Munster bin the script and make it consecutive wins over Leicester
Johan van Graan’s side became first team ever to beat the Tigers back-to-back in Europe
Munster’s Ian Keatley kicks a penalty during their win over Leicester Tigers in the Champions Cup. Photo: Tommy Dickson /Inpho
Leicester Tigers 16 Munster 25
Nobody beats Leicester twice? Well, Munster do, and in becoming the first team in 18 seasons of this pool format in the European Cup to complete a back-to-back double over their fellow two-time champions, in the process they took a firm grip on Pool 4.
The mist that descended on a dank and dark Welford Road could indeed have been cordite as the home crowd and team alike scented revenge, but they were too fired up for their own good. Matt O’Connor’s gripes about perceived injustices a week previously only fed into a wildly ill-disciplined performance, as Leicester gave away their early momentum with an 11-2 first-half penalty count.
The tally finished 14-7 and Mathieu Raynal, again excellent, deserves credit for being the calm man in the middle. This was also a deserved triumph for the more composed side, as Munster kept their heads while Leicester were losing theirs.
Nobody embodied this more than Ian Keatley, who overcome two early fumbles with a reassuring smile, largely running the show with aplomb and an accurate mix of passing, kicking and running. Crucially, they had both the better scrum and lineout, the outstanding Peter O’Mahony making three steals alone. Hats off Jerry Flannery too.
In this and much else, O’Mahony wasn’t the only big gun to deliver. CJ Stander (19 carries and a try) had another mighty match, and so too, naturally, did the classy Conor Murray.
But there was also an outstanding European Cup debut by Kevin O’Byrne following on from Rhys Marshall’s display last week. Lively, aggressive and full of edge, the AIL man stepped up big time. Sam Arnold had a big game defensively, while out wide Alex Wootton vindicated his selection with his clever running, tackling and aerial work.
They also had to weather an early storm as Leicester drew first blood from a cleverly designed kick-off, George Ford going to the right with a deep kick and Rory Scannell was dragged over the touchline by Adam Thompstone. When Munster drove too early, it allowed Ford to open the scoring in the third minute.
Two knock-ons by Keatley added to Munster’s discomfort but after Kyle Traynor went to ground under pressure from Stephen Archer, Keatley banged the penalty fully 50 metres into the corner. Leicester conceded consecutive penalties from the ensuing drives, the second when Ben Youngs came through early on Murray, for Keatley to level the scores.
But when Leicester went up the line after Cole hoodwinked a penalty out of Raynal by holding in Billy Holland, they opted for quick off the top ball and after trucking it up Youngs went back against the grain where Graham Kitchener passed out the back as Peter O’Mahony bit in. Taite arced outside him and sprinted through the gap to score, Ford converting.
Chris Kloete stepped Matt To’omua in midfield off a line-out to make a huge break, but lost the ball when hit from behind with a no-arms tackle by Manu Tuilagi.
Munster put together a good attacking set, Kilcoyne in particular giving them momentum with big carries which allowed Keatley to land another penalty and when Kitchener hit Murray late with his shoulder – more thuggish and silly than dangerous – it made the penalty count 7-2. Keatley banged it into the corner, and side entry made for an eighth penalty and a belated warning from Mathieu Raynal before Keatley made the score 10-9.
When Keatley latched onto an overthrow by Tom Youngs and offloaded to CJ Stander, another penalty, for offside in midfield, enabled Keatley to put Munster in front. Cole, their serial offender, was yellow carded after making the penalty count 10-2 when offside at a ruck. It was his fifth of the half. Yet another followed in overtime when Tom Youngs came in from the side. Murray, from almost the halfway line wide to the right, had the legs with the shot at goal but not the accuracy. Raynal was loudly abused on leaving for the dressing-rooms, which was unpleasant and undeserved, as well as blinkered.
On the resumption, Taite wasted a spillage by Zebo when kicking dead, and when O’Mahony stole a Tom Youngs throw to the front after a long, low touchfinder by Keatley, Murray took the ball on the run and arced through a gap. Though held up just short, Stander plunged over from close-range. Keatley converted.
Munster’s confidence soared, Wootton brilliantly releasing Zebo for a chip and chase up the line which Taite covered. Two more grubbers by Murray didn’t work, the second leading to a break out and kick ahead by Jonny May. Chris Kloete showed unbelievable pace, overtaking May and teammates alike, to cover the danger, but it woke up home crowd and team.
A bout of intense, high tempo, hard running, Murray went off his feet and Ford kicked the penalty. The Tigers upped their game in defence too, a sequence of big tackles ending with Keatley kicking out on the full. A poach by Luke Hamilton prompted another spell of Leicester pressure, culminating in John Ryan illegally, and ill-advisedly, tapping the ball from Ben Youngs’ grasp. He was binned, and Ford kicked the penalty.
Keatley then miscued a drop goal and missed a kickable penalty after a late hit on Zebo by Michael Fitzgerald, but Munster saw out Ryan’s spell in the bin as Ford and Keatley exchanged fine touchfinders, and O’Mahony again pilfered a throw, this time by Tatafu Polota-Nau. Stander trucked it up, it wasn’t released, and Keatley made it 22-16.
Cue the Munster bench. Jack O’Donoghue’s huge hit forced a spillage by Sione Kalafamoni, and Brian Scott made a strong carry. Keatley did well to hang onto Tuilagi’s ankles as he threatened to break out, and Keatley poached for a penalty against Luke Hamilton for holding on, Keatley made it a two-score lead with barely two minutes remaining.
Zebo brilliantly denied the Tigers a bonus point with a ball and all tackle on Tuilagi, as otherwise the endgame was played out to the sound of Leicester fans walking out as the red flags fluttered and all that could be heard was The Fields of Athenry.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Ford pen 3-0; 11 mins Keatley pen 3-3; 13 mins Taite try, Ford con 10-3; 24 mins Keatley pen 10-6; 34 mins Keatley pen 10-9; 39 mins Keatley pen 10-12; (half-time 10-12); 43 mins Stander try, Ketley con 10-19; 52 mins Ford pen 13-19; 61 mins Ford pen 16-19; 73 mins Keatley pen 16-22; 78 mins Keatley pen 16-25.
Leicester Tigers: Matthew Tait; Adam Thompstone, Manu Tuilagi, Matt To’omua, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Kyle Traynor, Tom Youngs (c), Dan Cole, Michael Fitzgerald, Graham Kitchener, Tino Mapapalangi, Mike Williams, Sione Kalafamoni.
Replacements: Logovii Mulipola for Traynor (29 mins), Traynor for Thompstone (42-50 mins), Tatafu Polota-Nau for T Youngs (57 mins), Luke Hamilton for Williams (both 57 mins), Logovii Mulipola for Traynor (29 mins), Traynor for Thompstone (42-50 mins), Dom Barrow for Kitchener, Nick Malouf for Thompstone (both 70 mins).
Not used: Chris Baumann, Sam Harrison, Joe Ford.
Sinbinned: Cole (40-50 mins).
Munster Rugby: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Sam Arnold, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Kevin O’Byrne, Stephen Archer, Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony (c), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Niall Scannell for O’Byrne, John Ryan for Archer (both 58 mins), Jack O’Donoghue for Kloete (67 mins), Archer for Wootton (68-71 mins), Brian Scott for Kilcoyne (68 mins).
Not used: Darren O’Shea, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Keith Earls.
Sinbinned: Ryan (61-71 mins).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).