Munster 47 Toulouse 23
What a very satisfying Sunday afternoon it must have been for Rob Penney as he sat back, put the feet up and watched Toulon and Leinster fight it out for the right to host his side in the Heineken Cup semi-finals later this month.
The Munster head coach will not be overly concerned by the prospect of an away draw for the latest date with destiny on Sunday, April 27, even if it means it is a plane to Marseille his players must take rather than the bus up the road to Dublin for which he had hoped.
Toulon may be France’s top dogs right now and the defending European champions to boot, but the way Munster dismantled former French kings Toulouse in a six-try romp at Thomond Park on Saturday, well, anything is possible for the men in red.
That had hardly seemed likely a week ago in the wake of a worrying league defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium. It was a loss that had infuriated Paul O’Connell and made younger members of the Munster dressing room more than a little anxious in his presence on the training ground. The concerns had been shared by Penney, who knew there was a big 80-minute performance in this team but had only seen it emerge in patches across the season. At the weekend, with a sold-out Thomond Park awash with red flags and passion, Munster finally put it all together.
“It was certainly not out of nowhere,” Penney said. “The quality of the group we’ve got at Munster is classy, they have the ability to play that way. The Heineken Cup obviously brings out a different edge.”
The coaches had worked out chinks in the armour that enveloped this mighty Toulouse team and the players went out and exposed them from the first minute on.
Buoyed by the acclaim of the 26,200 supporters as they returned to the dressing room following their pre-match warm-up routines, Munster came back out and kicked off like men possessed, the famed 16th man having negated the need for a final rallying call.
The way that manifested itself was breathtaking. Two stolen lineouts, 20 phases of breathtaking continuity and a killer final pass under pressure from Simon Zebo saw the thunder converted into points with a Keith Earls try in the corner after five minutes, Ian Keatley producing a laser-like touchline conversion to leave Toulouse in no uncertain terms that they were in for the toughest of days.
Guy Noves’s team did not get those four stars on their jerseys for nothing, though, and with a quartet of Heineken Cup successes in the bank and the wind at the backs, their experience ensured they would not simply lie down and fold as previous French visitors to Limerick have tended to do at times. Toulouse stuck around for the first half, Luke McAlister’s boot and well-drilled scrum keeping the four-time champions in the hunt, just four points adrift at half-time, 13-9 down.
The interval, though, brought a sea change, and Munster started the second half as they had the first, at 100mph. This time the whirlwind reaped two converted tries in the opening six minutes, from the outstanding Dave Kilcoyne and CJ Stander, who had replaced stricken captain Peter O’Mahony after 18 minutes.
It was far from over but Munster would not be caught, even if All Black wing Hosea Gear bludgeoned his way through some sketchy defensive work on the way for a first Toulouse try on 54 minutes, the French side finally showing an attacking threat once McAlister, originally named as a replacement, had made way at fly-half for Lionel Beauxis, who had been dropped to the bench in favour of the other New Zealander in the ranks.
Giant openside flanker Joe Tekori would also bulldoze his away over the Munster line but the scores were mere footnotes to a famous Irish victory, as Penney’s side continued to rip Toulouse apart with a fantastically effective maul and the confidence to make the most of their defensive vulnerabilities.
“We knew if we were able to put more phases together and build pressure, that their defence had enough frailty in it that we were going to penetrate,” the Munster boss said. “The proof was in the pudding and it was great that the lads persevered with the strategy. Toulouse got very excited with the ball but when they didn’t have the ball, there wasn’t that same degree of intensity and we capitalised on that.”
With three tries already in the bag, Munster went to town with another fine trio of scores that hammered home their superiority, substitute Jean-Marc Doussain compounding his missed kick for France against Ireland in Paris three weeks ago with an awful side-footed 22-dropout that trickled into their rivals’ possession, Casey Laulala was one of a four-man overlap to put the game beyond doubt at 35-16. Tekori’s try interceded but was soon rubbed out by Zebo and with the final attack of the game, none other than O’Connell popped up next to the posts to give Munster the perfect ending, Keatley adding the extras with his seventh successful kick of the afternoon.
As he watched Toulon beat Leinster and thoughts turned to the semi-final at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, Penney will have reflected on that rousing finish and the burgeoning belief within his squad.
“Anything is possible,” he had said of scoring six tries against Toulouse. “Teams don’t normally have the ability to change their defensive structures in game. The pictures that we were seeing on a really consistent basis where exactly what we thought we would see and we primed the players all week, that these would be the opportunities we would see. Just being able to take them was the key and I think the proof was in the pudding. They had a lot of confidence today and looked liked a footy team that has a lot of confidence.
“This team is capable of winning silverware but you need to have a bit of luck with the injuries. There’s another tough competition going on alongside it for us. We’re capable of winning it, no doubt about that. We’re a good enough side to do it but whether we do it or not, there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge yet.”
MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls (G van den Heever, 67), C Laulala, J Downey (JJ Hanrahan, 67), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray (D Williams, 76); D Kilcoyne, D Varley (D Casey, 56), BJ Botha (J Ryan, 76); D Foley (D O’Callaghan, 60), P O’Connell, P O’Mahony – captain (CJ Stander, 18), T O’Donnell (J Ryan, 50-60), J Coughlan
Yellow card: D Kilcoyne 50-60
Replacement not used: A Cotter
TOULOUSE: M Médard (C Poitrenaud, 50); Y Huget, F Fritz (J-M Doussain, 60), G Fickou, H Gear; L McAlister (L Beauxis, 52), J Vermaak; G Steenkamp (S Ferreira, 47; Baille, 67-70), C Tolofua (J Bregvadze, 47), Y Montes; Y Maestri (R Millo-Chluski, 49), P Albacete – captain; Y Camara, J Tekori (C Baille, 50-60), L Picamoles (G Galan, 58).
Yellow card: Y Montes 50-60
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
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