If you’re of the glass half full variety — it is the festive season after all — then with three games left in Pool 4 and 15 points still on offer, Munster will attempt to convince anyone prepared to listen it is still mathematically possible to qualify for the knockout stage as a best runner up.
With consecutive encounters against Stade Francais to come in January, that may have a slightly delusional feel to it but after their best performance of the season to date, Munster just have to keep on battling. After a fourth Pool 5 defeat on the bounce, Leinster don’t even have that to cling onto. Anthony Foley must feel the world is against him with the news Donnchadh Ryan was forced to withdraw a few hours before kickoff yesterday due to illness. On the back of losing BJ Botha earlier in the week due to a second concussion in a month, the withdrawal of another experienced international from the key front five battle was the last thing Munster needed.
Then again, Munster are nothing if not resilient. They had shipped a lot of adverse comment in the week leading into this game and on the evidence of the opening exchanges that age-old stubborn belligerence that propelled them to many a famous victory not so long ago was back in truck loads.
Unfortunately the old failings that have haunted them from the outset of the season cost them at vital times again in this absorbing contest. Munster continue to create try scoring chances but struggle to put them away. That has been the striking difference between the two sides over the last nine days.
That, allied to an amazing scramble defence from Leicester when their Tongan sensation at full-back Telusa Veainu tracked back 80 metres to deny Francis Saili a certain score after the New Zealander intercepted deep in his own 22. Veainu was the only player with the gas to deny Saili but was ably assisted by Adam Thompstone who also tracked the length of the field to deny Simon Zebo when he fielded a great offload from Saili.
That is the type of work rate that separates the winners from the losers but, in defeat, Munster can hold their heads up high after doing so many things well. Some of the phases of continuity in the opening half when the offloads stuck and the support runners continually ran great lines was a joy to watch but unfortunately didn’t get the reward it deserved.
Munster displayed great character in a very demanding playing environment and never took a backward step. Ian Keatley performed really well after a demanding week but once again missed two vital penalty kicks at a time when Munster needed a reward on the scoreboard for their superb efforts. All across the field, players stood up to be counted especially in the set piece, an area that Leicester confidently expected to dominate. This time last season John Ryan answered Munster’s call to address an injury crisis at loose head prop with both international incumbents James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne out of action for a demanding test against Clermont Auverge at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
Ryan did an excellent job that day when Munster rescued a vital losing bonus point at the death.
This time the crisis was focused on the other side of the scrum with BJ Botha joining Stephen Archer in sick bay. Last year Ryan faced the Georgian destroyer David Zirakashvili and more than held his own. This time on his less comfortable side is was possibly the best loose head prop in the game in Argentina’s Marcos Ayerza. Once again Ryan rose to the challenge.
He wasn’t the only one. On the other side of the scrum James Cronin was sensational in a high octane battle against England’s Dan Cole. Neither was prepared to give an inch but Cronin not only won that personal duel but was also magnificent in broken play both in attack and defence.
That work rate was replicated throughout the pack with Robin Copeland another to play his best game in a red shirt along with the outstanding CJ Stander. Australian international Mark Chisholm came in to run the line out and did so magnificently. At one stage in the second-half the Munster forwards were carrying with such menace that Leicester players were falling like skittles with Cole, Ayerza and Lachlan McCaffrey all laid out at one stage. The unfortunate thing was that, once again, Munster failed to translate that dominance on the scoreboard. It must be soul destroying. When you consider that this was also the day Saili offered a true glimpse of the talent that won two caps for New Zealand you have to wonder why Munster failed to register a single point in the second-half. If the likes of Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Zebo, all of whom played well, can learn to play off Saili then Munster will be on to a good thing.
Their upcoming games against Leinster and Ulster must be utilised to capitalise on the positive aspects from this display. Stade Francais are struggling in the Top 14 and Munster must travel to Paris in the right frame of mind to have any chance of building on the stronger aspects of this display. Frustrating and all as this defeat was, there are building blocks to work with from this display.
Leinster’s brave defensive effort at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday looked as if it might just deliver an unlikely result given how ponderous the Toulon front five appeared at times but with in excess of 60 stone of prime Georgian beef in Gorgodze, Chilachava and Mikautadze introduced off the bench in the second-half, Leinster were left woefully short in bulk and power in attempting to deal with a raging Toulon scrum and maul.
At least Leo Cullen now knows where Leinster’s priorities lie for the next five months as the Guinness Pro 12 becomes his sole focus. Ulster still harbour ambitions on two fronts and if Munster can rediscover their winning ways in their domestic derbies over the festive period, they too will feel they will have something tangible to play for when they arrive in Paris in a few weeks.