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Munster deliver statement win in Toulon at the perfect point in the season

Graham Rowntree’s side look set to qualify for Round of 16 after come from behind win in France

Winning in France is tough and no one knows this better than Munster. Beginning with five defeats in the initial years of the Champions Cup, they have endured some painful days and nights among their 24 losses away to Top 14 sides. But of their 14 wins, few can have been as sweet as this one.

Heaven knows how many get-out-of-jail cards, more than any prolonged game of Monopoly anyway. In his various roles with the province, their manager Niall O’Donovan reckons he’d need more than the fingers on his two hands to count them.

In any event, fears of their impending demise in the pool stages have usually proved premature. This had echoes of their trek to a strong Perpignan side in 2009-10. Coming a week after an unconvincing 24-23 win at Thomond Park, on the morning of the return fixture a week later one esteemed and pro-Munster pundit forewarned of a day of reckoning. Cue a 37-14 bonus-point win for Munster.

Roll on 14 years and even with four of six teams in each pool qualifying for the Round of 16, Munster’s prospects of advancement to the knock-out stages for the 22nd time in the last 26 seasons looked seriously imperilled after their draw at home to Bayonne and loss in Exeter.

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In stark contrast to last season’s URC title charge, Munster hadn’t won away from home in this campaign. Meanwhile Toulon, the three-time champions and reigning Challenge Cup holders, were desperate for a win, as locked and fully loaded as they could be and they had only been beaten in their Stade Felix Mayol fortress four times in 15 years.

Those prospects looked even bleaker after a whirlwind opening quarter when Toulon threw the kitchen sink at Munster and then went 20-0 ahead after Jiuta Wainiqolo gathered Jack Crowley’s grubber deep inside his own 22 and slalomed past three players before setting fellow Fijian Duncan Paia’aua clear.

Munster’s response was to continue playing their ambitious brand of running rugby, full of angles and delayed passes to runners ghosting late on to the ball, their array of options and increasing accuracy keeping Toulon’s defence guessing and on the back foot.

This was rewarded with two tries. First, two big carries by the excellent Gavin Coombes either side of a snipe by Craig Casey paved the way for Alex Nankivell to crash over. Then Simon Zebo, as he does, spotted the space in behind and called for a chip ahead by Crowley, which he executed perfectly for the fullback to deftly gather on the full and score.

“The brighter the lights, the better I play,” Zebo had refreshingly foretold, and now restored and revitalised by a run of games at fullback, he’s reminding us what a rare talent he has always been.

In the second period two more tries from kicks by the halves – Tom Ahern gathering Crowley’s kick pass to burst through Dan Biggar and Calvin Nash soaring above a static Melvyn Jaminet to gather another pinpoint Casey box-kick, either side of Jaminet’s offload sending Cornell du Preez over, sealed the bonus-point win.

Their kicking game out of hand (Munster did so 40 times to Toulon’s 20) had been a point of difference, and although they failed to convert two further opportunities, their place in the last 16 was effectively secured, with even an outside chance of a home Round of 16 tie if they can beat high-flying Northampton with a bonus point in Thomond Park next Saturday.

Once again, being cornered had brought out the best in them.

“I said to the lads out there before, that we’re into knock-out rugby now. That’s the reality,” said captain Tadhg Beirne.

“The first two games didn’t go the way we would have liked them to go, so we had ourselves in a situation where we have to win. We had to win tonight and nothing’s going to change next week. We’re going to have to beat Saints at home.

“But we’re delighted with the performance in terms of a bonus-point win. That’s huge for us, especially away from home, and gives us belief going into next week and massive confidence.”

The return of Niall Scannell (top tackler with 17, plus 10 carries) and Peter O’Mahony sorted out their lineout problems, winning seven out of eight, and their scrum was also solid. It’s also a compliment to their handling that Toulon only had one put-in, while despite a questionable 12-4 penalty count against them, they outscored the home side by four tries to two.

“It feels different when Pete’s around,” admitted Graham Rowntree. “He’s a proven warrior. Within the week, he helps drive standards, helps Tadhg as the captain, driving standards on the field and again his actions demonstrate that.

