the backlash but it took longer to materialise than expected due to more great defence and some good attacking play by Munster. Ian’s attempted drop-goal was off-target but Munster were first to score after the break. Another great steal of a Toulon lineout by Peter turned over possession to Munster. Darren chased a kick and seemed to bat it back and Alex thought he had scored but Nigel had blown it up for a knock-on. I thought it was a pity he had blown it up so quickly instead of playing on and then using the TMO to review but it was not to be. Instead the score came courtesy of the pack, re-energised by the new front row they attacked the Toulon scrum to win a penalty which Ian kicked to make it 13-6.
The visitors nearly scored but a tackle stopped Radradra just short and he knocked-on. Shortly after, a side entry by Jean provided the visitors with a kickable penalty which was taken by Trinh-Duc to reduce the gap to 13-9. A few minutes later the replacement outhalf was playmaker as his offload to put his captain through a gap. A pass or two put Chris Ashton away for his trademark dive over the line. The TMO did check the pass and some experts on the sidelines did not agree leading to shushing of protests as the kick was taken. The conversion made it 13-16 but there was time for Munster to respond.
However it was Toulon who were next to score from another penalty (for holding on) and 13-19 was a bit more challenging but our heroes were undaunted. In the 71st minute Conor got his boot to a ball coming out of the Toulon scrum and when Toulon went offside Rory put in a great penalty kick to touch. We expected a maul and it was delivered but the surge over the line by Niall, driven on by Sam and Peter was deemed to be held up. From the 5m scrum possession was turned over when Wootton was tackled but Trinh-Duc will be having nightmares about what happened next. His long clearance kick to touch from behind his goal line almost reached their 10m line. As it was sailing over the sideline Andrew stretched to pluck it from the air, keeping his feet in play. What a privilege to be there to see such skills as he jinked and accelerated his way to the line. The noise levels were off the chart as we celebrated his score. Jumping for joy, cheering, screaming, hugging and kissing friends and strangers, what an emotional rollercoaster! Ian kicked the conversion to put Munster just one point ahead. On reviewing the recording I heard Nigel warn Toulon that screaming at Ian was not ok and if he had missed the kick he would have been allowed a second attempt. He did not need it!
After a game where “holding on” had probably been our biggest penalty offence, could we hold on and see out the game for the closing minutes? Cool heads were required and game management but then we kicked the ball away and had to defend for our lives… fifteen plus phases. Toulon worked their way into our half but were not in drop goal range. Bodies on the line, make your tackles but don’t concede a penalty! Hearts in our mouths we willed and urged them to get up, make the tackle, get back into the defensive line, don’t let them through…whistles erupted as the clock passed eighty minutes but the ball was still in Toulon hands. Finally, it was in Ashton’s hands for too long and Nigel blew the whistle for holding on. Ian kicked the ball out and the celebrations began. What a game, what drama, what a team we support!
As the teams applauded each other off the pitch I noticed Johann van Graan take a moment in the middle of the pitch to take it all in. He and the entire management team must be so proud of their charges. His emotional interview earlier in the week had set the tone and his team delivered. Boy how they delivered! The lap of honour gave players and supporters the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution made on and off the pitch.
Credit to the A team who lost out in their quarter-final of the British and Irish Cup in Donnybrook the previous day but they would have spent the week running Toulon plays and preparing the senior team for this tough battle. I was at that game and posted some photos of it on my facebook page WTView. I thought the A team pack had a great game, mauling, lineouts and scrums but could not break through the Leinster defence.
After the game I chatted to folks on the terrace for a few minutes before heading upstairs where there were smiles and a sense of disbelief at what we had just witnessed. Hearts were still racing, there were tears in some eyes and pride in our hearts. Plans were being made to get to France. Before then, some folks are heading off on the South African trip to take in those 2 games. Not ideal preparation for the semi-final, so squad management will be important but we also need to keep our noses ahead of the Cheetahs for a home qualifier to reach the Pro14 semi-finals.
