Munster 32 Benetton Treviso 7
It was not quite the thunderous start to a European campaign we have grown accustomed to over the years from Munster but through the wind and the rain on a miserable Saturday night emerged a glimpse of a team with the essential quality of being able to get the job done.
Whatever way you get there, a winning start is vital to a team’s hopes of progressing from the pool stages and in that regard, the Champions Cup bonus-point victory over Pro12 strugglers Treviso represented mission accomplished.
There may not have been the drama of those 40 phases and that Ronan O’Gara drop goal against Northampton in 2011, or the suspense of Ian Keatley’s game-winning kick at Sale 14 months ago, but this hard-fought and entirely deserved win with maximum points was every bit as satisfying to head coach Anthony Foley.
For the third game in succession, in wildly different circumstances and conditions, his players found the right solution to reaching their objective and the collective experience will stand them in extremely good stead as they face into a extremely testing trip to Paris next weekend to face French Top14 champions Stade Francais in Stade Jean Bouin.
Against Ulster and at Edinburgh in the Pro12 over the past three weekends, Munster had needed the defensive endeavour, focus and mental strength to hold on for a victory that had seemed straightforward as the endgame began to play out.
And when Treviso, winless since February, came to Limerick on Saturday and a bonus-point win was expected by everyone outside the camp, regardless of the awful weather conditions that descended on Thomond Park, his squad dug deep and ground out exactly what was required.
The four tries, from BJ Botha, captain CJ Stander, Duncan Casey and Simon Zebo, took 76 minutes to accumulate but Munster, with so many familiar and previously important figures absent through retirement, transfer or injury, never looked as if the task was beyond them, even when passes were loose at handling was difficult.
Like a proud parent, Foley relayed a satisfaction with his players shared with assistant coaches Ian Costello and Brian Walsh that would not have been inappropriate had they lifted the Champions Cup on Saturday night.
“It’s in their nature,” he said. “They don’t whinge, they don’t moan, they get on with it.
“Like last year when they got to the (Pro12) final, up to 17 players not available, fellas get on with it and they see it as their opportunity.
“Fortunately enough I’ve probably known most of the lads since they were 19, ‘Cossie’ and ‘Squeaks’ would have worked with a good chunk of them as well with the underage coming through and there’s a comfort in that.
“We don’t ask them to do anything we don’t feel they cannot do and they seem to be very comfortable in that and they’re trying to push on outside their comfort zone and try and get to a level that they can achieve.
“They’re excellent rugby players and it’s about marrying that with the attitude, the physical abilities and the skill levels they have and making sure the mental toughness is there to go through this, because you are going to get challenged in a whole spectrum of different ways and so it’s about being there to step up to those challenges.”
There will clearly be far more exacting tests to come, not least this Sunday when Munster continue their Pool 4 campaign on the road at Stade Francais in a Paris still struggling to come to terms with last Friday night’s deadly acts of terrorism in the French capital.
The aftershocks are bound to weave their way into the emotions of the French champions as they play on home soil for the first time since the deaths of more than 120 people on their streets and Munster are keenly aware of the sensitivity of the situation.
Yet Foley has the task of trying to keep his players focused and dispassionate in that regard as they are asked to deal with yet another wholly different set of circumstances against a team that, leaving aside that extra, unwanted emotive layer, will pose more than enough rugby problems.
He likes what he has seen from them so far this season, not least in this pool win over Treviso, starting with full-back Andrew Conway and running through the whole team.
“He’s stepped up to the challenge that’s been left behind by Felix (Jones) having to retire. He’s grown an understanding and he’s a big threat back there for us and I thought our two wings (Keith Earls and Somon Zebo) worked their socks off for him and were dangerous when they had the ball.
“You couple that with our front line – nine, 10, 12, 13 – at times they try to do things which are in their nature and sometimes it didn’t come off but do you tell them not to try it and not find out? You encourage them to have a go and figure it out and I think that’s the better way.
“I thought our pack were outstanding from one to eight tonight and the subs added, Jamesey, Duncan, John Ryan, Dave Foley, Robin, they came on and they added to the pack.
“So we’re in a place that we want to be. We’re sitting second in the Pro12 and we got a bonus-point win tonight in very trying conditions and we know what’s going to face us when we play the French champions over in Paris next week. It will be an emotional occasion and it’s about playing a game of rugby.”
MUNSTER: A Conway (L Amorosino, 78); K Earls, F Saili, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley (R Scannell, 78), C Murray (T O’Leary, 78); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 49), M Sherry (D Casey, 28), BJ Botha (J Ryan, 72); D Ryan, M Chisholm (D Foley, 66); D O’Callaghan (R Copeland, 55), J O’Donoghue, CJ Stander — captain.
TREVISO: L McLean; L Nitoglia (C Smylie, 55), J Hayward, E Bacchin, T Iannone; J Ambrosini, E Gori; M Zanusso (M Muccignat, 71), O Gega (D Giazzon, h-t), R Harden (F Filippetto, 49); D Naudé (D Budd, 49), J Montauriol (M Zanusso, 79); F Minto, A Zanni – captain (M Barbini, 28), A Steyn (Andrea De Marchi, 79).
Yellow card: M Muccignat, 74th minute.
Replacement not used: S Christie.
Referee: Matthew Carley (England).
A bonus-point victory was always on the cards for Munster. So when BJ Botha got over the line for the second time in the first eight minutes it could have set in motion an avalanche of points. The try was disallowed as the ball left the prop’s control before grounding and instead of going two tries up inside 10 minutes, Munster had to wait until the 55th minute for their second five-pointer.
Credit to the 12,348 hardy individuals who braved the elements on Saturday night to support Munster at Thomond Park. There had been 17,763 tickets sold but the wind and rain clearly deterred more than a few from a night out under the lights. That meant Munster played in front of their lowest European home crowd since the redeveloped Thomond Park opened in 2008. Munster staff will be banking on much bigger crowds against more attractive opposition. in rounds three and five.
Yet again, No.8 and captain CJ Stander made a telling contribution. Against Edinburgh the previous week he saved the day with a last-minute charge-down of a potentially game-winning drop goal. On Saturday he led the charge towards the bonus-point victory, topping the carries chart and metres made and chipping in with a try, his fourth of the season.
Champions Cup debutant referee Matthew Carley was praised by Anthony Foley for keeping the game flowing in poor conditions but his failure to send a Treviso player to the bin before the Italians had conceded 13 penalties, 74 minutes in, raised eyebrows.
Munster 4 Treviso 13.
Munster are waiting to learn the extent of the knocks suffered by both their hookers used against Treviso. Starter Mike Sherry jarred his right knee in a ruck during the first half while his replacement and try scorer Duncan Casey damaged a pectoral muscle late on.
A testing trip to Stade Francais awaits Munster on Sunday. Visiting the French champions would always be difficult but going to Paris a week on from the terrorist atrocities of last Friday night will make for a very emotive occasion and all the more challenging for that.
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