Munster’s victory in the process denied the Tigers a losing bonus point while inflicting a first home and away double over the English giants since these fixtures were introduced across rounds three and four in 1999. It also places van Graan’s side in firm control of Pool 4 with a four-point lead at the top over Racing 92, whom they visit next in Paris in mid-January.
The manner of their success on English soil, with an excellent recovery from a shaky start to displayed their growing maturity under the superb captaincy of man of the match Peter O’Mahony, should also send a warning to the rest of Europe that the two-time Heineken Cup winners must once again be taken seriously as contenders in the continent’s premier club competition.
Leicester head coach Matt O’Connor, so vocal in his gripes about breakdown cynicism after last week’s 33-10 defeat in Limerick, could have no complaints this time as Munster once again outmuscled their rivals and gave credit where it was due last night.
“They’ve had some time together, they’ve got their Munster edge back,” the former Leinster boss said.
“They’d probably lost that. When I was at Leinster, they were in a bit of a rebuilding phase with Rob (Penney) and they didn’t really know what their identity was.
“They’ve gone back to their genuine DNA and they’re a hard team to break down. They’re incredibly committed and physical and well drilled and they demonstrated it tonight.” Munster had looked decidedly shaky in the opening moments as the expected onslaught from a wounded Tigers side was unleashed, the home side earning a penalty just 60 seconds in as a Leicester lineout jumper was taken out in the air as the visitors began to drive prematurely. The opportunity for early points on the board was too good to turn down and fly-half George Ford duly accepted the offer, Munster 3-0 down after two minutes.
Ball handling was difficult in greasy conditions which became worse as rain began to fall as the opening half progressed but Munster fly-half Ian Keatley was in particular trouble, spilling in contact and then dropping again moments later.
Like his team-mates, Keatley would get back on track after those early wobbles and would regain his composure admirably, not least to continue his rich vein of kicking form. He was helped to a large degree in that objective by a profligate Leicester side. For though they had upped their intensity considerably from their tame showing at Thomond Park eight nights previously, they had once again failed to get on the same page as French referee Mathieu Reynal.
Ben Youngs came through a ruck to take out Conor Murray, allowing Keatley to level at 3-3. Leicester did retake the lead, from the platform of ruck penalty against the visitors. George Ford kicked to the corner and the resulting lineout set up full-back Matt Tait neatly to take a pass from Graham Kitchener and run an excellent line to grab the opening try, which Ford converted.
Then the ill-discipline returned, Keatley kicking three more first-half penalties to send Munster into the break with a 12-10 and the added bonus of a man advantage following the sin-binning of serial offender Dan Cole on the stroke of half-time.
The advantage told soon after the resumption of play as Keatley nailed an excellent touchfinder to the Leicester 22, from where captain Peter O’Mahony underlined just how valuable he is to his province by stealing the lineout. Conor Murray broke brilliant towards the posts and from the next phase, CJ Stander launched himself over the line, his try confirmed by the TMO to put his team into a 17-10 lead with 43 minutes gone.
Now it was time for Munster to lose the head, replacement prop John Ryan inexplicably jeopardising his team’s position with a rash slap down of the ball from Ben Youngs’ hands that cost him 10 minutes in the bin and left his side short-handed with 20 minutes to go. Ford had already closed the gap to 13-19 with a penalty as Munster began to come under heavy pressure and the noise levels inside Welford Road began to rise considerably. Tigers were beginning to win the collisions with the returning Manu Tuilagi back to his bulldozing best after another injury lay-off and Ryan’s moment of madness handed them another lifeline. Ford dispatched the resulting penalty to make it a three-point game and a sense of panic returned to the Munster ranks as Keatley dropped back into the pocket and went for a drop goal that sailed left of the posts.
Such was the nature of this see-saw game that Leicester managed to outdo their guests in the stupidity stakes, Mike Fitzgerald’s late hit on Simon Zebo handing Keatley the chance to re-establish some daylight on the scoreboard. For once the fly-half failed to convert in an otherwise excellent performance off the tee but with Ryan back on the field and Munster once again with a full complement, Keatley atoned with another fine touch kick.
Munster had excelled at the set-piece throughout and their dominance of the lineout continued as Tigers handed a debut off the bench to Wallaby hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau, O’Mahony once again stealing on the Leicester 22 and the subsequent pressure on the scrambling defence yielding another penalty. Keatley, once again showing his bouncebackability by adding three points with the boot having missed the simpler previous effort.
With a six-point cushion Munster were not out of the woods and the way they rolled their sleeves up to finish the job was a testament to their maturity in the white heat of a European pressure cooker away from home.
Alex Wootton belied his inexperience at this level to put in a sterling performance on the left wing that allowed Munster to delay Keith Earls’ return from injury and leave the Ireland star on the bench while Keatley did extremely well to tap tackle Tuilagi as gathered a head of steam with a carry out of his 22. With three minutes to go, Leicester had no choice but to go for broke and Stander provided the relief as clamped onto the ball to force the tackled Luke Hamilton to concede another penalty. Keatley nailed that one too, to make seven from eight shots at goal and send Munster closer to victory at 25-16 with three minutes to go.
There was still time for Tuilagi to do some more damage further up the field and he bashed his way into the corner, forcing a penalty from a desperate Munster defence. Tigers tapped and went and when the ball was spilled a couple of phases later so had their hopes.
M Tait; A Thompstone (Traynor, 42-49, N Malouf, 68), M Tuilagi, M To’omua, J May; G Ford, B Youngs; K Traynor (L Mulipola, 29), T Youngs – captain (T Polota-Nau, 56), D Cole ; M Fitzgerald, G Kitchener (D Barrow, 68); T Mapapalangi, M Williams (L Hamilton, 56), S Kalafamoni.
S Harrison, J Ford.
S Zebo; D Sweetnam, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (B Scott, 68), K O’Byrne (N Scannell, 57), S Archer (J Ryan, 57); J Kleyn, B Holland; P O’Mahony - captain, C Cloete (J O’Donoghue, 65), CJ Stander.
D O’Shea, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, K Earls.
Mathieu Raynal (France)