Leicester Tigers 18 Munster 16
The nature of the defeat would ordinarily have left a team shattered, inconsolable. Succumbing to a 53-metre penalty should have been acutely painful, landed as it was in the final seconds and less than four minutes after the adrenaline rush of scoring a converted try that masqueraded as the outcome-defining moment in this Champions Cup tussle.
The body language of the Munster players told otherwise. Disappointment was visible but there was no gut-wrenching despair. The unstated acknowledgement was that it was a game they could have won but that the result was ultimately compromised by the nature of the performance.
Munster made too many mistakes, forced the game when they needed patience, kicked poorly for the most part, lacked discipline and precision at crucial times, were appreciably outplayed at the breakdown; and yet still they came within millimetres of winning.
Billy Holland summed it up succinctly: "Maybe at times we were a little bit one-dimensional, didn't get front-foot ball. They were getting two-man hits on our ball-carrier, we were a bit sloppy with our ball placement and our carry wasn't always where it needed to be."
The Irish province's end-game response takes character, by the bucketful. They never stopped struggling to escape the downward spiral of mistakes. When the excellent Niall Scannell burrowed over for a try in the 75th minute and Tyler Bleyendaal's sat on his backside, watching a conversion with a trajectory of a snipe escaping the undergrowth gather enough height to clear the crossbar, the improbable seemed possible.
However, one more mistake, the concession of a penalty at a ruck, gave Owen Williams a chance and the young Leicester Tigers outhalf, blemish-free from the tee all afternoon, maintained that spotless record; six penalties from as many attempts.
For Munster supporters it recalled an afternoon at Welford Road a decade earlier when Ronan O’Gara landed a similar strike to win the match from virtually the same blade of grass.
Munster’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was honest in his appraisal of the afternoon’s fare and correct in his assessment of the considerable strides made by a team that represented the core body that lost both Champions Cup matches to the Tigers last season.
“It is a team from last year that we are trying to build into a team that becomes formidable but we are still off it. There are three or four players that have come into the squad and some of them are only on loan agreements, [so] we can’t just compare it with last week only, we must compare it with where we went last year in Europe and the pool we are in.
“If you look at the pool, it is decent competition we are playing against. We are disappointed, really disappointed but also realistic. Get six points out of two games against Leicester home and away; didn’t we get zero last year? So it’s an improvement.
“I thought it was a great battle. If you put 15 players out there playing their hearts out with intensity, errors are going to happen. I don’t know; did they score a try? They put pressure on us to give penalties away and they got the points. I can’t fault anybody. We could have won it at the end, we didn’t but it is certainly not something that we can’t fix.”
Munster led 6-0, through two Bleyendaal penalties – he missed two other chances – and when Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi was sent to the sin-bin for a late shoulder on Rory Scannell, the visitors seemed set fair to stretch that advantage. The Tigers won those 10-minutes, scoring six points and conceding none.
Erasmus refused to zero in on this period as being exclusively responsible for the defeat. “I don’t think that is where we lost the game. We missed two kicks at goal that could have given us a bigger lead.
“I think more in the end if you look at the last 10 or 15 minutes with us getting a yellow card [Simon Zebo] and then having to gut it out, I thought overall we didn’t deserve to win the match; not just in that spell where they had 14-men.
“I think the pressure Leicester put on us, that’s why the game went like that. It was a team that was desperate. We were just as desperate but on the day they just had the edge on us, I wouldn’t say in all the departments, but for example the breakdown they had the edge on us.”
Bleyendaal got his third penalty just after the interval but with the Tigers turning over ball at the breakdown they forced Munster to concede three penalties, all of which Owen Williams landed to nudge his side into a 15-9 lead.
The last of those also coincided with Zebo's yellow card. It was a marginal call, one of several in the match but what will rankle is that in the seconds before he made that late grab on Adam Thompstone, Munster might have had a try if Jaco Taute's pass, eight metres from the Tigers' line, had gone to hand.
The response was brilliant, forcing the Tigers to concede a raft of penalties in quick succession, and the maul, so effective all afternoon, obliged.
Munster remain in control of a pool. They travel to play Racing 92 – the French club has what might politely be termed a peripheral interest – for the re-fixed match in early January. Before that, they'll host Leinster at Thomond Park.
Erasmus explained: “We’re really trying to look at different departments of our game. We can look at the table and wish this happened or that happened but at the end of the day we must start back on Tuesday and say ‘how did the scrums go, how did the kicking go, how did the defence go, or the breakdown go?’ If you start looking at the table you just confuse yourself.”
A seven match-winning streak is over; time to start another one.
LEICESTER TIGERS: G Worth; P Betham, J Roberts, M Tuilagi, A Thompstone; O Williams, B Youngs; E Genge, T Youngs (capt), P Cilliers; E Slater, G Kitchener; L Hamilton, B O'Connor, L McCaffrey. Replacements: G Bateman for Cilliers, M Fitzgerald for Kitchener (both 50 mins), L Mulipola for Genge (61 mins), M Williams for McCaffrey (61 mins), T Brady for Betham (71 mins), H Thacker for Worth (77 mins).
MUNSTER: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan; D Ryan, B Holland, P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: J Cronin for Kilcoyne, J Kleyn for Holland (both 49 mins), J O'Donoghue for O'Donnell (64 mins), A Conway for Earls (68 mins), D Williams for Murray (71 mins), S Archer for Ryan (74 mins).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France).
Yellow cards: M Tuilagi (29 mins), S Zebo (65 mins), T Youngs (74 mins).