How special it was to witness a Munster side prevail, once again, against a team packed with serial game-breaker, writes Donal Lenihan
No other team in world rugby does drama quite like Munster. Backs to the wall, odds stacked against them in every way. No matter. Once you walk down that Thomond Park tunnel from the home dressing room on big European occasions such as this, mere mortals become transformed.
The cry went out early in the week. Given their well-documented injury issues, Munster needed warriors. In the build-up to his first ever Champions Cup quarter-final, Johann van Graan was happy after overseeing his first session in two months last Monday with his international contingent on board that, whatever side was fit to start on Saturday, performing like dervishes in the face of adversity would not pose a problem. Warriors were in plentiful supply.
The question remained, however, would it prove enough against a side overflowing with stellar names and, home advantage apart, carrying all the aces? The one positive on this occasion was that every Munster fan lucky enough to get their hands on a ticket knew exactly what was required of them.
This was a game where the players couldn’t do it on their own. It certainly wasn’t a day for supporters to stand back and wait to be entertained. Everyone sitting in the stands or standing on the terraces had a role to play and they knew it. That’s what makes Thomond Park so special on occasions such as this.
Eavesdropping on the conversation of a few diehard Munster supporters an hour before kickoff, one summarised Munster’s situation succinctly. Acknowledging the might of the challenge ahead, one offered hope. “Tis in the nature of the beast. The young fellows might just rise up.”
How right he was.
The fact that local hero Simon Zebo — in his last European appearance in Munster colours before departing to Racing 92 — Andrew Conway and Rory Scannell were all passed fit to start when the team was announced on Friday also offered a timely boost. Despite the injuries, the selected XV looked pretty decent and the dark cloud that hung over selection all week began to lift.
What transpired over the course of a thrilling 80-minute contest was breathtaking. How special it was to witness a Munster side prevail, once again, against a team packed with serial game-breakers. Make no mistake, Toulon came to play and looked awesome in possession over the opening period when most visitors struggle to cope.
The edge in power and physicality that Toulon carried right across their three-quarter line gave the visitors a massive advantage on the gain line and an opportunity to control the key opening period when teams visiting Limerick either sink or swim.
Not only did Toulon manage to keep their heads well above water, they were making savage gains. The fact that they had only six points from the boot of Anthony Belleau to show for their early dominance was a tribute to an incredible defensive effort put in by Munster right across the board.
They were also fortunate to survive a very early intervention from the TMO when Zebo could just have easily have conceded a penalty try when slapping the ball out of the grasp of Chris Ashton. I think referee Nigel Owens got that call wrong.
If the situation was reversed, Thomond Park would have exploded with rage.
The fact that Ashton was in a position to score as early as the opening minute was down to clever preparation on behalf of Toulon. They knew that Munster would put up early bombs, leaving space open in the backfield vacated by the chasing wingers.
Their first requirement was to remain solid under the high ball, which former rugby league star Semi Radradra managed throughout, and return it immediately into that exposed space — which is exactly what they did.
Given his dodgy hamstring, the last thing Zebo needed so early in the game was a 30m sprint to the corner to challenge Ashton.
In the end he, somewhat controversially, saved a certain try but at a great personal cost. He never looked comfortable after that collision and it was no surprise when he was forced into a tearful departure after only 25 minutes.
Every time Munster kicked deep, you feared the damage the counter-attacking instincts of Ashton, Josua Tuisova, and Radradra were capable of inflicting.
The one thing that shone through, however, despite the onslaught, was Munster’s individual and collective excellence in their first up and scramble defence.
Sammy Arnold and Rory Scannell, despite a huge weight disadvantage, were heroic in their battle against Mathieu Bastareaud and All Black legend Ma’a Nonu. In the ultimate team performance, that young centre pairing was brilliant from start to finish.
Arnold refused to take a backward step and was massively physical on both sides of the ball while Scannell is a very underrated footballer who invariably makes the right decision in possession. His excellent left boot also offers a valuable kicking alternative to Ian Keatley, who enjoyed another influential outing.
A brilliant 65th-minute Toulon try, finished superbly by Ashton after two sumptuous offloads from Francois Trinh-Duc — which, despite protestations from the Munster fans, was flat but not forward — and Bastareaud would have buried a team of lesser character.
Yet when the contest came down to a moment of genius from a back-three flyer, it was Conway who sprinkled the scene with gold dust, delivering the game-clinching moment with a mesmeric individual try that will be spoken about for years to come.
For a player so short on game time, Conway was outstanding, not only in that defining moment but in the opening quarter when the need was greatest.
Two brilliant pieces of defending — one corner flag tackle on Tuisova was inspirational — saved certain tries.
That Munster led by four points at the break was an incredible boost given a remarkable few minutes when, with a positive if far too lengthy intervention from the TMO, Conor Murray was awarded a try against the odds and the balance of play to lift a Munster side under siege.
It was Murray at his very best. Very few players in world rugby would have shown such an awareness of the opportunity that presented itself at the base of that Toulon ruck when French captain Guilhem Guirado picked up but knocked on which meant the ruck was over.
Even such an experienced official as Owens appeared uncertain as to whether Murray was entitled to intervene from the position he found himself in. It was a moment of pure genius from a genius of a player.
While Murray, CJ Stander, and captain Peter O Mahony — how inspirational were his lineout steals at a time when Munster were under serious pressure? — delivered their usual tour de force, every Munster player rose to the challenge. Both Munster front rows provided a rock-solid scrum, laced with some vital penalties.
In the second row Jean Kleyn and Billy Holland offered technical excellence at the lineout and an unstinting work rate in broken play while Jack O’Donoghue was every bit as effective as his more celebrated colleagues in the Munster back row.
A word too for Darran Swetnam who, after a challenging season to date, made a huge contribution when replacing the injured Zebo.
Not only was this Munster’s ninth home quarter-final win from the 10 hosted at Thomond Park, it was the best of them all. No wonder there was so much joy and so many happy faces in the post-match celebrations as the players and supporters, united as one, shared yet another magical day.
Munster will also have reason to be happy that a Racing 92 side they know inside out and have beaten three times in four outings over the last 18 months are the team left standing between them and a first final appearance in a decade.
They would gladly have taken that before kick off last Saturday.
Right now, all roads lead to Bordeaux.
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