Sale 26 Munster 27
Another season, another great escape and the Munster legend is enhanced a little more. The supporters love it, the pundits purr and the television cameras lap up every last second of it, grateful that the Irish province in red can keep delivering just the sort of drama that helps justify their investment in the broadcasting rights.
Human nature is such that we prefer the dramatic and dashing last-ditch heroics to the dull dominance of a sporting master at work. Yet coaches tend not to be in possession of vast amounts of human nature and will give their right arm and possibly a portion of their left one too for just a taste of the sort of mastery that sends armchair viewers reaching for the remote control.
So while Anthony Foley gladly accepted the four points his team improbably delivered against Sale Sharks on Saturday and was grateful for Ian Keatley’s game-winning, over-time drop goal to avoid the dashing of European Champions Cup dreams at the very first hurdle, the Munster head coach was quick to remind of the shortcomings earlier in the game that necessitated the escapology.
After all, having started brightly enough to move into 7-3 lead after 10 minutes thanks to a converted Dave Kilcoyne try, Munster contrived to hand the Sharks and their playmaker, Danny Cipriani, every opportunity to throw the game away before half-time.
Defensive gaps emerged like unexplained holes in the ground and penalties were curiously offered up like sacrifices to a fearsome deity. Logic went out the window as Foley was forced to watch either fly-half Cipriani direct his team into wide open waters that only Sharks appeared to roam, outside centre Johnny Leota breach the Munster line with devastating ease or wing Tom Arscott trouble full-back Felix Jones with teasing grubber kicks.
It was, quite frankly, a shambles and with Magnus Lund and Leota crashing over to add to Cipriani’s three penalties, the Sharks were running rampant at 23-7 before the half-hour mark.
It could have been worse. French touch judge Laurent Cardona had replaced injured referee Mathieu Raynal in the 16th minute and had already incorrectly given Sale a lineout that should have been Munster’s, leading to Lund’s try.
And after Leota’s try the centre broke the line again and passed inside to Chris Cusiter who would surely have touched down for a try that would have killed Munster off before half-time had Tommy O’Donnell not taken out Cusiter to get to the pass first. A yellow card followed but it might have been a penalty try and there would have been more trouble for Munster had Keatley not expertly read and then acrobatically cut out a Cipriani crossfield chip to lock Michael Paterson. Half-time could not come quick enough, the statistics showing 10 missed tackles and 12 defenders beaten with just 30% possession and 25% territory.
“We need to be a lot better with the ball,” Foley said. “We don’t have to take collisions all the time. We need to look at the alternatives. But we turned over ball far too easily in the first-half. We couldn’t influence the breakdown because the referee wouldn’t allow us influence the breakdown. We need to work on those things and be better on them. You can’t concede 23 points in a first-half of rugby away from home every week and expect to win the match. There’d be a lot of grey-haired and bald people floating around the place.”
And he wasn’t just talking about the journalists in front of him. Trailing 23-7 at half-time, Munster could have been killed off two minutes in but for Cipriani dallying with the ball with a four-man overlap out wide, long enough for Duncan Casey to snag him and the England hopeful to pass straight to Peter O’Mahony.
Sale would not scored again until the 68th minute, by which time Munster had come alive with converted tries from Conway and Murray to make it 23-21.
Cipriani’s penalty was matched by Keatley’s fourth successful kick of the day from four attempts and it was game on again at 26-24, staying that way as the clock ticked towards 80 minutes. We had seen it before, the grey hairs and lost follicles mounting up in equal measure after do or die moments against Northampton, Castres and Perpignan. And yet again Munster kept their calm, stuck to their task and backed themselves to see the job through. O’Mahony won a lineout, his pack drove it 15 metres into the Sale 22 and then it was a matter of time before Keatley got his chance. The maul should have produced a penalty to do that just inside regulation time, but why bother with that when there’s time added on?
“Once it goes over the 80 and you’re in possession, you literally have all the time in the world,” Foley said. “Then it’s about maintaining possession, putting pace on the ball and trying to make an opportunity. The boys understand that. We’d be sending the message on, get the ball, build it, keep it. How we didn’t get a penalty off the rolling maul, I’ll never know. We went back to what’s comfortable. We stuck at it and we got there.
“Once we were in that situation it was all about keeping the ball, make sure we give ourselves at least a chance of winning the game. Fair play. They held their composure.”
Credit where credit’s due, but Foley knows it is much easier on the coach and his hairline when his players make life a little easier for themselves.
It is a lesson he will be impressing upon them for the visit of Saracens on Friday.
So many, but if Ian Keatley had not made an acrobatic interception of Danny Cipriani’s crossfield chip to Tom Arscott with the score already at 23-7, there would have been a certain try for a then rampant Sale just before half-time and Munster would have been dead and buried.
Talk of the town
New competition, same old Munster, backed by a massive following in a 9,879 crowd and giving them palpitations right to the last kick of the game. They should play in Europe with a health warning.
Best on show
For all Keatley’s heroics and a perfect goal-kicking performance, CJ Stander deservedly won the man of the match award for another powerhouse performance from No.8, topping the carry stats with 20 for 104 metres and making a last-ditch tap tackle on Tom Arscott with the tryline looming.
No fresh concerns for Munster in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game. They did travel to Sale with extra lock and hooker reserves, perhaps highlighting concerns over Paul O’Connell and Duncan Casey, although both played 80 minutes.
Injury-hit Mathieu Raynal had to be replaced by touch judge Laurent Cardona in the 15th minute. He did not handle the promotion well, mistakenly handing Sale a lineout which led to a try and then botching what should have been a penalty try for Sale, having sin-binned Tommy O’Donnell for taking out Chris Cusiter off the ball. Penalties conceded: Sale Sharks: 8 Munster: 11
No time to relax and take stock. Munster need to recovery quickly and prepare for Friday’s visit to Thomond Park of Saracens, fresh off a bonus-point win over Clermont, who Sale Sharks must visit at Stade Marcel Michelin.
SALE SHARKS: M Haley; T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou (M Jennings, 57), T Arscott; D Cipriani, C Cusiter; E Lewis-Roberts (A de Marchi, 76), M Jones, V Cobilas (R Harrison, 57); J Mills (A Ostrikov, 61), M Paterson; M Lund, D Seymour – captain (J Beaumont, 73), M Easter.
MUNSTER: F Jones; A Conway, A Smith (JJ Hanrahan, 56), D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 45), D Casey, S Archer (BJ Botha, 45); D Foley, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony — captain, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (Fra), replaced by Laurent Cardona (Fra), 16th minute.
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