In the end Munster’s resilience, doggedness and belief delivered the victory that now guarantees their place in the knockout phase of Champions Cup rugby for the first time since 2014. With that in the bag, the next task is securing the all-important home quarter-final that will become a certainty if they beat Racing 92 in Limerick next Saturday.
Who would bet against that happening at this juncture even if Racing finally deliver a performance their status as reigning French champions demands after a disastrous campaign from them to date. It will be interesting now to see what combination they decide to bring to Thomond Park.
After a barren season on the European front for the Irish provinces last year, both Munster and Leinster have already booked their place in the knockout phase with a round to go, while Wasps’ last-minute win over Toulouse on Saturday was most welcome in Galway, as Connacht now have a chance of joining their two Irish compatriots in the last eight. To be absolutely certain of advancing they have to win, but a losing bonus may, in certain circumstances, suffice.
Glasgow will be sick of the sight of the red jersey by the time this season is over. The fact Munster have made it a hat-trick of wins in the three contests to date augurs well for them, with at least one and possibly two more clashes to come in the Guinness Pro 12.
Whisper it, but there is even the possibility the two could meet again in a European quarter final. For Glasgow to qualify, they will have to go to Welford Road and beat Leicester. Even that might not be enough to advance for the first time. Saturday’s game couldn’t have been more different to the one in Paris seven days earlier. For the heavy, sodden surface at the Stade Yves De Manoir substitute the immaculate 4G pitch that guaranteed a lively game in Scotstoun.
In contrast to the attritional route favoured by Racing 92, Munster had to prepare themselves for the swift, offloading, high-tempo game Glasgow have been delivering for some time now, facilitated by a competitive set piece.
Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, having absorbed the lessons from those two previous defeats already this season, Glasgow decided the only way to beat Munster was to take them on in the set piece and stop them generating any semblance of momentum.
That is exactly what they managed to do, denying Munster any access into their 22 in the opening quarter. Munster just couldn’t get up and running. As a consequence, to finish that period on level terms at 3-3 represented something of a victory for the visitors. Glasgow dominated, but had little to show for their efforts.
On the flip side, such was Munster’s ability to scrap for every bit of possession at the breakdown, even if Tommy O’Donnell was a loss in this key factor, coupled with the excellence of their press in defence, Glasgow had no option but to kick for territory with far more regularity than they normally would. With so much at stake in this key contest, both sides were reluctant to push the boundaries and take unnecessary chances. It was very much a case of punch and counter punch, with neither side making any telling inroads. Where Donnacha Ryan was pilfering a Glasgow line out, Josh Strauss was getting his hands in on the ball to hold up possession and win back a scrum put-in for the home side. Neither team was prepared to concede an inch which made it a gripping contest. As we speculated her last week, this game turned on the implementation of the increased tackle sanctions, when Stuart Hogg was yellow carded for a sloppy tackle on Andrew Conway with nine minutes to go. Three points from the resultant penalty would have drawn matters level again, but Munster had other ideas. Kicking to the corner, their lineout maul, which had failed to make any telling impact to that point, put the Glasgow defence under immediate pressure and led to the match-winning try from Francis Saili after a very clever switch by Keith Earls.
The missed touchline conversion from Tyler Bleyendaal, however, left Munster protecting a vulnerable two-point lead with seven minutes still to play. That was when the real character of the side shone through, especially after yet another botched effort at dealing with a restart, an area that Munster surprisingly struggled with all day. Yet, to their credit, their defensive effort in that crucial closing period was laudable, not to mention their discipline in refusing to concede what would surely have been a winning penalty for Glasgow.
What Munster have achieved to date this season is quite extraordinary, a huge turnaround from where they were this time last year. That has been facilitated no end by some outstanding performances from the key leaders in this side.
More often than not, CJ Stander has been the standard bearer when games were there to be won, but on this occasion Conor Murray proved the difference between success and defeat in this absorbing clash. He was absolutely magnificent.
Clearly targeted from the outset, Glasgow decided in advance he had to be stopped by fair means or foul. The victim of two borderline hits, he deserved more protection from the officials, especially when executing a box kick with your standing leg exposed.
Apart from carrying out the basic duties with his usual efficiency, it was his work in the tackle that set him apart. His scramble defence has always been of the highest quality, but on this occasion he operated as an auxiliary back-row forward, regularly tackling Glasgow’s biggest ball carriers. Ideally, you don’t want one of your key playmakers involved in so much physical grunt. Given his importance to the team you would prefer to minimise the amount of big hits he is required to make per game. EPCR has already confirmed its Untowards Incident Review Group will examine Munster’s ‘management’ of Murray on Saturday.
The work rate of the Munster back three was also exceptional on the day, with Conway having a marvellous game, both in attack and defence, along with Earls who played a crucial role in Saili’s match-winning try. Simon Zebo had very few opportunities in attack but his kicking game offered a brilliant option when exiting the twenty two. Despite being put under severe pressure he delivered some booming touch finders when the need was most.
With the primary job done in extending their European season into April, Munster and Leinster will now seek to complete the mission by cementing a, financially lucrative, home quarter-final that wins over Racing 92 and Castres respectively would guarantee.
Some relief on the injury front coupled with a very welcome eight day turnaround will certainly aid the Connacht cause. A losing bonus point for the Westerners could prove sufficient to advance and may even result in one of those potential home quarter finals becoming an All-Ireland affair. Right now Connacht would grab that with both hands.