Gerry Thornley: Provinces stay cool to complete double sweep
Win ensures four wins from four for Irish provinces for second successive week
Munster’s CJ Stander is tackled by Graham Kitchener of Leicester Tigers during the European Rugby Champions Cup clash at Welford Road. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile/Getty
Coolness personified in the furnace of a febrile Welford Road, Munster ensured the Red Army sang into the night as contentedly as they’ve ever done.
Recording a third win at Welford Road in the European Champions Cup, Munster not only completed an historic double over the Leicester Tigers, but a complete set of four wins from four for the Irish provinces for the second weekend running.
To put Munster’s 25-16 win in context, this was only Leicester’s third defeat in their last 37 home games in Europe, and afterwards Johann van Graan, who has had some introduction to this competition, said: “It’s massive to win away at Welford Road, this will be a reference point for us but this is a long season, there’s a long way to go.
“This competition takes a break now, we go back to play Racing 92 away again in a few weeks’ time but all attention will go to the Pro14 – three interprovincial derbies will be really tough on everybody involved in Ireland but you’ve got to enjoy wins. We’ll enjoy tonight, enjoy the next few days then go right back to zero and start again.”
The victory also puts Munster four points clear of Racing in Pool 4, while effectively ending Leicester’s interest in the competition, before Munster head to Paris on the second weekend in January for their penultimate group game in Racing’s new U Arena.
“We knew this was the big one,” said van Graan. “We knew if we could get over the line in this one it would put us in a very, very good position come the middle of January and we had to work really hard for this win.
“So, we’ll take those four points and move on. The new dates for the fixtures will come out next week and we’ll start planning – there’ll be a lot of planning and it will be huge again. What a fantastic competition and what a brilliant place to play rugby.”
Fresh from signing his new three-year deal with the IRFU, Peter O’Mahony won the Man of the Match award for a leader-from-the-front performance, which also included three lineout steals, and van Graan hailed his captain.
“I thought it was a world-class performance by a world-class player. The announcement of him staying, it’s massive for Munster but he never made it about himself. It was all about the team and about the performance. So well done to Pete for a magnificent performance.”
“All credit to the pack. All credit to Jerry, who came up with the plan; Billy Holland, who spends hours dissecting lineouts and, you know, we came up with something this week in the lineouts and put them under quite a bit of pressure.”
“We also knew they had a new hooker coming onto the field in the second half who hasn’t been at the club a long time and we did a lot of research on that and I thought our plans worked out quite well.”
Munster next host Leinster at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day in the first of three quick-fire rounds of interpros. It’s been set up nicely.
By completing a hard-earned double over Exeter at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, Leinster have won their first four pool games for the first time in 13 years to retain command of Pool 3. A win at home to Glasgow on the penultimate round, combined with Montpellier failing to beat Exeter away, would ensure Leinster of qualification for the knock-out stages.
However, after completing another bonus point win over Glasgow, if Montpellier match or better Leinster’s result against the Scottish team, then Vern Cotter’s team will host Leinster on the final weekend still in contention for first place.
Leinster achieved Saturday’s 22-17 win despite trailing 17-3 after misfiring for much of the first half and losing Johnny Sexton due to a knock to the head in the third minute. It seems unlikely the Irish and Lions’ outhalf, along with a few other front-liners, will feature at Thomond Park.
“We’ll see how [Sexton] comes through the different steps of his return to play but he’s okay,” said Leo Cullen in the aftermath of the game. “He’s out in the corridor chatting to some of the Exeter players. He’s fine.”
“It’s a physical game guys – a physical game. These games, they do take their toll. That’s why guys are fully committed and that’s unfortunately what you have to be to still be in the tournament.”
Following on from Ulster’s 52-24 win over Harlequins on Friday night, Wasps’ 21-3 win over previously unbeaten Pool 1 leaders La Rochelle in the Ricoh Arena yesterday keeps the English team very much in the hunt, three points behind Les Kiss’s team, who are two adrift of La Rochelle. Ulster’s game at home to La Rochelle in round five now looks like a must-win, as might be their final game away to Wasps presuming they beat Harlequins away.
Coupled with Worcester’s defeat to previously pointless Oyannax, it leaves Kieran Keane’s team seven points clear in Pool 5 of the Challenge Cup, and a win away to Worcester in the penultimate round will secure qualification for the last eight, most probably with a home tie. Failing that, victory at home to Oyannax in their final pool game would do so.
“They are starting to enjoy themselves,” said Keane of his players, “and we are reaping the rewards of that. They are feeling good about themselves, and I know we are not world beaters in some people’s eyes, but it’s nice to see the boys express themselves and like what they are doing.
“As long as the boys are getting better, feeling better about themselves, growing their game, getting competitive – those are the things I want to achieve. When you see a performance like that, it warms your heart, and I am happy to have a warm heart.”
He wasn’t the only one.