“Niall Scannell was very good tonight. We’ve got a new plan with Niall now – one game on five months off. I’ll have to look at his contract there. No, I was delighted with him.”

That O’Mahony’s influence remains profound was underlined by Beirne as well.

“I think I probably lean on him more than I realise. The reality is he’s a born leader. Just, it comes naturally to him and he speaks incredibly well to the group. He leads by example on the field as well, so if ever at the moment I need to turn to someone, it’s him, and we’ve seen it massively this week.

“I spoke with him many times privately and I had him speaking quite a bit to the group as well, which took a lot of weight off my shoulders too. He’s done the role for the last 10-11 years and as he said, he wants to be there for whoever is the next captain here. And this week it was me and he certainly was.”

SCORING SEQUENCE – 16 mins: Jaminet pen 3-0; 23: Paia’aua try, Jaminet con 10-0; 29: Crowley pen 10-3; 31: Nankivell try, Crowley con 10-10; 35: Jaminet pen 13-10; 37: Zebo try, Crowley con 13-17; (half-time 13-17); 48: Ahern try 13-22; 54: Du Preez try 18-22; 59: Nash try, Crowley con 18-29.

TOULON: Melvyn Jaminet; Jiuta Wainiqolo, Waisea Nayacalevu, Duncan Paia’aua, Leicester Fainga’anuku; Dan Biggar, Ben White; Dany Priso, Christopher Tolofua, Kieran Brookes; Matthias Halagahu, David Ribbans (capt); Cornell du Preez, Selevasio Tolofua, Facundo Isa.

Replacements: Jules Coulon for S Tolofua (36-40 and 61 mins); Jack Singleton for C Tolofua, Bruce Devaux for Priso, Beka Gigashvili for Brookes (all 53); Brian Alainu’uese for Halagahu, Jérémy Sinzelle for Biggar (both 61); Juiles Danglot for White (65); Setariki Tuicuvu for Nayacalevu (66).

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Alex Nankivell, Shane Daly; Jack Crowley, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Tom Ahern, Tadhg Beirne (capt); Peter O’Mahony, John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: Alex Kendellen for O’Mahony (64 mins); Conor Murray for Casey, Joey Carbery for Nankivell (both 71); Seán O’Brien for Zebo (72 mins); Eoghan Clarke for Scannell, Josh Wycherley for Loughman, Stephen Archer for Ryan, Brian Gleeson for Coombes (all 76).

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Geo).

SCORING SEQUENCE – 16 mins: Jaminet pen 3-0; 23: Paia’aua try, Jaminet con 10-0; 29: Crowley pen 10-3; 31: Nankivell try, Crowley con 10-10; 35: Jaminet pen 13-10; 37: Zebo try, Crowley con 13-17; (half-time 13-17); 48: Ahern try 13-22; 54: Du Preez try 18-22; 59: Nash try, Crowley con 18-29.

TOULON: Melvyn Jaminet; Jiuta Wainiqolo, Waisea Nayacalevu, Duncan Paia’aua, Leicester Fainga’anuku; Dan Biggar, Ben White; Dany Priso, Christopher Tolofua, Kieran Brookes; Matthias Halagahu, David Ribbans (capt); Cornell du Preez, Selevasio Tolofua, Facundo Isa.

Replacements: Jules Coulon for S Tolofua (36-40 and 61 mins); Jack Singleton for C Tolofua, Bruce Devaux for Priso, Beka Gigashvili for Brookes (all 53); Brian Alainu’uese for Halagahu, Jérémy Sinzelle for Biggar (both 61); Juiles Danglot for White (65); Setariki Tuicuvu for Nayacalevu (66).

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Alex Nankivell, Shane Daly; Jack Crowley, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Tom Ahern, Tadhg Beirne (capt); Peter O’Mahony, John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: Alex Kendellen for O’Mahony (64 mins); Conor Murray for Casey, Joey Carbery for Nankivell (both 71); Seán O’Brien for Zebo (72 mins); Eoghan Clarke for Scannell, Josh Wycherley for Loughman, Stephen Archer for Ryan, Brian Gleeson for Coombes (all 76).

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Geo)

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times