When Ulster escaped punishment for a knock-on and offside infringement prior to their try at Kingspan Park, Munster coach Anthony Foley must have feared the worst for his under pressure and luckless side.
However, to the huge credit of a group deprived of the services of almost half their first choice selection (among the absentees were Lions Simon Zebo, Keith Earls and Conor Murray, along with Donnacha Ryan, James Cronin, Peter O’Mahony and Andrew Conway), Munster set about putting things right.
Even if they spent much of the first half in their own territory, they committed themselves so powerfully and spiritedly, that they left Belfast with the kind of result that sends them into three successive European engagements with confidence hugely renewed after a miserable December.
Foley doesn’t pretend that they have cured all of their ills but he knows that they head to the Champions Cup in a far more positive frame after ending one of the worst run’s in the province’s professional history.
As a collective, they were excellent, reducing the many unforced errors of recent outings and more often than not using possession reasonably — though there were two or three extremely misguided attempts at tactical kicking.
Individually, Munster had a towering figure up front in CJ Stander and a reassuringly confidence presence at out-half in Ian Keatley. Once again, Stander proved a massive ball carrier and an unyielding defender and on this evidence, must be close to a place on the Irish team next month.
What about Keatley? Foley was on the money when pointing out that “you can’t keep going out getting battered week in, week out and there was no point in burying him. He is a vital cog for us.”
This was the coach’s way of explaining and justifying Keatley’s omission for the Leinster game and it worked like a dream. Keatley controlled possession superbly. Some of his diagonal kicking put one in mind of Ronan O’Gara. And in the wake of all the woes of the recent past, it took a lot of guts for Keatley to knock over two penalties loaded with pressure while his drop goal was beautiful.
Where, now, the bullies who jeered him not so long in Thomond Park? And even if Stander was the stand-out figure up front, young Jack O’Donoghue wasn’t far behind as he displayed all the attributes of a top-class back-row forward. And he even had the nerve to steal an Ulster lineout throw with a little piece of skill of which the absent Peter O’Mahony would have been proud.
Tommy O’Donnell’s return did a huge amount to strengthen the Munster forward effort. You wonder just how good the pack could be if all its components were fit.
As for Donnacha Ryan, his late withdrawal in Belfast, hopefully, was based on precautionary grounds rather than any long-term issues. Even then, Billy Holland, made a splendid replacement.
Interpro matches at this stage of the season often serve as old-time “final trials” and on that basis, Joe Schmidt would have been noting the performances of Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, O’Donoghue, Stander and Keatley.
Now the group can turn to Stade Francais at Stade Jean Bouin next weekend in a far more buoyant mood, encouraged, too, by Ronan O’Gara’s comments in his column in this paper on Friday.
“The Stade game will all come down to attitude,” O’Gara observed. “And Stade might have to prioritise getting into the Top 14 play-offs and so might not have two eyes on Europe. Watch for the team news — it will be very interesting to see what XV Gonzalo Quesado puts out and where their head is at. If you wanted to play a team in France at the moment, it is probably Stade.”
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