ou’ve heard about it, seen it on television, but to fully appreciate the Thomond Park factor on a raucous European day out, you have to experience it in the flesh.
Munster’s new head coach Johaan van Graan spent last week in Limerick observing Munster’s preparation for this key game from a respectful distance, along with meeting the key personnel in the playing and management group. Hopefully he liked what he saw.
He was also a keen observer on Saturday and must have been suitably impressed. It helped that Munster’s first home fixture in this season’s Champions Cup was restored to the box office slot at 5.30pm on a Saturday. Despite the adverse weather all the ingredients were in place for one of those spine-tingling occasions.
In the week marking the first anniversary of his passing, Anthony Foley would have been proud of the way Munster defended their line in the face of a sustained Racing onslaught in an opening half, played in appalling conditions, that would test the resolve of any side.
Playing against the wind with only 33% possession, Munster’s appetite in defence was tested to the full. They were not found wanting. An eight-minute Racing blitzkrieg in Munster’s 22 that failed to yield a single point, due primarily to the manic intensity of Munster in the tackle, played a significant part in the eventual outcome of this fascinating contest.
Normally, if a French side reaches the break at level pegging and still very much in the game on a visit to Limerick they have reason for a mini celebration in the dressing room.
Given the amount of possession and territory Racing enjoyed, with the strong wind at their backs, this was not the case on this occasion.
Munster enjoyed two convincing victories over the same opposition in their pool last season, but the Parisian outfit look a different proposition this time out.
Unusually, for a French side playing away from home, they sought to play with tempo and keep the ball alive through their impressive offloading game. In these testing conditions, however, even the irrepressible Leone Nakarawa was forced to compromise in that department.
Compared to last year, they asked so many different questions of Munster this time out but, to their credit, Peter O Mahony’s charges weren’t prepared to concede an inch.
It was inspirational stuff and had a fully engaged crowd on their feet throughout.
In the end it took a moment of sheer persistence, when Conor Murray blocked down his opposite number Maxime Machanaud’s attempted clearance off a scrum and measured his chasing run with the precision of a master to pick up the bouncing ball at full tilt to put some badly needed distance between the sides.
The hosts followed that up with another try, simple in its make up, but brilliantly executed under pressure, with Rory Scannell supplying the scoring pass to put Andrew Conway in at the corner. The conversion from Ian Keatley was measured to perfection and capped an excellent day’s work from him.
To highlight the fact that Racing are made of sterner stuff than we witnessed at any stage of the two Champions Cup clashes against Munster last year, not only did the they claw their way back into the game over a pulsating and tense closing period, they pilfered a losing bonus point that could yet prove significant in January.
That bonus point was no more than they deserved. In fact, they could well have pilfered a draw at the death but, with customary resilience, Munster somehow found a way to keep the visitors at bay, helped in no small measure by poor handling from replacement lock Baptiste Chouzenoux in the closing sequence of play metres from their line.
So, not only did van Graan get a proper insight into what Munster rugby is all about after this outing, he now knows what to expect when he returns to Limerick to direct operations from the coaches’ box against Leicester Tigers in the first of the key back- to-back encounters in December.
One hopes he enjoyed his week in Limerick and has returned to South Africa energised by what he encountered.
A true great of the game, Dan Carter, also got to finally tick the Thomond box as a player, having observed from the stand when New Zealand did the honours against Munster for the official opening back in 2008 and missing the pool game last season.
He too looked a little shook when forced to depart the scene early in the second half, having taken a knock on the knee early in the contest.
Manic days in Limerick tend to have that effect on even the best of players. As Rassie Erasmus prepares to hand over the reigns, he had every reason to be proud of his charges after this titanic effort.
n another highly competitive pool where away wins were expected to be rare as hen’s teeth, both Leinster away to Glasgow and Exeter Chiefs when defeating Montpellier at the Altrad Stadium, laid down serious markers
By picking up a second four-try bonus point in a row, however, Leinster have placed themselves in a commanding position. They will also be pretty pleased with the fact that Montpellier are now effectively out of contention. Right now, Leinster and Exeter are well placed to make the knockout phase.
Despite an explosive start to their Guinness PRO14 campaign, Glasgow, who promised much coming into this season’s Champions Cup under the expansive style favoured by their impressive new coach Dave Rennie, are already as good as out of the tournament. Leinster had the luxury of returning to a venue they frequent at least once a year, and knew exactly what to expect. They dealt with the threat admirably.
Despite some worrying defensive frailties early on in the wide 15-metre channels, exploited superbly by the passing accuracy of Finn Russell and the exquisite running lines of the returning Lion Stuart Hogg, Leinster rode out the storm and effectively wrapped up the contest in a perfectly timed, five-minute blitz either side of the break.
At 10-10 on the stroke of half-time, Glasgow had reason to be feeling good about themselves, after creating so much in attack, but a brace of tries from an excellent line out maul and superb interplay between Johnny Sexton and Wallaby second-row Scott Fardy saw the out-half touch down under the Glasgow posts.
In a flash, the hosts found themselves 14 points in arrears and, despite their best efforts, they were never going to threaten Leinster again.
In a week where such a seasoned professional as Donnacha O’Callaghan has questioned where the game will end up, given the increased physicality being encountered as players continue to get bigger and bigger, Glasgow had no less than five players subjected to head injury assessments over the course of the 80 minutes.
That didn’t help their cause, but Leinster, superbly marshalled by the mercurial Sexton, knew exactly what they needed to do to win. The foundations for this crucial win on the road was laid up front by the excellence of their set piece, in particular, the effectiveness of their line-out maul.
Having the luxury to introduce a test Lion in Jack McGrath for another tourist in Cian Healy, who had chipped in with two tries by the time he was called ashore, must have been a sickener for the already beleaguered Glasgow front row.
It’s been a great three weeks for Leo Cullen’s men, with heartening wins over Munster, Montpellier and Glasgow in the bag with the November hiatus for the autumn international’s to come. They are in a good place.