Zebo strikes thrice as Munster successfully enter bonus territory
Munster 29 Racing Metro 6:Never in doubt, as Rob Penney noted dryly afterwards. And save for a palpably edgy first 20 minutes, in truth there wasn’t much doubt about Munster reaching their target of a four-try win, even achieving that minimum requirement with something to spare against opponents reduced to 14 men for 75 minutes.
Thus, by the standards of these drama kings, the scoreless last quarter almost constituted an anti-climax, and the players had to return to the pitch to spark something resembling celebrations; a clearly thrilled Donncha O’Callaghan leading the way.
Most of a 25,600 crowd had left their seats by then, and given Munster had secured a 14th quarter-final in 15 seasons, perhaps the Red Army have become a little blasé. More likely they were just too cold to hang around any longer.
Circumstances having fallen their way, Munster kicked off knowing that a win with four tries would ensure their progress barring a Toulouse defeat with two bonus points. Opposing them were a Racing side who had made 14 changes from defeat at home to Saracens.
They still had a place in the Amlin quarter-finals to, eh, motivate them, but one ventures their trek to Bordeaux next Friday is of much greater concern. They were further debilitated by the sending-off, after five minutes of flanker Antoine Batut. According to Wayne Barnes, Batut dropped his knee on Tommy O’Donnell.
That O’Donnell, having just enacted one of Munster’s choke tackles for a turnover, should be at the forefront – albeit somewhat unintentionally – of one of the game’s pivotal moments was fitting. For the second week running, this late developing, all-action 25-year-old Tipperary openside. O’Donnell made more metres than anyone – one rampaging burst of 50 metres being the standout – and no Munster man made more tackles. On any other day, he or the excellent Peter O’Mahony would probably have won the Man of the Match award, but this was Simon Zebo’s day. Not so such a case of lightening striking twice – even though he moves like greased lightening – more a case of Zebo striking thrice. In 11 Heineken Cup games the ever-improving 22-year-old has now scored eight tries, and 20 in just 45 games for his province.
That he is a crowd favourite was emphasised by the crowd serenading him with chants of ‘Zee-bo’ after his second try in the 48th minute secured the bonus point, before finally feeling confident enough for a rendition of The Fields moments later. Signing him to that three-year deal looks an even smarter piece of business now.
The cheery atmosphere by then was in sharp contrast to a first quarter when you could almost reach out and bite the ice-cold, breezy air. Munster were winning plenty of possession and were mostly on the front foot, and trailing 3-0 was immaterial, but it was as if Batut’s sending-off only heightened the collective mood that Munster should have been scoring tries immediately.