Munster fall just short of the full Houdini as Racing take share of the spoils

JJ Hanrahan’s late drop goal misses target in thrilling Thomond Park endgame

Munster’s JJ Hanrahan misses a late drop goal  in the Heineken Champions Cup match against  Racing 92 at  Thomond Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Munster’s JJ Hanrahan misses a late drop goal in the Heineken Champions Cup match against Racing 92 at Thomond Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Munster 21 Racing 92 21

As ever with Munster, this was high drama, although as ever with draws, neither side will feel entirely satisfied with a share of the spoils, which if anything will probably revive Saracens’ interest in the tournament.

Munster, ultimately, will rue a missed drop goal from 20 metres out in front of the posts by the otherwise magnificent JJ Hanrahan to complete one of their more remarkable acts of escapology.

Yet he had landed a superb touchline conversion moments earlier to draw Munster level, and this after Racing had dominated much of the second half and several times came within a whisker of pulling two scores clear.

Munster had won 30 of 31 home games against Top 14 opposition, but rarely has a French side proved so consistently dangerous as this Racing side, in what was a riotously entertaining affair against a Munster side themselves in the throes of re-inventing themselves into a more varied attacking outfit.

To be honest, it’s a better result for Racing, and they deserved it.

With the always inventive Finn Russell prepared to take the ball to the line, draw defenders and delve into his sizeable box of tricks, and with kindred spirit Simon Zebo recalled, the width, tempo and variety of Racing’s running game was a constant threat.

However, Stephen Larkham’s influence is already becoming apparent, with Hanrahan and Mike Haley looking like players reborn. Haley is now a kindred spirit of Zebo’s too, and with both fullbacks eager to counter, this was a hugely entertaining contest on a dry and perfect night.

There was plenty of high-wire rugby. Munster are now much more inclined to take the ball to the gain line and offload or make tip-on passes, while Racing pushed up quickly in regularly threatening to pick off intercepts.

Munster’s Andrew Conway scores a try during the Heineken Champions Cup game against Racing 92 at Thomond park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Munster’s Andrew Conway scores a try during the Heineken Champions Cup game against Racing 92 at Thomond park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

A father for a third time earlier in the week, Zebo was full of running, countering infield to set up attacking platforms on both sides of the pitch, and also accelerating into contact in drawing in tackles, such was Munster’s awareness of his constant offloading throat.

Another favourite returning son, Donnacha Ryan, was orchestrator in chief when spoiling Munster’s lineout and maul.

Zebo was given the honour of leading the team out, looking up to the heavens, and Ryan had his picture taken with his daughter.

Racing had suffered a blow in the warm-up when their scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud pulled up, and he was replaced by another of those goal-kicking scrumhalves who seem to fall off trees in France, the experienced understudy Teddy Iribaren.

The 21-year-old halfback Antoine Gibert was called into the bench.

Zebo was the fourth man to touch the ball, countering laterally into midfield after Antonie Claassen gathered Rory Scannell’s kick and clattering into Hanrahan’s tackle to set one of the night’s recurring themes.

The night’s first rendition for Stand Up And Fight was prompted by Tadhg Beirne and Jean Kleyn holding up Cedric Gomes Sa for a turnover, before Racing’s counter-rucking forced a turnover. The Parisians’ line speed in defence forced Conor Murray to box kick, where his mate Zebo caught and marked safely.

Quick hands by Hanrahan and Chris Farrell led to a good carry by Haley, and after Claassen was pinged for not rolling, Hanrahan opened the scoring with a fine 42-metre penalty.

Munster’s Andrew Conway competes for the ball with Racing 92’s Simon Zebo of Racing 92 during the Heineken Champions Cup game at Thomond park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Munster’s Andrew Conway competes for the ball with Racing 92’s Simon Zebo of Racing 92 during the Heineken Champions Cup game at Thomond park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

In a helter-skelter start, Racing’s high-speed, high-risk line speed saw Henry Chavancy fractionally missing out on intercepting Hanrahan’s long pass for Farrell to make a huge carry, although after Racing forced another ruck turnover, Claassen picked off a no-look pass by Peter O’Mahony.

Haley’s elusive counterattacking was a feature of the opening exchanges when running back Iribaren’s over-cooked box kicking. Virimi Vakatawa seemed to be offside at a ruck, certainly the home crowd thought so, before Murray’s hard pass rebounded off Andrew Conway and Iribaren found a good touch. To compound this, O’Mahony’s spillage from Niall Scannell’s first throw afforded Racing an attacking scrum.

They used it to full effect.

Two phases after the scrum, following Camille Chat’s strong carry – albeit Matthew Carley played a penalty advantage when it seemed Rory Scannell was legitimately over the ball – Russell feinted to pass before nutmegging the latter with a deft left-footed grubber to gather himself and score. Another from his ever-lengthening box of tricks. Iribaren converted for a 7-3 lead.

He wasn’t the only skilful outhalf on display. Hanrahan scythed through with a lovely show and go, finding Farrell in support, but from the recycle Rory Scannell fumbled Jack O’Donoghue’s high pass. Claassen, lifted by Ryan, also picked off a long throw by Niall Scannell. Munster’s execution was preventing them from establishing foothold and applying pressure.

But Iribaren afforded Haley a simple mark, and the crowd were of one voice when imploring the officials to rule Zebo’s counterattacking pass to Teddy Thomas forward.

It was, and they did.

Racing cranked up the heat on Munster’s scrum, but Gomes Sa was penalised for scrummaging at an angle, and Hanrahan trimmed the lead to a point.

