History does have a habit of repeating itself, especially in European Cup rugby. Ten years ago Ronan O’Gara stood over a match-winning penalty kick bang on the halfway line to deliver a rare win at Welford Road against a quality Leicester outfit. He nailed it.
Munster were the reigning Heineken Cup champions at the time and that epic 19-21 victory added another chapter to what had already become a tome of sporting highs. On this occasion as Owen Williams lined up an even more challenging effort to the opposite set of posts O’Gara faced, the Munster players feared another famous win was about to slip through their fingers. Williams delivered but Munster could have no complaints.
When a last second penalty is awarded to win a tight contest, much attention is focused on the referee. Let’s just say Pascal Gauzere has had better days. That said, on balance, I thought he was quite generous to Munster and could have furnished at least one more yellow card for penalties conceded within striking distance of the Munster line. The Tigers supporters had every right to feel frustrated.
After the highs of a maximum ten-point haul from their opening Champions Cup encounters against Glasgow and Leicester, Saturday’s contest highlighted once again just how challenging it is to win on the road in this competition. Just ask high-flying Wasps after their visit to Galway. What a magnificent result that was for Connacht on Saturday.
After a roller-coaster two month period that delivered seven straight wins in the most challenging of circumstances, Munster looked slightly flat and drained on this occasion.
Rassie Erasmus appeared to sense this and looked to his bench far earlier than usual in order to generate some fresh momentum.
Asked in advance of the Pool 1 contest against Leicester in Thomond Park how I thought Munster would do, I had no issue in predicting a comfortable home win. Why so? One look at the Tigers team sheet left me underwhelmed. There was nobody in their lineup that I felt Munster wouldn’t be able to cope with or feel in any way inferior to.
So what was likely to change for the return trip to Welford Road? Even with the superior financial resources available to the English clubs, there was nothing Leicester director of rugby Richard Corkerill could do to strengthen his squad in seven days. In fact he lost another key figure in out-half Freddie Burns to injury. Yet a proud club had been humiliated and embarrassed in Limerick.
They were hurting and there was bound to be consequences.
Regardless of the result in Limerick, this game was always going to present a different type of challenge. In many respects it offered Munster an insight into what it feels like to be a visitor to Thomond Park - hostile crowd, proud winning tradition, an opposition revved up and ready to explode. Leicester were all of that on Saturday.
There is a reason why Leicester has never lost back-to-back games since the format was introduced back in 1999 and Munster found out why on Saturday.
They are a proud, stubborn bunch and despite the fact that they were without seven players of international quality due to injury, still found a way to prevail.
The fact that Munster not only absorbed the inevitable Tigers onslaught from the outset but countered with impressive control and precision to sprint into a six-point lead in the key opening quarter augured well for the rest of the
A big difference this time was the fact that the Munster back row, imperious in all aspects of play in Limerick, were afforded nothing like the same latitude. Munster blew Leicester away at the breakdown in the first encounter but the Tigers were far more effective this time out, pilfering some valuable turnovers and succeeding in slowing down the delivery to Conor Murray all afternoon.
Murray was offered the freedom of the park last week but with nowhere near the same quality of possession, got an insight into how Ben Youngs felt.. It didn’t help either that Tyler Bleyendaal never looked like scaling the heights he achieved in his opening two Champions Cup appearances.
With Leicester controlling possession, one of the key pillars of Munster’s game, their discipline, was tested to the full. Thirteen penalties conceded compared to five last time out and a justified yellow card for a poorly timed tackle by Simon Zebo had Munster on the back foot especially when Williams, only offered the kicking duties in the absence of the concussed Freddie Burns, returned a perfect six-from-six from the boot.
Munster came up short too in the ten minutes Leicester were reduced to 14 men - Manu Tuilagi was yellow carded for the second week in a row - and it was the Tigers who rose to the challenge, outscoring Munster 6-0.
From a position of vulnerability, Leicester responded magnificently and drew heavily from that unlikely confidence boost.
In the circumstances, it must be of some consolation to Rassie Erasmus that, having played way below the standards set in recent weeks, Munster still showed sufficient character and determination to propel themselves into a one-point lead with four minutes left after a well executed try by Niall Scannell and a gutsy conversion from Blayendaal. Had they held on to win, it would have represented the ultimate smash-and-grab.
While a horrific run of injuries has impacted greatly on Leicester this season, leaving Welford Road with a losing bonus point is not to be sniffed at and could yet prove invaluable when this pool is decided at the end of January.
It was inevitable that Munster would hit a speed bump somewhere along this Champions Cup journey and encountering it at Welford Road will come as no surprise, even if it will feel like a step backwards due to the disappointing nature of the overall performance.
Given where Munster were twelve months ago, a return of six points from this mini series compared to a zero haul last time out from the same two fixtures is a fair measure of progress made. Munster now need to freshen up, reassess, and set their sights on capitalising on the fact that Racing 92 are already out of this year’s tournament.
A target of nine points from the two games against the Parisians, coupled with a minimum of a losing bonus point when they visit Glasgow next month would yield a return of 21 points.
That figure will, almost certainly, deliver knockout rugby next April for the first time in three years.
After that you take your chances.
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