“It’s gone, lads,” said a voice behind the press box as visiting fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc hoisted the ball skyward, after a pass out to Munster’s right wing had gone astray and home thoughts turned to an agonising European exit.
Over on the far side, though, there were other, more positive ideas. Determined to keep the ball alive, Andrew Conway was not letting Trinh-Duc’s kick leave the field.
The Munster wing stretched to catch, turned, and cranked through the gears, a burst of acceleration through a sloppy Toulon kick-chase, a brilliant step around a flailing tackle, and onwards to the tryline. The game, the season, turned on its head, thanks to a moment of unforgettable individual brilliance.
Ian Keatley’s conversion made it 20-19 and would be just enough to see Munster into the Champions Cup semi-finals for the second year in a row.
A phenomenal achievement, given the injuries that threatened to derail Munster’s season and the quality and power of the opposition visiting Limerick on Saturday.
There had been similar joy, in slightly less dramatic circumstances a year ago, when Toulouse had been conquered on the same stage to set up a last-four encounter with Saracens, at the Aviva Stadium, only for excitement and anticipation to quickly evaporate, as Rassie Erasmus’s side were caught flat-footed and exposed as one-dimensional by the clinical, defending champions.
This time around, as Munster prepare for a meeting with Racing 92 on April 22, Erasmus’s successor, Johann van Graan, is charged with ensuring those lessons have been taken on-board and, as the province held onto a precarious 10-6 half-time lead, the head coach knew his players had to raise the stakes or risk going the same way as last year’s team.
Can this 2018 Munster go one stage further than the 2017 model?
“It is a good question. I wasn’t part of that game (against Saracens) and maybe one or two thoughts from that game was that Munster could not adapt,” van Graan said on Saturday night.
“At half-time, I said ‘listen, we survived with not a lot of possession, so we need to throw a few punches’ and I don’t know if you guys realised, but, in the first 10-15 minutes after half-time, we really played and tried to up the ante. We really wanted to attack. We knew they were expecting a kicking game and we went with a kicking game. Just before half-time, with the lineout on the 22, we went to the air again and we knew they were sending players back, so we said ‘this is the time to punch’. It didn’t reflect on the scoreboard, but I thought we adapted quite well.
“After that Racing game (in the pool stages), I said I do believe we are growing our game and I thought our transition from attack to defence, and from going to the air to playing, was pretty good today. It also was not a perfect performance; there was a lot of room for improvement.”
Van Graan will have to make those improvements in his homeland, as Munster’s ability to adapt under pressure will be tested further, when preparing for a European semi-final during a two-game, 12-day tour of South Africa, as the Guinness PRO14 play-off chase resumes 14,000 km away from home.
“It’s an interesting scenario,” the Munster boss said of his enforced trip to his homeland. “When I took the job, it was one of the first things that I saw.
“At that stage, getting to a quarter-final was a long way away.
“To play in a quarter-final, hopefully win it, fly to South Africa, play two away games in the PRO14, one at altitude (in Bloemfontein, against the Cheetahs, on Friday, April 13), and then fly back and go into a European semi-final was always going to be, if you think about it, tough.
“Now, it’s a reality. We’ve planned for it, we’ve said we’re going to enjoy the tour, even though nobody has even spoken a word about it. We’ll just get to South Africa, now, and reassess once we get there.
“Get back to zero, play two games there whilst having a big eye back north for when we come back for that semi-final,” van Graan said.
Munster will also be forgiven for looking back, if only on the plane down to Cape Town today, on a magnificent effort in reaching the last-four.
Conway’s late piece of brilliance was just one of several turning points in an epic encounter. It was dramatic from the opening seconds, when Toulon looked primed to cause maximum damage, as befits a side brimming with world-class talent and frightening physicality.
The wonderfully dangerous Chris Ashton, such a threat from full-back all afternoon, was causing problems from the off, his lightning-fast chase of an Anthony Belleau kick-ahead forcing opposite number, Simon Zebo, to make a desperate lunge for the ball that cost him his fitness. He retired 24 minutes later, in his final European appearance on home soil, before he joins Racing. It was the first of many interventions from referee, Nigel Owens, and his television match official, Jon Mason that would impact this game, this time the decision not to award a try clearly favouring Munster, as they judged Ashton to have knocked on.
Having taken a 6-0 lead through Belleau’s boot, Toulon were further perplexed to lose their advantage, when Owens awarded Munster’s Conor Murray the opening try, converted by Keatley, on 28 minutes. It was an excellent, intelligent piece of quick-thinking from the Munster scrum-half, who spotted a knock-on at the base of a ruck on Toulon’s tryline. He played the ball as it sat in front of his opposite number, Eric Escande, with an uncontested pick-up-and-dot-down that took the officials 13 minutes to decide was legal. It stood and Keatley penalties, either side of half-time, put Munster into a 13-6 lead. This time, it was Toulon’s turn to roll the dice, and a change at fly-half, Trinh-Duc for Belleau, on 52 minutes, reaped dividends, but not before wing, Semi Radradra, had bungled a gilt-edged chance, knocking on, as he stretched out a long arm towards the tryline. The replacement 10 sent over a penalty soon after, though, and his offload on halfway, deemed level, rather than forward, by the TMO, sent captain, Mathieu Bastareaud, rampaging upfield, an excellent support run from Ashton offering the pass for the full-back to run in under the posts. Toulon were now back in front and another Trinh-Duc penalty gave them breathing space, with 12 minutes to play. Until Conway’s moment of magic, that is. There was still plenty of work to be done, as Toulon began to build up a head of steam for one last push. Eight weeks on from the Six Nations drama in Paris, also overseen by referee, Owens, it was a French side on a roll, stringing together phase after phase. This time, though, there would be no smash and grab, only relief and celebrations for the sell-out home crowd, as Ashton went into contact and prompted another blow on Owens’s whistle. Keatley’s boot into the stands brought the final peep and Thomond Park erupted once more.
“It’s actually a feeling of gratitude,” van Graan said, after the place had calmed down. “Once we got onto the bus and drove to the field, to see what this team means to the people of Munster, you see young people, old people, really supporting their team.
“I want to make people happy. The fact is it’s about life lessons: it’s not always how you start, it’s how you finish. Hopefully, this team can give a lot of people hope and, hopefully, we can keep this legacy of Munster going forward in the future. There have been so many eras before us and I hope some of these players become real legends in the Munster jersey.”
S Zebo (D Sweetnam, 25); A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, C Murray (J Hart, 77); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 52), R Marshall (N Scannell, 52), S Archer (J Ryan, 52); J Kleyn (G Grobler, 77), B Holland; P O’Mahony, capt, J O’Donoghue (R Copeland, 59), CJ Stander.
C Ashton; J Tuisova, M Bastareaud, M Nonu (M Fekitoa, 58), S Radradra; A Belleau (F Trinh-Duc, 53), E Escande (A Mathewson, 58); F Fresia (X Chiocci, 46-73), G Guirado (A Etrillard, 74), M Van Der Merwe (E Setiano, 77); J Kruger (R Taofifenua, 46), D Attwood; R Lakafia, F Isa, D Vermeulen, capt.
Nigel Owens (Wales)