Racing 92’s Juan Imhoff scores his side’s third try of the game despite the attempts of Munster’s Andrew Conway during the Heineken Champions Cup match at Thomond Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Racing 92’s Juan Imhoff scores his side’s third try of the game despite the attempts of Munster’s Andrew Conway during the Heineken Champions Cup match at Thomond Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

However, the speed and width of Racing’s running game stretched Munster to breaking point. It originated with another strong counterattacking, lateral carry by Zebo into the middle of the pitch. After Racing went wide left and wide right, Zebo accelerated into a double tackle, and Iribaren’s lovely skip pass on the blindside led to Thomas chipping Haley and gathering almost nonchalantly to round the posts.

There was a nice shape to Munster’s next phased attack, with Keith Earls making a half-break, while John Ryan, O’Mahony and Beirne made good carries. Claassen, pushing things, was pinged for holding a player on the ground.

There was then a controlled fury to their ensuing attack off a flat throw to Beirne and resultant maul, as there was off the tap penalty which followed, but in charging from well behind the gain line to the posts, Hanrahan had the ball dislodged before touching down by Zebo.

Another scrap followed when Munster penalised at the ensuing scrum. Racing were up for this.

They threatened again when Wenceslas Lauret scampered away from a lineout maul, but a weary looking Gomes Sa fumbled and Niall Scannell followed up with a wonderful tackle on Chavancy and crucially held, meaning that the latter was pinged for getting back to his feet with the ball.

This proved a huge play by the Munster hooker.

With their last throw of the dice, Munster went from right to left, Farrell making inroads again. One of the noticeable features of Munster’s attack since the arrival of Larkham has been their clever use of the blindside. They again surprised and outnumbered Racing on the short side when Murray passed to Hanrahan and quick hands by Haley gave Earls the chance to beat Zebo and score in the corner.

Hanrahan’s well struck conversion form the touchline veered slightly off course at last, but it was a badly needed and well-timed score for home team and supporters alike.

On the resumption, Ryan (of all people) couldn’t gather Hanrahan’s restart. Haley chipped one attack away, and another ended when Farrell’s offload didn’t go to hand, before Iribaren kicked out on the full. A nice strike move off the training ground, Farrell trucking it up before pulling the ball back and Earls released Hanrahan on the wrap and Haley again carrying well, led to a penalty for not rolling away. Hanrahan levelled matters.

Whereupon, Racing struck stealthily again to quieten the crowd.

For the umpteenth time, Zebo countered infield from Rory Scannell’s long kick. Soon after he was the decoy off the ball for Russell to feint a pass inside but instead accelerate between Jeremy Loughman and O’Mahony for Juan Imhoff to run the trailer inside and score by the posts. In mitigation of Loughman, he was hobbling at the time, and was immediately helped off.

Only Earls’s covering pace prevented Thomas scoring another. Haley, countering well off Beirne’s superb turnover, was pinged for a double movement in the tackle, but Iribaren was wide with the penalty from an angle. Munster turned to their bench, and Racing brought on their young, all-French frontrow.

But Munster, penned into their own half for almost all the third quarter, were clinging on, and next it was Rory Scannell’s covering which prevented Iribaren and Thomas almost engineered a stunning blindside try from deep off a maul. Russell then couldn’t complete his switch with Vakatawa.

Racing were in control. Thomond Park was becalmed and worried. Munster turned, almost in desperation, to their bench, surprisingly removing Beirne and Murray entering the last quarter. They would have been relieved to see the ever-dangerous Thomas, clearly in pain, removed.

A couple of scrum penalties earned Munster a long overdue attacking lineout outside the Racing 22. They gave Conway a run from Rory Scannell’s floated pass but Iribaren’s covering tackle dislodged the ball.

Turning down a likely three points by going to the corner, Munster’s forwards had a series of charges off the maul. Next it was a five-metre scrum, and after CJ Stander charged off a third re-set, Munster went route one before surprisingly using a penalty advantage for Hanrahan to give Conway the finish with a gorgeous, floated skip pass. Even better, he nailed the conversion from the right touchline.

Somehow, Munster were level.

From the restart, Earls found a monster touch which drew an even louder guttural roar. Pressure from O’Mahony on Boris Palu on the Racing throw earned an attacking throw. Munster went through the phases, with Hanrahan in the pocket, but when the outhalf called for the he slightly snatched at the drop goal, which floated wide.

That was their last chance. Not the complete Houdini-like escape for once, but there were times when even a draw had looked unlikely.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 9 mins Hanrahan pen 3-0; 20 mins Russell try, Iribaren con 3-7; 27 mins Hanrahan pen 6-7; 30 mins Thomas try, Iribaren con 6-14; 40 mins Earls try 11-14; (half-time 11-14); 47 mins Hanrahan pen 14-14; 48 mins Imhoff try, Iribaren con 14-21; 76 mins Conway, Hanrahan con 21-21.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander.

Replacements: James Cronin for Loughman (49 mins); Stephen Archer for Ryan, Fineen Wycherley for Kleyn, Arno Botha for O’Donoghue (all 53), Billy Holland for Beirne, Alby Mathewson for Murray (both 62); Kevin O’Byrne for N Scannell (65). Not used: Dan Goggin.

RACING 92: Simon Zebo; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy (capt), Juan Imhoff; Finn Russell, Teddy Iribaren; Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat, Cedate Gomes Sa; Donnacha Ryan, Dominic Bird; Wenceslas Lauret, Boris Palu, Antonie Claassen.

Replacements: Teddy Baubigny for Chat, Hassane Kolingar for Ben Arous, Ali Oz for Gomes Sa (all 55 mins); Fabien Sanconnie for Bird (58), Brice Dulin for Dulin (64), Yoan Tanga for Claassen, Antoine Gibert for Iribaren (both 79). Not used: Ben Volavola.

Referee: Matthew Carley (England).

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