In Frankie Sheahan’s 50th tournament appearance, the reigning champions ensured a knock-out berth for the ninth successive season. Not even Toulouse, the so-called elite of European rugby, can claim that.
Munster’s worst case scenario — a loss to Leicester on Saturday — is finishing seventh or eighth in the quarter-final seedings. But a victory of any sort will ensure there is no early reunion with No 1 ranked Biarritz, who are blazing an unprecedented trail with 25 points from five games.
Former skipper Mick Galwey isn’t worried on that score. “What it means is that Munster have got to win, and they’re at their best when that’s the case.
“It’s the last match at Thomond Park as we know it and I think it is only fitting that Munster go out to play against a quality team like Leicester to give them the best send off possible. It makes for a fantastic occasion,”
However, there must be serious reservations about Munster’s approach to yesterday’s match. There may be a philosophical rethink underway from the days of the hard yard but they tried too much too soon yesterday, and made far too many mistakes. Having surprised Bourgoin with the intensity of their effort, they also gave away two soft tries in the opening half. It shouldn’t have been the case, and there shouldn’t have been as many tremors on the terraces either in the second half.
Munster started in sensational fashion when Donncha O’Callaghan gathered straight from the kick off. Shaun Payne was denied a try by a Florian Denos tackle, but Bourgoin put the pressure on when Sebastian Laloo kicked a long range penalty against the run of play after six minutes.
O’Gara equalised with a trademark kick from 22 metres but will culpable when his ill-advised chip ahead was caught by Denos, who immediately launched a counter-offensive. Salesi Finau chipped ahead and captain, Julien Bonnaire won the footrace to score.
That setback was negatived by an O’Gara penalty and a sensational try from Marcus Horan. Munster took a quick line out throw – courtesy of Leamy. Donncha O’Callaghan took it on and it went through several pairs of hands before David Wallace’s scoring pass to Horan. O’Gara’s conversion from the right hand touchline was an equal gem.
But this was turning into an unpredictable afternoon. A further scoring opportunity was lost when Finau hit Horan in full flight. The ball fell backwards and Guillaume Bousses hacked on before finishing with a try that Laloo converted to give Bourgoin a 15-13 lead they hardly didn’t deserve.
It flip-flopped back towards Munster when Brice Monzeglio, the blind side flanker, was sent to the sin-bin for bringing down a Munster maul. Referee Malcolm Changleng awarded Munster a penalty try that O’Gara converted.
That gave Munster a 20-15 half-time advantage, but anyone who thought the high-wire stuff was at an end was to be disappointed.
They could easily have relinquished the lead when another mistake almost yielded a try for winger Yann David within seconds of the re-start. But the French got their just desserts after 57 minutes when Matthieu Nicolas sneaked in for a try to level the scores.
Munster again cleared their heads and created a midfield gap for Shaun Payne to tee up Lifeimi Mafi for a clear run in for five. O’Gara converted and then kicked a penalty to put his side ten points in front. Enough excitement, please!
Not a bit of it — Munster were breached again as substitute Nicolas crossed the whitewash and Laloo converted to reduce the gap to 30-27. The remaining minutes were traumatic for the visitors and their nail-less followers. In the general spirit of mayhem, O’Connell tried an overhead pass which was almost intercepted, and Munster almost bagged a bonus point when Foley was just stopped short of the Bourgoin line.
Munster, for all their bravado, could have left it all behind them. Expect a more measured approach to the Tigers next Saturday.
Tries: Bonnaire, Bousses, Nicolas 2. Cons: Laloo 2. Pens: Laloo.
Tries: Horan, Penalty, Mafi. Cons: O’Gara 3. Pens: O’Gara 3. BOURGOIN: Denos, David, Bousses, Coetzee, Finau, Laloo, Parra, Milloud, Vigneaux, Cardinali, Williams, Pierre, Monzeglio, Jooste, Bonnaire.
Carmona for Denos (46), Nicolas for Coetzee (33), Coux for Finau (74), Khinchagishvili for Milloud (78), Sourgens for Cardinali (56), Del-Fava for Williams (69), Rennie for Jooste (74).
Payne, Kelly, Murphy, Mafi, Dowling, O’Gara, Stringer, Horan, Sheahan, Hayes, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, O’Driscoll, Wallace, Leamy.
Pucciariello for Horan (71), Flannery for Sheahan (66), Foley for Leamy (74).
M Changleng (Gala).