Special mention for the half-time minis which held an extra interest for us this week as Crosshaven were playing and young Sam who had been amongst us on the terrace for a game last year was being cheered on by his proud grandparents. He had a stormer! After their disappointment to have their minis cancelled due to the water-logged pitch during the Castres game in January it was great for them to be part of this special occasion.
As we walked back to the car I recognised Duncan Williams and paused to wish him well with his recovery. There were carloads of red jerseys in Moneygall when we stopped at Obama Plaza. It was lovely when Austin came up to me in the queue to say hello and tell me that he enjoys reading this blog. It is always nice to be recognised and to meet my loyal readers. Hopefully he told all his friends and they will check it out also. If you are a first time reader I hope you enjoy it and come back again! The best way is to enter your email address and subscribe so you get an email to let you know when I publish a new edition or you can follow me on Twitter (@wtview) or Facebook. It would be great encouragement for me if I can reach the milestone of 100,000 views before the end of this season (currently at 94K from the past 5 years)
The hills of Tipperary basked in the setting sun as we hit the road about 7pm. They looked great but for those of you interested in my recent trip to the Himalayas of Nepal I have put more of my photos up on my travel blog here
The huge moon illuminated the journey and I wondered if it was a blue moon and if that would be a good name for the blog but I discarded that notion as this is not a “once in a blue moon” type of occasion. This was another tale in the saga of Thomond Park and Munster rugby. They came, they saw and they left with nothing but a bemused expression like “what the hell happened” as we saw on crowd favourite Chris Ashton’s face at the final whistle. Years ago George Hook talked about the miracles of Munster. Players come and go but while they wear the red jersey they wear it with pride, passion and respect. New warriors were forged in the heat of battle. They will “mind” the jersey entrusted to their care and will add their tales to the legend. Mumhan Abú.
Match report from Sky including highlights and post match reaction from Peter, Conor and Chris Ashton.
Photos from Daryl Feehely are here
Match report from The42.ie Irish Times, Irish Examiner and Irish Independent. Gerry Thornley also wrote an article on Monday about the game and players seizing their moment while Billy Keane wrote in the Indo that the miracle was never in doubt. Donal Lenihan also had plenty of praise for the younger players in the Examiner
Michael Corcoran’s account of Conway’s try is another golden nugget:
The Stats from ESPN show the defensive effort required – 210 tackles made compared to just 93 by Toulon! While some were missed they slowed down the attack and gave the next guy time to scramble to breach the gap.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo (Darren Sweetnam ’25); Andrew Conway, Sammy Arnold, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray (James Hart ’78); Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin ’53), Rhys Marshall (Niall Scannell ’53), Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’53); Jean Kleyn (Gerbrandt Grobler ’77), Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (captain), Jack O’Donoghue (Robin Copeland ’59), CJ Stander
TOULON: Chris Ashton; Josua Tuisova, Mathieu Bastareaud (captain), Ma’a Nonu (Malakai Fekitoa ’59), Semi Radradra; Anthony Belleau (François Trinh-Duc ’53), Eric Escande (Alby Mathewson ’59); Florian Fresia (Xavier Chiocci ’46), Guilhem Guirado (Anthony Etrillard ’74), Marcel Van Der Merwe (Emerick Setiano ’77); Juandre Kruger (Romain Taofifenua ’46), Dave Attwood; Raphael Lakafia, Facundo Isa, Duane Vermeulen.
So now we know our fate – another battle with Racing 92, the 5th in 2 seasons – but this time it’s knockout Cup rugby. I can’t wait to see Peter O’Mahony terrorising the Racing lineout featuring our own Donnacha Ryan! The Red Army are mobilizing for what will be another great occasion in Bordeaux. MRSC who did a great job with the guard of honour and flag distribution etc will be busy with queries re tickets for the semi, A great headache to have and they will deliver #MemberBenefits as the banners around the stadium declares #WeAre16