Munster 22 Racing 10: It has been a long and often painful wait, but Munster supporters again have the prospect, not just of a home European quarter-final to savour, but also the personnel with the right mindset to fulfil their potential in the cause of their province.

">

Munster ready to kick on, says Rassie Erasmus

Munster 22 Racing 10: It has been a long and often painful wait, but Munster supporters again have the prospect, not just of a home European quarter-final to savour, but also the personnel with the right mindset to fulfil their potential in the cause of their province.

Munster ready to kick on, says Rassie Erasmus

Saturday’s victory over French champions Racing 92 was another statement of intent in that regard. Having beaten the Parisians handsomely at Stade Yves du Manoir a fortnight previously and then ground out a win at in-form Glasgow Warriors the following week to secure a first appearance in the Champions Cup knockout stages in three seasons, Munster made it three pool wins in a row, to finish as Pool 1 winners, their only loss in six games being that narrow defeat at Leicester, when a last-minute long-range penalty nicked it.

Considering Rassie Erasmus’s side started the European campaign as outsiders in the pool behind last May’s runners-up Racing, perennial PRO12 contenders Glasgow, and English big guns Leicester Tigers, having only crept into the European draw on the last day of the season, there is much for Munster to look back on with satisfaction and pride since that dark day in Paris on October 16.

What has happened since should certainly be enough to keep supporters’ hearts warm through the chilly weeks ahead, for, at the end of a remarkable 14-week period for Munster Rugby which began with the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley and concluded with a 12th win in 13 games, the boys in red have been transformed from a promising group of individuals, with no clear path to success, into a cohesive unit of contenders, strong in defence and dangerous in attack, ready to give Europe’s big guns a run for their money.

Win number 12 in that run may have only been a workmanlike performance in front of a sell-out 26,200 Thomond Park crowd, but tries from Simon Zebo, Ronan O’Mahony, and Ian Keatley, plus two conversions and a penalty for Tyler Bleyendaal, helped add further gloss to their achievement by guaranteeing their last-eight tie in April will keep them on home soil in Limerick. It’s not only a major boost to provincial coppers, but it affords a much better chance of advancing further.

With Saracens only scoring 10 points in defeating Toulon by seven in North London earlier in the day, Munster knew exactly what was required of them. Their points difference was such that an 11-point winning margin or bonus-point victory over Racing would be sufficient to earn them the second seeding and therefore put control of a home semi-final draw into their hands.

It was certainly worth Erasmus’s while reminding his players of that during the interval, as Munster held a slender 7-3 lead, Maxime Machenaud’s penalty on the stroke of half-time having cut into the home side’s advantage, created by Zebo’s 36th-minute opener, as a determined Racing paid the price for the yellow card handed to fly-half Benjamin Dambielle on the half hour.

“The first thing was to win the game against a quality side, who last year played in a final and won the Top 14. You can’t just throw their talent away, because they didn’t have a great season, especially after last week’s win,” said Erasmus, referring to Racing’s woeful form in Europe prior to rounds five and six. “So, the first prize was just to win the game.

“I thought when we scored the first try, the guys’ heads went a little bit, going to either score four tries or beat them by more than 11. That put us a bit off task at times and we didn’t play too well, but after half-time — when we said to the boys: ‘What is the reality? What do we have to do?’ — the boys went out and did it, so good leadership by Peter [O’Mahony] and good... maybe big match temperament isn’t the right word, but [more] the boys’ understanding of the task.”

Second-half tries from O’Mahony and replacement full-back Keatley, who scampered over after solid work outside him from the impressive Andrew Conway, either side of a score from Racing’s Henry Chavancy, did enough to accumulate the appropriate margin and give Munster the outcome that seemed the stuff of wishful thinking when the draw was made last summer.

“When we started seven months ago, I said let’s maximise this potential and see where we can go. Now, it’s put us into a situation where we’re playing a home quarter-final,” Erasmus said.

“I know there’s big things that can go wrong. We lost James Cronin, probably with his thumb, and Killer [fellow loosehead Dave Kilcoyne] is going to the national set-up for a while. Thomas du Toit is going back [to the Sharks after his loan spell], so, in certain positions we’ll be thin. It’s our jobs as coaches and managers to see how fit a squad we can get when those quarter-finals come.

“We’ve put ourselves in position now and now we want to see if we can kick on.”

While Erasmus, who won a Currie Cup in his first year as a rookie head coach with the Cheetahs a decade ago, tries to keep feet within his squad at walking pace and firmly on the ground, the director of rugby insisted he had no fear of rising expectations outside of his control.

“The most important thing I’m trying to get right is that this should be a hell of an opportunity for you to express yourself and enjoy it. It shouldn’t be: ‘Oh, we’ve made it...’

“The players are starting to get that and, with me being in those positions before, I think I understand that the moment you say ‘oh we’re here now’, there are massive expectations. The moment you go into that mode, there is too much pressure, you’re not enjoying the week and, at this stage, I think the players enjoy the fans and the crowd’s a sell-out, so that helps a little bit. Otherwise, we’re so focused on ‘we must go a step further’.

“But we just go ‘we train as hard as we can, we play as hard as we can and we analyse as hard as we can and let’s see what the result is’, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve had much worse things happen to us this year than losing a game. We’ll always have that little bit of a reality check. We don’t get too tense about things. Hopefully, that helps.”

The South African also trusts that those sell-out crowds, who will now clamour for quarter-final tickets, remain knowledgeable enough not to pile unwanted pressure on their heroes.

“I think the Munster fans are really supporters, they are supporting the team not demanding. The players feel that. Even this performance, three tries against Racing and not the most beautiful game, they never got frustrated with that. They kept supporting and, when we won, they were happy. I think the type of supporters help a lot and the Munster supporters are knowledgeable enough for us not to have a massive expectation worry for us.”

MUNSTER:

S Zebo (I Keatley, 69); A Conway, J Taute (F Saili, 47), R Scannell, R O’Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams, 70); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne, 12), N Scannell (R Marshall, 61), J Ryan (T du Toit, 67-72); J Kleyn (B Holland, 51), D Ryan; P O’Mahony — captain, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.

Replacement not used:

J O’Donoghue

RACING 92:

B Dulin; T Thomas, H Chavancy, E Dussartre (A Vulivuli, 63), M Andreu; B Dambielle (F Pourteau, 63), M Machenaud – captain (J Hart, 74); E Ben Arous (J Brugnaut, 55), C Chat, B Tameifuna (C Gomes Sa, 30-76), M Carizza, L Nakarawa (A Williams, 65); Y Nyanga (C Masoe, 65), M Voisin, S Fa’aso’o.

Yellow card:

Dambielle 30-40.

Replacement not used:

V Lacombe

Referee:

Marius Mitrea (Italy)

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox