Courageous Munster pay ultimate price for error-prone performance
The province made too many mistakes and conceded too many penalties
Munster’s Paul O’Connell is tackled by Toulon’s Delon Armitage in yesterday’s bruising semi-final battle in Marseille. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Toulon 24, Munster 16: Munster again fought the good fight and having scored the only try of the game didn’t deserve a two-score defeat.
In a taut, tense affair – which was predictably dominated by Wayne Barnes in the first-half especially – Toulon admittedly made much of the running and led most of the way. But they couldn’t shake Munster off until Jonny Wilkinson’s seventh three-pointer in the 80th minute.
Munster will have regrets, not least a ninth away semi-final and seven out of seven against French teams. They made mistakes for sure, notably with two softly conceded three-pointers off restarts in a stop-start first-half in which Toulon stuttered far more than they did against Leinster.
They possibly played a little too much for their own good from their own half, and were a little lateral in doing so, although in saying that when there was space out wide they often were too narrow to move the ball wide until late on. They might have reverted back to the blind side or swept back a little more to change the point of attack, and their chips over the quickly advancing Toulon line did not yield much profit.
Their pack’s set piece was good, and grew stronger in the scrums especially after David Kilcoyne fell foul of Barnes at three put-ins, even though not much seemed to change to the naked eye thereafter. The lineout was superb, save for one potentially costly blemish on their own line in the second-half.
In two key areas they performed much more strongly than Leinster, namely at the breakdown, where they largely limited the influence of Steffon Armitage and in defence, where their line speed was altogether more aggressive, and where they executed their trademark choke tackle to good effect. And they also scrambled well when they had to. Keeping this Toulon team try-less was no mean achievement.
Ultimately, having back from an 18-9 half-time deficit, their changes hinged on two key moments. On the 58m mark, five minutes after Ian Keatley had augmented Simon Zebo’s try with a stunning touchline conversion, Keatley attempted a penalty from about 55m taking into account the angle. Unluckily, he had to reset the ball after it fell from its mount and though he struck the kick well, it drifted left.
Considering how well he was striking the ball, the 72nd minute decision to go to the corner rather than take a kickable three-pointer to trim their 21-16 deficit to two points was puzzling in the extreme. Granted, Zebo’s try had followed a similar decision but although they were a little unlucky a more potent maul went to ground, two phases later Casey Laulala dropped the ball.
But three points then would have meant they could run the clock down some more, see out Keith Earls’s sinbinning with the only score of that 10-minute period and leave themselves with one more kick to win the game. It would also have rattled Toulon but instead there was no way back once Wilkinson tagged on his penalty. As the vocal Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal admitted afterwards, Munster “scared us out of our wits”.
Stander work rate
There were, as Rob Penney admitted, a host of heroic performances
– with some of Paul O’Connell’s work and clearing out truly awesome. James Coughlan and CJ Stander were immense, the latter making three turnovers at the breakdown. Conor Murray brought all his game – running, tackling, passing and kicking – to excellent effect; James Downey has rarely put himself about to such effect physically and seemed to relish his many collisions with Mathieu Bastareaud. Zebo’s work rate was impressive.
In the final analysis, however, Munster made too many mistakes and conceded too many penalties – a dozen being almost four more than their average to date – whereas Toulon were penalised on eight occasions.
Even the first one was a huge momentum shifter, Juan Smith having knocked on from the first recycle after Zebo chased down Keatley’s long hanging kick-off to tackle Steffon Armitage. But Barnes penalised David Kilcoyne for going to ground at the first reset slightly to the left of the Toulon posts, when Carl Hayman looked every bit as culpable, in what was a big call.
Munster started well but Barnes would penalise Kilcoyne twice more before the tide turned – of the game’s nine scrums only two were completed without infringements.
Wilkinson opened the scoring when Stander was pinged for not releasing, before good Munster defence
– Laulala producing a good hit on Matt Giteau – enabled Keatley to level but Wilkinson landed two more penalties out of three for a high tackle against Murray and offside against Downey.
A good kick and chase by Felix Jones, helped by Coughlan, led to Juan Fernandez Lobbe being penalised and Keatley landing the penalty when he came through on Murray at a ruck.
Munster’s exit strategy – Murray and Keatley finding lengthy touches – had been good but either side of a third Keatley penalty Coughlan spilled a restart and Downey was adjudged offside from a Stander knock-on to leave the score 15-9 and Delon Armitage landed a 60m penalty with the last kick of the half.
Munster lived on the edge in the third quarter as Toulon went for the kill – Zebo denying Steffon Armitage with a tackle by the corner flag which forced the number eight to put a foot in touch before grounding after Downey twice twice prevented Bryan Habana from breaking clear.
But Munster rewarded for a strong scrum and lineout maul by going to the corner. And although it was held up and then driven back, Murray broke off to the blindside, beat Tillous-Borde and Zebo provided a strong finish in the corner, touch judge Luke Pearce seemingly awarded the try without recourse to the TMO.
Now it was game on, with each side having a cut from inside their own half as things became more than a little frantic, but Munster’s chance of an epic win floundered on the two key moments that followed. Another one that got away.