Thomond echoes with memory but little more as Munster fall
Leicester make unmistakeable statement with Champions Cup win at one-time fortress
A dejected Tomas O’Leary after the final whistle as Munster suffer a frustrating defeat at the hands of Leicester Tigers Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Confirmation of an unmistakable trend. Leicester, lacking the power of a Saracens pack or the razor slicing London Wasps backline, became the third successive English club to leave these shores with a comprehensive Champions Cup victory.
The most heartening occurrence on this cold, harsh night was when The Fields of Athenry briefly reverberating around this once impenetrable stadium. That those words are still sung during this downturn remains a hugely significant act of defiance.
Once a rebellious, rousing call to arms there is more lament in that wonderful chorus now.
Despite dwindling numbers at Thomond Park, Munster can be lauded for energy and determination but they were sorely devoid of the accuracy and ruthlessness essential to see off English invaders.
Both these traits, on which the conquering European eras of Foley the player and then Paul O’Connell were built, are conspicuous by their absence in the deep winter of 2015.
Much of the criticism can be laid at Keatley’s feet. The opening 40 minutes was not a time to blink but he most obviously did. Munster started the better and certainly rode their luck when Leicester twice burst into their 22. BJ Botha showed his continued value, despite ageing 35 year old limbs, with a massive turnover near the Munster line. Dave O’Callaghan performed similar heroics; Dave Foley and Andrew Conway made try-saving tackles.
This all met the standard expected to survive, not thrive, in European rugby. That’s all the provinces are doing now. Surviving against superior foreign forces.
They did go out to attack the club that in 2007 broke the marvellously undefeated European run in Limerick. CJ Stander carries were equalled by Robin Copeland, James Cronin and the almost electric Simon Zebo.
But, not unlike their visitors, they were unburdened of possession when a killer instinct was needed in the scoring zone.
Still, the energy levels on display gave temporary voice to the 22,261 crowd (official attendance). Way before half-time, however, all we heard were Leicester roars.
Keatley made two errors in this period that proved so, so costly. His nicely hanging restart, after Owen Williams made it 6-6 on 28 minutes, yielded a kickable penalty when the chasing Andrew Conway was blocked by Matt Smith.
Keatley missed the target.
“You’ve an international outhalf, you want to be getting them, particularly the one in front of the posts,” said Foley of his outhalf’s poor kicking return. “Definitely want to be getting them.”
Moments later Leicester had raced almost out of sight.
Interestingly Foley felt a key decision by Poite damaged them the most.
“To penalise James Cronin for being pushed by Dan Cole into another player, who then shoulder charged Andrew Conway, and that ended up with the penalty that ultimately ended up with the maul that led to the try.
“It’s nothing short of a disgrace. (The officials) had a look at the TV and they couldn’t see it. If you are going to look at a picture look at the whole picture.
“I’m just baffled by it. I’m just baffled by it. I said it to (Romain Poite) at half-time. That’s a massive decision. He just needs to be accountable for it. It was a massive turning point in the game.”
It was typically direct play from their pack, mauling within an inch of the try line before Ben Youngs’s lovely looping pass found Vereniki Goneva on the left wing. The Fijian breezed past Keatley to score in the corner.
Williams’s conversion hit the post and his clever chip a moment later just evaded Goneva’s grasp. But more inaccuracy under pressure killed Munster as Niall Scannell’s badly botched defensive lineout gifted Leicester lock Michael Fitzgerald a simple try.
An easy try at Thomond Park on a European night. Who ever thought they’d see the like?
Leicester led 18-6 at half-time.
“The next five minutes are massive,” said the visiting Donncha O’Callaghan when interviewed pitchside during the break. “The players really look to you,” he almost pleaded to the faithful. “They need you now.”
Keatley did show some nerve with a neat kick to the corner. But the calamitous try that followed was fortuitous to say the least.
Dave Foley knocked on from Tom Youngs’s throw and despite a retrieving Leicester hand placing the ball on the try line – so it should have been a Munster five-metre scrum – Poite awarded the five points when Murray leaped over the ruck to pad the ball before Ben Youngs could clear.
Keatley missed the touchline conversion.
No matter, Munster tails were up. Cronin was superb, seeking conflict in a constructive manner to offset the loss of Botha before half-time, and the tide had most certainly turned when Marcos Ayerza was yellow carded for a late hit on Murray.
Keatley’s resulting penalty reduced arrears to 18-14.
Suddenly we were in familiar confines; a resilient, unrepentant Munster stood up to fight.
When Leicester muscled back towards their 22, Copeland and Cronin forced a turnover. Dan Cole was pushed back towards other retreating green jerseys.
But Keatley missed touch so Leicester could come again. Not a night for basic inaccuracy. A night for the small victories that never game.
Munster were severely punished for failing to escape their territory.
On 53 minutes, mere seconds before Ayerza’s return ended the numerical advantage, a retreating Keith Earls was swallowed whole by Cole and the Leicester backrow.
Ben Youngs went on an arching run to avoid Copeland’s despairing clutches. The English scrumhalf raced away and under the posts.
There were plenty more confidence-sapping moments but the Leicester scrum penalty just as Dave Kilcoyne and Mark Chisholm were added to the pack must have rattled the already embattled Munster coaches.
Nothing worked cleanly. On a now rare sortie into the Tigers’ 22 Poite signalled for a defensive penalty when Mike Sherry and Chisholm illegally broke off the driving maul.
Energy and determination was eventually rewarded by the class of Earls. The winger’s dancing feet got the forwards close enough for Sherry to bludgeon a path to the line.
Keatley missed the conversion.
Any hope of a bonus point disappeared within seconds, Stander penalised for holding on to allow Thomas Bell to make it 28-19 and 31-19 soon after.
That gives Munster hope ahead of Welford Road next Sunday.
Scoring sequence – 1 min: O Williams pen 3-0; 13 mins: I Keatley pen, 3-3; 18 mins: I Keatley pen, 3-6; 28 mins: O Williams pen, 6-6; 32 mins: V Goneva try, 11-6; 37 mins: M Fitzgerald try, 16-6; O Williams con, 18-6. Half-time. 41 mins: C Murray try, 18-11; 45 mins: I Keatley pen, 18-14; 53 mins: B Youngs try, 23-14; O Williams con, 25-14; 66 mins: M Sherry try, 25-19; 69 mins: T Bell pen, 28-19; 75 mins: T Bell pen, 31-19.
Replacements: J Ryan for BJ Botha (39 mins), M Sherry for N Scannell (51 mins), D Kilcoyne for J Cronin, M Chisholm for D Foley (both 54 mins), LG Amorosino for D Hurley (63 mins), T O’Leary for C Murray (68 mins), J O’Donoghue for D O’Callaghan (71 mins), R Scannell for I Keatley (73 mins)
Replacements: T Bell for O Williams (58 mins), L Pearce for E Slater, S Harrison for B Youngs (both 68 mins), D Barrow for M Fitzgerald (71 mins), F Balmain for D Cole (73 mins), H Thacker for T Youngs (77 mins), G Camacho for A Thompstone (79 mins)
Referee: Romain Poite (France).