O'Mahony: Bigger Munster performance needed in semi-final
Captain praises province’s efforts in defeat of Toulon but admits they will have to improve
Munster’s Conor Murray protests before being awarded a try during the Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulon. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Another European offering of Munster making the extraordinary seem commonplace. Thomond Park again trembled with a familiar pride.
It would be far from truthful to say it had never happened before. Limerick again bore witness to a Munster team inflating beyond the dimensions of the sum of its parts.
As a red vapour trail of revelry streamed from the ground into a bright spring evening, it was in knowing their team had once more drawn down on traditional values.
Munster fans have always given more respect to what is carved from stone than studded with diamonds.
From Andrew Conway’s early flying tackle on Josua Tuisova to the suppression of the twin towers in the Toulon centre – Mathieu Bastareaud and Ma’a Nonu – the dog fight lasted until Nigel Owen blew his whistle for a final Munster penalty.
On the ground a prickly Toulon fullback Chris Ashton sat with his elbows on his knees. Shaking his head in disagreement he stared balefully up at the Welshman. Toulon with the ball in possession needed one score to win. They lacked what their coach Fabien Galthié later called Munster’s “spirit”. He might have added defiance, hunger, selflessness.
Munster coach Johann van Graan seemed other-worldly and emotionally consumed when he spoke afterwards, as though he witnessed an Easter epiphany.
“It’s about soaking the whole thing in,” he said. “I’m a big believer in the individual.
“Say thank you to my God,” he added raising his eyes.
Early in the match omens were not good for Munster and after 25 minutes Simon Zebo took his slow limping walk across the pitch, head down. The crowd chanted “Zebo, Zebo, Zebo.” By then he had picked himself from the turf three or four times, winced and laboured to return to play.
His exit then seemed like a bright light extinguished, his personal distress also that of the Munster team battling on their line, a serious under estimation.
While the fans love Zebo with his threatening flicks and brio, they adore Peter O’Mahony, Munster flesh and blood, Munster DNA. In the flanker is the embodiment of team ideals and Munster above most have perfected the notion of sacrifice.
“A lot of guys, certainly the centres, they wouldn’t have had a lot of time together. They have played some big games but not much bigger than that.”
Typically O’Mahony, the realist, refused to paint a picture that was anything but further trials ahead, the perilous voyage of discovery to France for the semi-final themed on Tomb Raider.
He deliberately left it hanging, hinted it may be even too great for Munster. Knowing their hunger for it was already brewing in the locker room.
“That was probably our best performance of the year, certainly defensively,” added the captain. “If we want to win the semi-final, it’s going to have to be a step up again.
“Guys have to understand that. It is not always easy to do. These performances take a huge amount. Not just physically, but emotionally.
“Guys have to have the ability to recover and play once, if not twice, over the next couple of weeks, then get themselves mentally, physically and emotionally ready for the next biggest game of their career.”
It was difficult to find one pivotal moment. There were so many, from Toulon winger Semi Radradra’s fumble forward inches from the Munster line to the prowling Conor Murray’s cheeky, intelligent try, his perfunctory dotting of the ball and questioning glance up towards a confused Owen, not fully knowing if it was a try or a card.
The silencing of Nonu and captain Bastareaud, the violent perfection of so many last-ditch tackles, two of them on Ashton in try-scoring positions. Then Conway’s gliding run and unzipping of the Toulon defence. A Hail Mary answered.
Few believed it had happened even as they watched the players erupt and Ian Keatley line up for the winning conversion.
When the natural grudge and the alley cat instincts of the home team bit, when Toulon realised their opponents would never step back, it was all over. Too late to do anything, they were treated to a Munster rendition of an old tune.
Afterwards the players filtered bruised and steaming into the interview room under the stand. The walls there are papered with dozens of Munster newspaper cuttings from previous matches.
One of them to the side read “Munster dig deep for quarter-final victory. Munster 19 Perpignan 10. April 1 2006.”
Toulon was not an epochal event. If Munster have shown anything over the years in Thomond Park, it is their magic of deceit.
Making the exceptional seem everyday.