Munster 20 Toulon 19
In time-honoured fashion, a capacity Thomond Park crowd remained riveted from first minute to last, and made off into the evening probably as shattered and delighted as their team. No quarter was given or taken alright as Munster rolled with the punches, of which there were many, before rocking through to a Champions Cup semi-final after an absolute belting white knuckle ride, even by the standards of this fabled European citadel.
There was never more than a score between them, and ultimately it was only a point, thanks to a wondrous, individualistic 76th minute try by Andrew Conway. Their reward is a semi-final away to Clermont in St Etienne or Racing in Bordeaux.
In a rollercoaster of an encounter, there were contentious moments and more recourse to the video than a director making a movie, and on subsequent viewings it appeared Conway may have had his foot in touch when gathering a touch finder above his head in the 76th minute, with his team 13-19 down to Toulon bruisers, before slaloming to a match-winning try. No matter. ‘Twas some try to decide an epic game.
There was controlled fury in both Munster's attacking and defensive games, as there had to be. They managed to keep Toulon's offloading game relatively in check with their double tackling, with Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold immense in midfield, but only to a point.
We knew Toulon wouldn't be spooked by Thomond Park like Toulouse had been, and sure enough a starting XV containing only six Frenchmen started ominously, putting Munster tacklers on their behinds, offloading and going wide menacingly.
To trail by only 6-0 at the of the first quarter was a result. Munster were living on their wits and received little reward from their kicking game. But rugby matches can completely pivot on one moment, here more than anywhere seemingly, and the momentum shifted entirely after Conor Murray’s opportunist 28th minute try.
Jack O'Donoghue had a huge game, and thereafter, there was renewed intensity in the carrying of CJ Stander, David Kilcoyne, Jean Kleyn and company. Peter O'Mahony led from the front, and did some serious damage to the Toulon lineout, and while the French side defended the aerial bombardment wonderfully, a rejigged back three also featuring Alex Wootton and Darren Sweetnam (following Simon Zebo's early departure) had their moments.
Munster had an early scare when Toulon countered a well-contested Murray Garryowen with a clever kick into an unguarded home in-goal area by Eric Escande. Simon Zebo did superbly to cover across and contest the high bouncing ball with the chasing Chris Ashton, whose theatrics suggested Zebo had deliberately palmed the ball dead.
"His hand goes up for the ball and he looks like he's underneath the ball," said Owens after recourse to the video replay. "I can't see a deliberate 'knock-out' and a defensive scrum."
Stephen Archer lost his footing at the scrum, and Toulon tapped the penalty into the corner, but Peter O'Mahony was hauled into the air and beat Juandre Kruger to Guilhem Guirado's throw for Murray to find touch on the 22. Cue another scare, as Ma'a Nonu's skip pass took out Zebo and found Josua Tuisova, who was denied a try by Conway's resolute tackle by the corner flag in his first action since January.
Munster were living dangerously, and a third Toulon lineout in the Munster 22 inside the first five minutes followed. An opening three pointer by Anthony Belleau, a supposedly late change in the starting line-up for Francois Trinh-Duc, after O'Donoghue was pinged for not releasing, felt almost like a result as well as a relief.
Munster had their first ‘in’ into the game when Rory Scannell trapped Escande to earn a penalty for not releasing. Keatley went up the line, Munster’s maul rumbled, Scanell retrieved a dropped ball, and CJ Stander made a second big carry before he was tackled into touch close to the blindside corner flag by Fecunda Isa.
There was real intensity again to Munster’s next attack, Ashton turning and beating Conway to the touchdown from Zebo’s superbly measured grubber.
Soon though, after Kilcoyne was pinged for not rolling away, it was all hands to the pump again. O'Mahony chopped Mathieu Bastareaud, and Arnold doubled up with a ball and all tackle, before Toulon settled for a drop goal through Belleau.
Zebo hadn’t looked right from the start, and after several on-field examinations, hobbled after 25 minutes while pulling his shirt up to his face to cover the tears in a sad European farewell to Thomond Park. Darren Sweetnam came on, with Conway shifting to fullback.
Whereupon Arnold lifted the next siege with a massive tackle on Bastareaud for Murray to hack up field, and O’Donoghue breathed further life into home ranks with a leg-pumping gallop up the middle. Keatley’s wicked grubber in behind (clearly a pre-ordained tactic) led to Escande just denying Conway a try before Murray claimed both a Toulon knock-on at the base and a valid, and quick-witted touchdown.
Owens and his Welsh TMO, Jon Mason, after inordinately lengthy recourse to video replays, adjudged that Guirado knocked on and that Murray was onside before coming around to pick up the ball and touchdown in one movement. Cue a huge roar and Keatley's conversion even edged Munster in front.
It was a huge mood changer, and you wondered how much Murray’s sheer stature in the game - Owens referred to him by his full name when asking the questions - influenced matters, and also the crowd.
From Keatley’s crossfield bomb, Conway and Sweetnam chased hard, the latter rising to claim the ball on the bounce after Ashton missed it, before Sweetnam was tackled by Semi Radradra. Keatley’s well-struck penalty made it 10-6.
Now playing with the wind, on the resumption Keatley was wide with a drop goal from around 37 metres. But there was renewed vigour in Munster’s carrying and clearing out, although Owens wrongly called a knock on by Sweetnam when clearly he palmed the ball backwards when beating Radradra which led to Wootton being put over on the far side.
Keatley turned the screw with an O'Garaesque touchfinder and the Munster 'Think Tank' were rewarded for changing their front-row en bloc quite early when John Ryan and co drove the Toulon front-row up and back. The roar which greeted the resulting penalty was akin to that of a try.
But one missed tackle and offload by Attwood was enough to stretch Munster, for Nonu to find the ever-dangerous Fijian, rugby league recruit Radradra in space but the winger lost the ball in reaching out for the line after Wootton’s despairing, full-on, last-ditch tackle.
Compensation for the visitors came by way of a penalty by Francois Trinh-Duc, who had replaced Belleau, when Munster pulled down a Toulon maul.
The momentum had shifted again. Toulon kept looking for offloads, and Munster kept making their tackles; Scannell forcing a spillage from Radradra. But then Trinh-Duc freed his hands in the tackle for Bastareuad to steam onto the ball, with Ashton running a trademark trailer to score. Trinh-Duc’s offload looked forward, if fractionally so. The crowd certainly thought so, but after going to the video, Owens decreed: “It’s got to be clear and obvious. The pass was flat. The try is good.”
Conway was then left isolated after fielding a kick, and pinged for not releasing, for Trinh-Duc to suddenly make it 19-13 for Toulon.
In their moment of need, Murray again delivered, brilliantly spoiling a Toulon scrum to kick on and claim the ball. Munster went to the corner, their maul rumbled, and Niall Scannell appeared adamant he'd scored despite Bastareaud just managing to get underneath him.
From a five metre scrum Munster went through the phases, but went wide without having the numbers, and Wootton couldn’t hold on to Keatley’s high pass.
Their Easter goose looked cooked, and when Trinh-Duc kicked for touch there seemed nothing on when Conway caught the ball, akin to a fielder preventing a six, above his head. He ran it back, veered infield and sped through an inviting gap between the sluggish Trinh-Duc and Raphael Lakafia, then veered infield and had the footwork to beat Fekitoa on his inside and dived triumphantly closer to the posts. Keatley inched Munster ahead by a point.
It still required one last, nerve-jangling 20-phase bout of defiance as Toulon inched on remorselessly into overtime, before a turnover penalty was forced. Almost everyone stayed on for the lap of honour too, and for one last rendition of Stand Up and Fight. Rarely has it seemed 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)