Munster daring to dream once again

Perpignan 17 Munster 18
So Munster stay alive, thanks to another last-ditch escape.

Never was a rousing rendition of ‘Stand Up and Fight’ more fitting as Rob Penney’s side were serenaded by the Red Army onto the flight home from Perpignan, because Munster were never counted out.

All those traditional values of resolution, strength of character and unity of purpose were on display at Stade Aimé Giral on Saturday as the Heineken Cup dream was kept alive and the province fought like hell for another famous win on French soil.

That they found it within themselves to keep their heads as Perpignan scored a try to take a four-point lead with just two minutes left on the clock, and then go up the other end and score the winning five-pointer was admirable. As was the penalty try they eked out from a six-minute scrummaging onslaught at the start of the second half to get back on track from a 9-3 interval deficit.

It made for a very contented trip home from the south of France, with Edinburgh’s surprise victory at Gloucester yesterday providing a further reward for the effort. Not only did the win in Perpignan wipe out the disappointment of that opening-round defeat at Murrayfield in October, the Scots’ second win of the campaign yesterday means Munster are now fully in control of their destiny, with a victory in their fifth-round trip to Gloucester in just under four weeks securing their progress as Pool 6 winners with a game to go.

A five-point cushion over Gloucester with a maximum 10 points available to the English stalwarts, who must travel to Perpignan for their final pool game a week later, is a wonderful place for Munster to be as they return to league duty this weekend.

Yet the standard of 80-minute performances delivered in both back-to-back wins over Perpignan over the last fortnight suggests there is still a very long way to go before Munster are true Heineken Cup contenders.

Penney himself suggested as much following a memorable lap of honour by the players in front of a scarcely believing contingent of close to 1,000 travelling supporters at Aimé Giral. For while those mental attributes were to the fore at the end once more, just as they have been throughout Munster’s incredible European journey these past 15 years, there is much to improve on with the ball in hand.

“We’ve still got so much left in the tank,” Penney said. “The resolve and the fortitude today was special and once we get our rugby right, we’ll be an interesting side to play against.”

How long Munster supporters will have to wait for that to happen is the great imponderable and hearts could well be lodged in mouths for some time as the New Zealander continues to mould his promising younger players into the finished article.

Yesterday’s victory bought Penney time to continue his mission, confirming many observers’ views that he will be granted an extension to the two-year contract he signed when replacing Tony McGahan in the summer of 2012. It also underlined how much work there is still to do.

This might all seem churlish after another great feat of Munster spirit yet it would be a dereliction of duty not to point out another otherwise inconsistent 80 minutes of rugby, highlighted by moments of brilliance but underpinned by long periods of frustration.

The positives should not be underestimated, not least that a new generation of Munster players, backed by a formidable spine of BJ Botha, Paul O’Connell, the returning Donnacha Ryan and James Coughlan, delivered a hard-fought victory against both the clock and the odds.

There was a really outstanding period, just after half-time, of Munster’s scrum dominance in the backyard of French powerhouse packs, when the home forwards were humiliated in defence of their own tryline six times in as many minutes.

A boxing referee would have stopped the contest but referee JP Doyle kept the Perpignan pack on the rack before finally trotting under the posts to award a penalty try.

Having trailed 9-3 at half-time, Munster’s fly-half Ian Keatley missed two penalties, his opposite number Tommy Allan just the once, the visitors’ superiority in the set-piece dragged them back into the contest with Keatley’s conversion nudging them a point in front with 30 minutes to play.

It made for a tense closing half hour, in which the 10s exchanged a penalty apiece before Perpignan exposed some defensive frailties for the second time in a week. Tommaso Benvenuti’s 78th minute five-pointer looked to have sealed a revenge victory, particularly as Doyle chose not to refer a couple of forward-looking passes in the build-up to the TMO.

Allan missed the touchline conversion and while others’ heads might have dropped, Munster’s kept their eyes on victory. Even then, though, they did it the hard way.

From a set-piece scrum around halfway that delivered the necessary platform throughout, there was a sequence of poor passes and dropped balls that would have had a schoolboy coach squirming. And yet there followed some wonderfully dynamic attacking play down a narrow channel that featured great hands, superb off-loading and lovely footwork under the most immense pressure.

JJ Hanrahan, on moments earlier as a sub for the injured Keith Earls, started the move, collecting a pass from Johne Murphy on his 10-metre line. Injecting some pace he sent the ball out wide to fellow sub Denis Hurley, who in turn made yards and delivered a great offload to another bench warmer in Tommy O’Donnell. The flanker, in his first senior outing since a knee injury in September, did brilliantly to stay in touch, his strength in the tackle allowing another great offload, back inside to Hanrahan, who side-stepped the static French full-back Joffrey Michel to send Munster into winter wonderland.

Still, it says much about Munster’s offensive work that Hanrahan’s 30 metres made at the start and end of that move during his less than three-minute cameo topped the charts for the Irish province in that category.

Not that Penney appeared too worried, preferring to take the long-term view.

“I am a believer in letting guys express themselves and when they get the opportunity, they got to play. If you nip that in the bud, you are never going to get any growth,” Penney said. “I think we are showing green shoots in that area. We are not good enough yet but the lads are working hard. They understand what they are trying to achieve.

“And you see glimpses of it. We wouldn’t have scored that try in the last minute if the boys hadn’t been trying it at other opportunities and having the faith to.

“We’ve been getting a bit of a hard time for moving the ball around but when you get an outcome like today on the back of two minutes of desperation and having the skill set to finish, for me it was a great reward.”

Munster fans will take the nerve-jangling victory for now. More epic rewards will come when the pay-off is more consistent and for that they will have to show the same faith Penney has in his players to reach their goal.

PERPIGNAN: J Michel; R Haughton (T Benvenuti, 20), L Mafi (D Marty, 68), W Votu, S Guitoune; T Allan, N Durand; S Taofifenua, R Terrain (G Guirado, 50), P Ion; S Vahaamahina, G Vilaceca; D Leo (G Guirado, 20-24; J-P Perez, 54), A Strokosch, L Narraway – captain (J Purll, 68).

Yellow card: R Terrain 14-24.

Replacements not used: P Cotet, J B Custoja, T Ecochard.

MUNSTER: F Jones (D Hurley, 71); K Earls (JJ Hanrahan, 78), C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Sheridan; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne, 62), D Varley, BJ Botha (S Archer, 73), D Ryan (D O’Callaghan, 53), P O’Connell, P O’Mahony- captain, S Dougall (T O’Donnell, 61), J Coughlan.

Yellow card: P O’Mahony 14-24.

Replacements not used: D Casey, D Williams.

Referee: JP Doyle (Eng)


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