Struggling Munster show true grit to overcome Stade

Stade Francais suffer provencial backlash as Foley’s side restore some badly needed pride

Not complete redemption for a distinctly flawed European campaign, all the more so by Munster's own exacting standards, but at least Anthony Foley's side restored something from this season's Champions Cup foray.

If nothing else, this Munster team restored their pride, and their sense of being, particularly in Thomond Park.

Anything less would have left their reputation in tatters. While Foley and his players had talked of the need to restore some pride in the fabled jersey, significantly his counterpart Gonzalo Quesada had spoken of the need to keep a lid on their celebrations last week and to prepare with humility given the inevitable Munster backlash.

Just as significantly therefore, Munster didn’t disappoint Quesada and Stade. The French champions lost for the third time in three visits here, and the sheer energy and intensity of Munster’s performance seemed to spook Stade a tad. They had qualification to play for, picked a strong team, had an early lead, a superior scrum, and were up for it physically, yet were well beaten by a Munster team who hunted in packs, mauled superbly and if guilty of playing in their own half were rewarded with two fine long-range tries.

In the 12 consecutive campaigns from 1998-1999 in which Munster reached the knockout stages, they only lost once at home, and that was after they had already qualified. But in the last two seasons, it’s been home defeats to Clermont and Leicester which effectively cost them any chance of a place in the last eight.

Thomond Park has lost some of its lustre in recent years, but at least this ensured something of the old mystique has survived. After everything that had happened this season, it was an important statement win.

“Yes,” agreed Foley. “It’s in our DNA in and around here to make sure that the jersey is the most important thing and we represent it. I thought the boys today played with a lot of ferocity out there, and they had to.”

He cited the full Euro debut of Uruguayan prop Mario Sagario and John Ryan’s effort off the bench in stemming Stade’s scrum despite the absence of Stephen Archer and BJ Botha, who he accepted had probably played his last game for Munster after five distinguished seasons with them.

First start

“When you start with that, with the effort and what it means for them to play in the jersey, other fellas who have worn it on more occasions kind of buy into it, and everything gets a lift. Even Liam [O’Connor] got three or four minutes at the end, and I think everyone gets a lift when they see a young Munsterman coming out onto the pitch and getting his first start.”

The swathes of empty seats again highlights how the Red Army is waning in numbers, but even if the actual attendance was probably around 4,000 less than the official one of 18,884, that still compares favourably with their capital city neighbours and rivals. Indeed, it was the second biggest attendance of the seven games on Saturday. Given the less spectator-friendly 1pm kick-off time, it probably re-affirms the claim from CEO Garrett Fitzgerald that Munster’s core support is around the 15,000 mark.

Furthermore, those that remembered the good old days in these more difficult times and came out to support Munster at such a low ebb in their season, and in their history, did so with fervour. The old umbilical link.

At a key juncture in the first half, it was Julien Dupuy’s error which conceded a five metre scrum, whereupon Morné Steyn curiously opted for a blindside pass to winger Waisea Vuidravuwalu. It was also forward, which led to the indirect scrum penalty and lineout drive from which Mike Sherry scored his fourth try of the season. Nothing gets the Munster juices flowing quite like a close-range try by the pack.

There followed opportunist tries either side of the break by Keith Earls, standing up Pascal Papé on half-way like a mannequin to leave the scramble defence to chase him home, and Simon Zebo, superbly latching onto a delicious chip by Ian Keatley, a move entirely concocted off the cuff by the two of them.

Overthrow

Ronan O'Mahony was binned and then Jonathan Ross was given a soft try from Sherry's overthrow, but in each instance Munster responded with character; Stander leading the way with a typically all-action effort and the game-clinching, bonus-point try.

“Ah, he’s a great man. He’s a great man, and the player comes out of that,” enthused Foley.

Reflecting on O’Mahony’s yellow card, Stander said: “When we saw that card everyone had to switch on, had to double job, had to cover someone on the pitch; everyone just stepped up. I didn’t even have to talk to them to get that from the players. That was the difference in the second half.

“The thing is, I know what the boys are capable of and they pushed me,” he added. “People talked about there is no leadership but the boys rallied around me and they pushed me.

“It’s good to get a result as a captain because I know what the boys can do and I know their ability. We are a good team and there is a lot of leaders in this group and they all rallied around me and it was good to get a win as a captain.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times