The cheer that greeted the final lineout win of the night by Gerbrandt Grobler (GG) demonstrated how much the supporters present appreciated the performance of the team especially in the final minutes as Ulster threw everything at them in desperate search of a bonus point win. The team sheet for Ulster included Six Nations champions Best, Henderson and Stockdale. Given the 14 changes made by Munster it looked like a daunting task for the home team. Holding Ulster scoreless in the second half as they clawed back the first half deficit gave us plenty to enjoy.
While Stephen Fitzgerald and Calvin Nash did not get on the scoreboard they made up an exciting lively back three with Darren Sweetnam and caught my eye more so than the Six Nations Player of the Tournament. It was not a perfect performance but the heart and pride in the jersey shown made the trip well worthwhile.
In the context of the league table the outcome was irrelevant and hence I agreed with the decision to rest the senior players after their heroics in the quarter-final and the South African tour before the disappointment of Bordeaux. With knock-out rugby next weekend – against a resurgent Edinburgh – we hope to reap the benefits then. It was also good to give some of the fringe / A team players an opportunity against quality opposition who were hoping for 5 points to challenge Edinburgh for that third place play-off. I thought that some of them definitely put their hand up for selection.
Mike Sherry, the captain, emerged with the 2 mascots. James Cronin was right behind him, both players earned their 100th cap in the game so the other players hung back for a moment.
In the opening minute, JJ put an excellent grubber through to give Ulster a 5m lineout. Robin Copeland grabbed the arm of the young Ulster scrumhalf and when the ball spilled Duncan was alert to the opportunity and darted around to get a foot to the ball before pounching on it to score the opening try. JJ had taken the conversion not realizing that the TMO was reviewing the play so he had to take it again but was successful both times.
Just minutes later Ulster struck back, capitalizing on a pass that did not go to hand. Stockdale charged forward and while Sweetnam tackled him he could not stop the offload to Stuart McCloskey. Johnny McPhillips kicked the conversion to tie the scores.
Fitzgerald and Nash were impressive under the high ball especially the latter in a head to head with Craig Gilroy.
We were delighted to see GG get an arm to the Ulster lineout to win back possession for Munster in the 7th minute but a little concerned to see the Munster scrum penalised.
One such penalty gave Ulster the lead when they opted for the kick at posts to make it 7-10 after 15 minutes.
An ironic cheer was heard when the referee called Ulster back for a forward pass since we thought he had missed one or two earlier in the game. Copeland burst forward from the back of the scrum as we roared him on. Unfortunately Iain Henderson was injured in the subsequent phases and limped off the pitch, a big loss for Ulster.
GG’s windmill arm flicked another Ulster lineout back on Munster’s side. Ulster won back possession when Nash could not take the box kick but Mike Sherry forced a penalty from them when he took the perfect jackal position over the ball and Ulster were pinged for not releasing. Dan Goggin had contributed well to that also making the initial tackle. Ulster repelled the maul but it was great to see Munster pinning them back in their half.
A clearance kick was gathered by Darren Sweetnam and his counter-attacking run was breath-taking. From just inside the halfway line he took a great line between Ulster players to bring play deep into their 22. When he was brought down the pack and specifically the front row took it on. James Cronin charged forward before getting the pass to Mike Sherry in support. Cronin then carried again and nearly scored himself but when he was stopped short it was Brian Scott who was there to finish the move and put Munster back into the lead. JJ converted to make it 14-10.
Conor Oliver won a penalty to get Munster into another good position. However Munster went offside when Sweetnam anticipated the box kick too early giving Ulster a penalty. From the lineout and maul Robin Copeland came in from the side to stem the drive. He was charged with pulling it down and sent to the bin. One sponsor saw the funny side 🙂
With the man advantage Ulster went for the maul again and it was Ireland and Ulster captain Rory Best who scored their try. McPhillips converted to make it 14-17.
The Ulster pack went for the jugular and won a penalty from the scrum. A subsequent penalty for a high tackle during those minutes was also kicked to touch. We knew what was coming and the initial dive was repelled but Rory Best scored his second try on half-time. McPhillips converted his most difficult kick of the evening to make it a 14 point return with a few minutes still to run for Robin in the sinbin after the break.
Stephen Archer came on at half time and when Robin was back in play the Munster pack dominated their visitors. Jean Kleyn and Jack O’Donoghue came on shortly afterwards. Beefed up by the replacements Munster were on the attack.
Sweetnam danced through the defence again and offloaded to Nash. When Luke Marshall slowed down the recycle it was Munster’s turn to have the numerical advantage. JJ kicked to touch. The lineout was secured and the maul repelled. GG gave a looping pass secured by James Cronin who was nearly in for the score but he had lost control. However Munster had been playing with advantage and went for the lineout again. This time it was Robin Copeland who broke through and dived over the line. JJ made it 21-24 with half an hour left.
The restart was taken by Jean and according to the Munster tweet he was lifted by James Cronin alone – that’s some strength and shows great trust between the two!
Another lineout steal by GG and the backline counter-attacked from deep in their own half through Arnold and Nash. While the defence scrambled and won back possession, they then kicked it away. Fitzgerald and Gilroy challenged for the high ball and the young full back prevailed with another excellent display of fielding.
On the other side of the pitch a few minutes later Darren showed his aerial skills also, batting back the ball which was secured by Fitzgerald.
Munster had a sustained period of possession while Ulster had a man receiving treatment away from the play. There were handbags as Rhys and Rory tangled, with Rhys pulling off Rory’s scrum cap as they grappled with each other. Kleyn and Grobler tried to clear out a few players. When GG dragged Luke Marshall out and threw him to the ground (pointing a warning finger at him) the penalty was awarded against him. Jack was captain by then and tried to discuss the incident with the referee but Ben Whitehouse had made his decision and had no interest in debating who started what.
