Munster 38 Leicester Tigers 0: There can be few more satisfying sights in sport than seeing a big, fat zero next to the name of defeated opposition. After the trials and tribulations Munster experienced against Leicester a year ago, that gratification will have increased in multiples on Saturday.
At Thomond Park in the corresponding Champions Cup fixture on the same December weekend, Munster had flailed and flapped while the Tigers mauled and bullied their way to a 31-19 victory, becoming the first visiting team to win two European games at the province’s spiritual home. On Saturday, 363 days later, the tables were turned spectacularly, the history made by the home side as they inflicted the heaviest defeat in Leicester’s proud European history and leaving them pointless for the first time in 13 years.
Satisfaction was complete and rightly so, at least for the 25,600 sell-out crowd who had endured the miseries of last winter. At last they have a team again not just to cheer but to enjoy and take pride in, none more so than Saturday’s power-packed performance of intensity, accuracy and confidence that provided a second consecutive bonus-point win in Pool 1.
Yet as the PRO12 league leaders claimed a similar position in their Champions Cup group having played a game less than their rivals Glasgow and Leicester, the feeling coming out of the home dressing room was not so much elation as a determination to keep doing justice to their efforts.
Seven victories from seven games since the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley prompted the postponement of their European opener at Racing 92 have been fuelled by grief and a commitment not to let their fallen leader down.
On Saturday a listless and injury-hit Leicester had provided the perfect platform by conceding four first-half penalties to the boot of Tyler Bleyendaal, and seen captain Ed Slater yellow-carded, as Munster hassled and harried, muscled and carried.
Then the home side kicked it up a notch. Wonderfully worked team tries followed, clinically finished by Simon Zebo in the opening half and, after the break, twice by Jaco Taute before a fortuitous penalty try awarded by Romain Poite as the South African bore down on a hat-trick and was flattened by George Worth.
Munster have some of the swagger of old about them and if their resounding win over Glasgow in round two was driven by passion and sadness seven weeks ago, then this similarly emphatic victory was borne of a different way to honour the Foley legacy, through ruthless physicality and accurate execution. Yet for director of rugby Rassie Erasmus there is still more hard work to be done and tougher assignments ahead, not least Saturday’s return encounter at Welford Road. Munster’s South African boss may be new to European club rugby but he knows to expect a backlash in the English East Midlands this weekend.
“The reality is we’ve got to train this week and get on the plane and play at their ground against them and they’re going to be fired up,” Erasmus said. “So the positive of having less workload in terms of analysis is probably overshadowed by the toughness and the intensity we’ll face next week.”
It is too soon to start planning for a first Champions Cup quarter-final since 2014 and still too early in Erasmus’s tenure with the province to proclaim him Munster’s messiah and the director of rugby would be uncomfortable if it were otherwise. For him and his staff, these are still baby steps being taken.
“Listen, when we started we said we don’t have targets, we just want to maximise potential. And when I say that a young Felix Jones is a backs coach, a young Jerry Flannery is the scrum coach, myself and Jacques (Nienaber, defence coach) coming in new and there’s a few other management members we’ve shifted around and then the players; we just said let’s take what’s there and maximise potential and if we do that then we might win a few games and do better than last year. We’ll always keep on doing that because you can’t forget where we were last year and where we are coming from. We can’t say this is a new team, we have one or two new players and a few changes in the coaching set-up and we’ll have to do so many things right to get through the pool.
“We’ve only played two home games so we’ve a lot of away games to play and one really tough home game against Racing so obviously there are some realistic chances of making it but still some hard work to do.”
Have Munster poked the bear in the same way Ireland did a month ago when they left a beaten New Zealand embarrassed and angry?
The way the wrathful All Blacks exacted their revenge a fortnight later was through brutal efficiency and despite the unlikelihood of Leicester being able to welcome back injured absentees of the calibre of Matt Toomua, Matthew Tait, JP Pietersen, Mike Williams and Marcos Ayerza they still have enough firepower and physicality in their arsenal to perform a similar turnaround. There were further casualties to concern Richard Cockerill as the Tigers boss attempts to make sense of what happened to his team. He admitted they had their “arses smacked” by Munster and the failure of flanker Mike Fitzgerald and fly-half Freddie Burns to pass Head Injury Assessments will only further furrow his brow, although England tighthead Dan Cole may return from a gashed thigh suffered against the Wallabies.
A deeper worry will be the inability of his pack to live with Munster’s ferocity or of his much-vaunted half-back combination of Ben Youngs and Burns to get their side onto the front foot, their failure to involve a potent backline reducing Manu Tuilagi to a virtual spectator until his frustrated cleanout of replacement Jean Kleyn proved to be his final act, the resulting yellow card followed by the England centre’s substitution. There would be one more sin-binning for sorry Leicester as Poite harshly awarded a penalty try against full-back George Worth for taking out Taute on the tryline, the Munster centre having overcooked his kick ahead and seemingly unlikely to touch down. That it brought up the try bonus point will have only peeved Leicester more but Munster have no such concerns, in terms of fitness or efficiency.
S Zebo (A Conway, 68); D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell (I Keatley, 25-37 - blood), K Earls; T Bleyendaal (I Keatley, 72), C Murray (D Williams, 63); D Kilcoyne (T Du Toit, 58), N Scannell (R Marshall, 71), J Ryan (S Archer, 66); D Ryan, B Holland (J Kleyn, 58); P O’Mahony - captain, T O’Donnell (J O’Donoghue, 58), CJ Stander.
G Worth; A Thompstone, M Tuilagi (T Brady, 69), O Williams, P Betham; F Burns (J Roberts, 51), B Youngs (S Harrison, 55); E Genge (P Cilliers, 76), T Youngs – captain (G McGuigan, 59), L Mulipola (G Bateman, 51); E Slater, G Kitchener; M Fitzgerald (L Hamilton, 43), B O’Connor, L McCaffrey (W Evans, 68).
Slater 32-42; Tuilagi 59-69; Worth 71st.
Romain Poite (France)
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