With Ulster and Leinster both delivering, albeit with varying degrees of difficulty, against Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs, Munster were ravenous for a first win here since that late, late show back in 2006 when a Ronan O’Gara penalty at the death closed out another fascinating contest between these two great European rivals.
If the old adage of learning more in defeat than victory rings true, then after consecutive losses here in pre-Christmas Champions Cup clashes in 2015 and 2016, Munster were well positioned to right the wrongs. All the more so when they were clearly the better side in Limerick last week.
On days like this, in venues such as this, you learn a lot about the character of your side. When the pressure was at it greatest, with John Ryan conceding a stupid penalty for a warranted yellow-card two minutes after his introduction off the bench, Munster were on the rack.
Yet in times like this, big players produce big moments, and in Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, and CJ Stander, Munster had three Herculean performers. When the need was greatest, they were the ones who kept the show on the road but with so many willing foot soldiers at their side, this was a compelling Munster team performance.
In front of their increasingly agitated home support, Leicester had far more scope for improvement from last week’s outing in Limerick and the addition of Manu Tuilagi and Matt Toomua to their midfield was certain to improve their attacking potency.
They certainly delivered on that front with a series of telling breaks in the third quarter but Munster’s defence was up to the challenge, apart from one poor lapse of concentration early on which led to a morale-boosting, opening try for the Tigers.
For Munster to work their way back from that position to lead by two points at the break was huge, especially when Dan Cole saw yellow right on the stroke of the half-time whistle. With Leicester coach Matt O’Connor spreading the vitriol from the moment the final whistle blew in Limerick last weekend, it was inevitable that his Tigers side would be far more confrontational this time out.
Having sent 12 video clips of perceived Munster misdemeanors at the breakdown in Thomond Park to European rugby’s head of referees Joel Jutge, the contact area was sure to attract a lot of scrutiny from another French official, Mathieu Raynal.
If Raynal was feeling any pressure coming into this one, it certainly didn’t show. Leicester, in an attempt to right the wrongs from last week, brought a physicality that bordered on stupidity. At times, they were out of control with Cole, their most experienced campaigner, a serial offender.
To his credit, Raynal refused to be intimidated by the crowd and a penalty count of 11-2 in favour of the visitors at half-time enabled Munster to recover from the blow of that early try concession. Leicester’s indiscipline was appalling.
unster’s composure and a refusal to be dragged into a dockyard brawl, especially after a cheap shot on Murray from Tigers second row Graham Kitchener, did not go unnoticed either by the officials.
In that respect, the rapport O’Mahony established with the French team of officials, when all around him in Leicester colours were losing control, was crucial. That coupled with two sublime lineout steals at crucial times, one leading directly to a try from Stander after a sublime break from Murray just after the break, proved crucial to the outcome of this game.
If their Lions tourists laid the foundations for this memorable win, great credit also extends to a trio of European novices in Kevin O’Byrne, Chris Cloete, and Alex Wootton, who were heroic. O’Byrne’s lineout deliveries were launched with such pinpoint accuracy, Munster enjoyed a 100% return while he was on board, enabling them to establish dominance in this key sector.
Cloete showed astonishing pace while covering 60 metres to cut off Leicester flyer Jonny May when he threatened to score from a spectacular breakout from inside his own 22 while Wootton was magnificent under the high ball and had the confidence to run from deep and take on all comers.
Special mention too for Ian Keatley who recovered from missing a penalty on 65 minutes to play a big part in closing out this game. Like Leinster in Exeter last week, the Munster bench were also immense. Brian Scott, up against Cole, was rock solid in the closing scrums and Jack O’Donoghue put in two massive hits and one key turnover at a vital time.
When you consider this victory was achieved without Chris Farrell, Jaco Taute, and Keith Earls featuring, and on the back of losing Rhys Marshall, who was so influential in this fixture in Thomond Park, indicates Munster’s depth, even in testing circumstances, is growing.
This pivotal victory on the road, coupled with the news that O’Mahony’s contract issues have been resolved, has resulted in Christmas arriving a week early for Munster. No wonder Johan van Graan looked so contented on the final whistle. After just a few weeks in the job, he has already made a notable contribution to Munster’s storied history in this great tournament.
Meanwhile, Leinster gave further credence to the view that they will be serious contenders for Champions Cup honours next May when inflicting further misery on a vastly improved Exeter Chiefs side who pushed the home team all the way to the final whistle on Saturday.
The fact that it took all of 67 minutes for Leinster to claim the lead says everything about the level of improvement delivered by the visitors. The three changes the Chiefs made to their front five had the desired effect and enabled them monopolise possession to an impressive degree in the opening period.
It didn’t help the Leinster cause that they were forced to play with 14 men for 20 minutes with both Cian Healy — who could well have seen red — and Scott Fardy receiving yellow cards. The amazing thing about that, and what sets Leinster apart, is the manner with which they held their composure, despite being under severe pressure, to emerge from those two sin bin periods six points to the good.
Factor in also that their key playmaker Johnny Sexton lasted only two minutes when he was one of three players to receive a Head Injury Assessment in the opening seven minutes. It was that kind of a bruising contest.
Credit to Exeter for the manner in which they carried the game to their hosts and affected change in all the key areas, most notably the scrum and in dealing with the aerial bombardment, that let them down so badly back in Sandy Park.
Once again a key difference was the depth in quality Leinster were able to introduce off their bench with James Ryan, Jack McGrath, and especially Dan Leavy instrumental in turning the possession stats very much in their favour.
To survive without Sexton and transform a disappointing performance in the opening half by winning the second period 13-0, underlined the strong mental fortitude you need to prevail at this level of competition.
Leinster managed that against the champions of England without playing anywhere near their best. With 18 points in the bag, they already have one foot in the knockout phase but will breath a huge sigh of relief after this one.