Poetic justice perhaps when the penalty kick did not find touch as Nash caught it. Gilroy and Fitzgerald went for a high ball and Gilroy fell into the latter. It was deemed to be a penalty offence (bad timing by Stephen).
McPhillips made no mistake with the kick to touch this time but Ulster’s lineout woes continued as GG got a hand to it again. From that attack Munster worked their way into a good position. A penalty was won by Dave O’Callaghan when Ulster failed to release. JJ kicked it between the posts to level the scores in the 68th minute as Tommy Bowe was came on for Gilroy.
A lineout in front of us was delayed as the medics treated Cronin so we broke into the Fields of Athenry. GG soared again to claim the ball and the maul was set up around him. Stephen Archer’s boot was left behind as you can see in the photo but play continued. I think it was in that period that there was a sublime offload by Jean Kleyn but I did not spot it when I watched the game back. It was a cool bit of skill!
Munster seemed to be penalised repeatedly in the final ten minutes. Maybe those conspiracy theorists that the IRFU wanted Ulster to finish in the top 3 of the league to secure a place in the top tier of European competition had a point! Probably not as Munster won some late penalties also! One through James Cronin in the scrum. Kicked to touch, secured by GG, Munster went through the phases. We were surprised when JJ then opted for a drop goal but it was well off target.
Not releasing the ball gave Ulster another chance to secure the win in the final minutes when they kicked the penalty to the Munster 22. Their maul resulted in another penalty when Munster came in from the side to defend it. That got them to the 5m line. Another lineout, but the maul was repelled. They went to the backs but the red line held firm. Phase after phases they barely breached the 22m line. A great tackle on Stockdale by Fitzgerald was cheered but Copeland was again pinged for coming in at the side and Ulster had a final kick to touch as the clock went past 80. Last chance saloon.. and the sheriff in town as he had been all night was GG. This time it was a simple catch as Ulster got their timing wrong. He charged upfield almost to the 10m line. Kick it out we urged and JJ did just that.
MUNSTER: Stephen Fitzgerald; Calvin Nash, Sammy Arnold, Dan Goggin, Darren Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, Duncan Williams (James Hart ’57); James Cronin, Mike Sherry (captain) (Rhys Marshall ’57), Brian Scott (Stephen Archer ‘HT); Gerbrandt Grobler, Darren O’Shea (Jean Kleyn ’47); Dave O’Callaghan, Conor Oliver (Jack O’Donoghue ’47), Robin Copeland (yellow card ’33). Unused Replacements: Jeremy Loughman, Bill Johnston, Shane Daly.
ULSTER: Louis Ludik; Craig Gilroy (Tommy Bowe ’69), Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey (Angus Curtis ’29), Jacob Stockdale; Johnny McPhillips, Dave Shanahan (Paul Marshall ’45); Callum Black (Andy Warwick ’55), Rory Best (captain) (Rob Herring ’69), Ross Kane (Tom O’Toole ’64); Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Kieran Treadwell ’23); Clive Ross, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney (Chris Henry ’72).
Stats from ESPN are here, six lineouts stolen is an impressive stat, given the difficulties on our own throw last weekend.
As Johann said afterwards this was GG’s best 80 minutes for Munster and many people I spoke to would have been happy to see him awarded man of the match. That accolade went to James Cronin, who was a worthy recipient. My friend James would have given it to Stephen Archer whose arrival in the second half did so much to not just shore up the scrum / maul defence but to turn it into a weapon!
You can see from GG’s post match interview how he enjoyed the game. It was announced afterwards that he is moving to Gloucester next season as Tadhg Beirne comes to Munster. Based on this performance GG may have a big contribution to make before he leaves as we enter the knock-out phase of the Pro14.
The half time entertainment featured adapted tag rugby for Mallow Barbarians and Garryowen Lions, who enjoyed their high scoring game and try scoring exploits. There was also an interesting look on the big screen at the GPS stats for some of the players in the first half – Sweets reached a top speed of 33.2 KM/H and made 11 sprints while Duncan covered over 3KM. CJ Stander also came onto the pitch with the Triple Crown and Six Nations trophies. I took the photos below from the big screen as we could only see CJ’s back from the west side as the tag game continued in the centre of the pitch.
When they played the new MRSC ad on the big screen we enjoyed teasing Joan and Ger who featured in the snips included! When the cameras swung our way when singing Stand Up and Fight during the game there was banter about that appearance sorting out the clip for the next ad! Before the game in the warm-up it was good to see Jaco Taute back on the pitch as he nears a return after his injury which has kept him out of action for so much of the season. Alex Wootton dropped by on his way down from the Supporters Club bar before the game. Mark even told him about my blog – he did not seem to be too impressed. Maybe he thinks it is a fashion blog. We did discuss all things fashion from a female supporters perspective in the bar afterwards! It seems that Adidas will only make something if the order is for at least 20K units! I guess my Canterbury top will continue to enjoy days out along with my Adidas youth aged 13/14 jersey for the foreseeable future.
Edinburgh will be a serious threat to our silverware ambitions as they have been on a upward curve since appointing Richard Cockerill. Hopefully the Red Army will come out in force to support the team as they aim to secure a semi-final against Leinster in Dublin. Despite our disappointment in Bordeaux there is one trophy left to play for this season and it will take a huge effort to overcome the quality teams left but the hunger is there to end the silverware drought. Let’s show that lessons have been learnt. Let’s do this!