And relieved that Racing 92 missed the chance to turn this tightly-contested Pool 4 on its head by taking three points at the death rather than going for seven.
When referee Matthew Carley blew his whistle in the 77th minute for a ruck penalty deep inside the Munster 22, the visitors braced for the worse under the roof of the new U Arena in inner the suburbs of the French capital.
They had just fallen behind, 31-30 to a Maxime Machenaud penalty, eked out by former player Donnacha Ryan’s athleticism and determination to win a home restart.
Now they had conceded another penalty on the deck close to the posts. A converted try for Racing would have taken away their losing bonus point and put the Parisians in the driver’s seat going into next weekend’s final round of pool games.
Yet captain Machenaud opted not to go for the corner or elect a scrum, rather kicking for a simple three points that meant Munster control all the cards ahead of their Thomond Park meeting with Castres this Sunday lunchtime.
It was a decision that took Munster head coach Johann van Graan by surprise.
“Our initial reaction was if they go for a scrum, that’s the hardest scrum to defend and they mauled pretty well with their massive players, so very relieved about that,” van Graan said.
“As a squad, we’re all disappointed about this one. It was a very different occasion to what Munster’s used to and to have been in front with two minutes to go and let this one get away is disappointing but I’m going to take the positive out of it and very glad about that bonus point.”
The Munster boss was describing a wild, see-saw of a game in which Racing had raced into a 10-0 lead at the beginning of the first half and copied their fast start after the interval to go 18-7 up.
Munster had stayed in the fight thanks to a first-half try from Jean Kleyn, converted by Ian Keatley and then excellent scores from Keith Earls and Chris Farrell, Keatley’s extras pushing the visitors into a 21-18 lead.
Yet three missed penalties, both Keatley and Conor Murray, from long range, hitting uprights among them, kept things edgy and when sub hooker Dmitri Szarzewski stole in down the blind side from a clever lineout move, Machenaud’s conversion edged Racing into a 28-27 lead on 64 minutes.
Murray had missed twice from long range but he finally found his target in the 74th minute to push Munster back in front at 30-28 and it was a telling blow, only for Ryan to pop back up and help steal the spoils for Racing.
“It was a great game of rugby and it’s never nice to lose a great game of rugby,” van Graan reflected.
“I thought on 74 minutes we had control of the game. They did very well off that kick-off and after that one was short, we kicked long, and maybe our kick execution put us under a bit of pressure.
“Very disappointed because we didn’t get this win. The players worked so hard preparing for very different circumstances out there but very happy with the losing bonus point.”
There had been no fat ladies singing in Paris before kick-off but pretty much every other form of entertainment had been on offer at the U Arena with dazzling lights, video presentations, a DJ with dancers in Racing gear and on-pitch dance routines led by a blue elephant mascot.
If the pre-match build-up under the roof was an assault on the senses, Racing’s high-octane start to the game was just as disorientating for Munster, as the Parisians began with power, pace, and intensity, winning a penalty from the first ruck after the visitors kicked towards the end occupied only by a giant screen.
Racing kicked left to set up the lineout and from that platform began to muscle their way through midfield with some big carries.
Spinning the ball out wide to the right, Teddy Thomas motored over Munster’s 10-metre line and after being halted by Conor Murray’s tackle, the French pack took back control, working their way towards the try line and inwards to the posts from where the bulldozing figure of lock Edwin Maka stole a march on Peter O’Mahony and Yannick Nyanga got over the line.
Machenaud’s conversion and penalty was not matched by Keatley, whose effort struck a post, and though Kleyn’s efforts got Munster on the board, Munster’s hard work done was undone on the stroke of half-time: O’Mahony’s dissent at having been penalised at the breakdown brought the penalty within kicking range for Machenaud, the scrum-half slotting to give his side a 13-7 interval lead.
Munster succumbed to another early onslaught straight after the break when wing Marc Andreu scored in the corner but back came Munster with those Earls and Farrell tries, as the visitors made hay on the 4G surface and closed conditions that lend themselves to fast, running rugby.
It was an encouraging sign of things to come but for now, it will be back to the sticky surface of Thomond Park and a meeting with a Castres side who now also have the bit between their teeth following a 39-0 demolition of Leicester.
The game is afoot.
L Dupichot (J Rokocoko, 72); T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy, M Andreu; R Tales, M Machenaud - captain; E Ben Arous (Vasil Kakovin, 52), C Chat (D Szarzewski, 52), B Tameifuna (C Gomes Sa, 47); D Ryan, E Maka (B Palu, 47); Y Nyanga, W Lauret (B Chouzenoux, 75), L Nakarawa.
X Chauveau, B Dambielle.
S Zebo (A Wootton, 72); A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan, 78), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 55), R Marshall, S Archer (J Ryan, 55); J Kleyn, B Holland; P O’Mahony – captain (J O’Donoghue, 55), C Cloete, CJ Stander.
D O’Shea, D Williams.
Matthew Carley (England)
THE 60 SECOND REPORT
Conor Murray launched a longrange penalty between the posts with six minutes to go for a 30-28 lead. While it did not seal victory it was enough to guarantee the vital losing bonus point that keeps Munster in the driving seat for the quarter-finals.
Much to admire about Racing 92’s spectacular indoor U Arena, the dazzling light show, giant
screen and deafening public address pre-game could not engineer a proper big-game atmosphere with the teams playing in an eerily quiet stadium for long periods.
Donnacha Ryan was a towering presence against his old club, his claiming of a Racing restart leading to the penalty which helped his side edge back in front at 31-30 while his relentless chasing down of Ian Keatley forced a sliced clearance kick from the fly-half which would result in an even later penalty.
For Munster, Keith Earls looked back to his best on the wing. He scored one try brilliantly, starting and finishing the move with wonderful footwork while he showed excellent skill to pick a pass from Simon Zebo off his bootstraps at pace.
Munster struggled to get on the right side of English referee Matthew Carley throughout the first half, conceding a procession of ruck penalties, their frustration emphasised by captain Peter O’Mahony on the stroke of halftime, his questioning of the official after being pinged at a breakdown costing his side 10 metres for dissent and with it a soft three points for Maxime Machenaud.
Racing 11 Munster 11
Captain Peter O’Mahony did not look entirely comfortable throughout and was replaced on 55 minutes with an ankle injury, although there are no serious concerns and he was, according
to a Munster spokesperson, walking freely around the dressing room.
It’s down to the final round in pool four next Sunday with Munster, still leading the group by a point, hosting Castres at Thomond Park and Racing having to travel to Welford Road to
play Leicester Tigers. Castres’ big home win over Tigers means they could overhaul Munster
with a win in Limerick.