Drama kings Munster complete another white-knuckle ride
Conor Murray and Andrew Conway score tries with Munster six points adrift of Toulon
Munster’s Andrew Conway celebrates his try: he finished his first game since January, having only returned to full training last week Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Munster 20 Toulon 19
Rock and roll rugby, the Munster and Thomond Park way. Munster rolled with the punches and Thomond Park rocked from the first minute to the 80th minute and indeed beyond, as this drama-filled epic unfolded.
It’s a special place, no doubt, and especially on big European days or nights. This one assuredly forces its way into the top 10 of all time, maybe even the top five. It was that good. But then again the back catalogue has long since overflowed.
Munster seize days like this, almost when they appear to have no right to, by seizing the moments. Ian Keatley had noted during the week “rugby is such a funny game with momentum and swings” and somehow this seems especially so here. This one pivoted on two moments, namely tries by Conor Murray and Andrew Conway, both times when Munster were six points adrift. Each were also predicated by players seizing little moments.
After Toulon’s ominously imposing first quarter, Munster were reeling against the ropes, and trailing 6-0 was both a relief and a result. Cue a massive tackle by Sam Arnold on Mathieu Bastareaud, following which he hacked the ball upfield for Darren Sweetnam to chase and harry. Old school.
From clean off the top ball from Holland and a sweet pass by Keatley, Jack O’Donoghue – who, cometh the hour, had a truly huge 60 minutes – broke the tackles of Bastareaud and Ma’a Nonu no less.
Keatley’s wicked grubber (clearly a pre-ordained tactic) saw Josua Tuisova and Eric Escande just deny Conway, but when Guilhem Guirado knocked on at the base, Murray quick-wittedly picked up and touched down. Peter O’Mahony, who led from the front and made crucial lineout steals, described it as “an intelligent try”, and it was akin to moving a chess piece, as Murray demonstrated he is a smart, as well as complete, footballer.
In one of many referrals to his TMO, Nigel Owens and Jon Mason changed their minds on several occasions before Mason came to the conclusion that “I would say the ball has gone forward.” That decision only took six minutes and 40 seconds. Thomond Park lifted. It was the biggest momentum shift of the match, until Conway’s late intervention.
Munster were dominant for half an hour so, but only extended their lead to 13-6 thanks to Semi Radrada taking out Sweetnam off the ball and the introduction of a new frontrow earned a scrum penalty. The introduction of Alby Mathewson and Francois Trinh-Duc helped turn the match around, the French outhalf landing penalties either side of converting a try which emanated from Bastareaud speeding on to Trinh-Duc’s offload for Chris Ashton to score with a trademark trailer, although the offload looked marginally forward.
With nine minutes to go, Munster were trailing 19-13 and now needed the equivalent of a knock-out in the last round. Cue another intervention by Murray, with a little help from another strong scrum by a fired-up John Ryan and co, and O’Mahony illegally poking the ball.
Duane Vermeulen couldn’t gather, and Murray put boot to ball and had the strength to pick up for the vital turnover. Munster looked to have blown it when Keatley went wide too early in a phased attack off a scrum, whereupon Trinh-Duc – who had missed a penalty to touch – did so again.
To compound this, Josua Tuisova chased infield, to cut off either a quick throw or pass infield, and Trinh-Duc’s sluggish chase along with Raphael Lakafia, left an inviting gap. Yet Conway’s gather above his head and over the touchline, would have been a contender for catch of the season on the boundary ropes.
The manner he veered infield through that gap, straightened, and then cut back inside to step Malakai Fekitoa was breathtaking. In so doing, he narrowed the conversion angle for Keatley, who landed four from four, and Thomond Park was in raptures.
Body on the line
As Alex Wootton would do to deny Semi Radradra, Conway had begun the game when putting his body on the line to prevent Tuisove from scoring before then moving to fullback. It says something about the Munster strength and conditioning staff that Conway could finish his first game since January, having only returned to full training this week, in such fashion.
Munster being Munster, home team and crowd alike still had to endure a 20-phase Toulon attack into overtime before James Cronin latched on to the ball and Ashton was penalised for holding on. Drama Kings.
A full house had strapped themselves in for a white knuckle ride, and so it transpired. The first-half took 55 minutes, the second 52. Taking in half-time, the game finished two hours and two minutes after it started, but as ever, the crowd never wavered in their belief.
Even with an earpiece, and focusing on the game, Johann van Graan was not oblivious to their impact. “You get a lot of noise, and the players really do feed off this Munster crowd. We said before the game that the crowd in Thomond Park won’t do it for us, but that it will definitely be a contributing factor.
“The one thing that I will give the people of Munster a lot of credit for, a lot of times when teams in the world go behind the crowd becomes silent. But the people of Munster become loud. I spoke to Billy [Holland] about getting calls on and he said the noise was deafening. It definitely makes a big difference.”
They weren’t of a mind to miss the lap of honour either, bellowing out Stand Up and Fight one more time. Never more apt.
Scoring sequence: 10 mins Belleau pen 0-3; 19 mins Belleau drop goal 0-6; 28 mins Murray try, Keatley con 7-6; 32 mins Keatley pen 10-6; (half-time 10-6); 56 mins Keatley pen 13-6; 61 mins Trinh-Duc pen 13-9; 65 mins Ashton try, Trinh-Duc con 13-16; 68 mins Trinh-Duc pen 13-19; 75 mins Conway try, Keatley con 20-19.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Sam Arnold, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer, Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander. Replacements: Darren Sweetnam for Zebo (25 mins), Niall Scannell for Marshall, James Cronin for Kilcoyne, John Ryan for Archer (all 53 mins), Robin Copeland for O’Donoghue (59 mins), Gerbrandt Grobler for Kleyn (76 mins), James Hart for Murray (77 mins). Not used: JJ Hanrahan.
RC Toulon: Chris Ashton; Josua Tuisova, Mathieu Bastareaud, Ma’a Nonu, Semi Radradra; Anthony Belleau, Eric Escande; Florian Fresia, Guilhem Guirado, Marcel Van Der Merwe, Juandre Kruger, Dave Attwood, Raphael Lakafia, Facundo Isa, Duane Vermeulen. Replacements: Xavier Chiocci for Fresia (48 to 74 mins), Romain Taofifenua for Kruger (48 mins), Francois Trinh-Duc (52 mins), Alby Mathewson for Esconde, Malakai Fekitoa for Nonu (both 59 mins), Anthony Etrillard for Guirado (74 mins), Emerick Setiano for van der Merwe (77 mins). Not used: Samu Manoa.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)