Ulster’s win is all that sustains faltering Irish charge
Munster endure another exercise in frustration as Tigers claw way to victory
The pivotal moment in the Pool 4 Champions Cup clash at Welford Road as Munster’s Francis Saili sprints for the line. Leicester somehow managed to stop him and the supporting Simon Zebo and went on to win 17-6. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.
For the second weekend running Ulster salvaged Ireland’s weekend in the European Champions Cup, as they backed up their bonus point win over Toulouse with a 25-23 win away to the French outfit. Alas for Munster there was just more of the same in an acutely frustrating 17-6 defeat to Leicester as for the second game running the Tigers’ sharper claws left Anthony Foley’s men without even a bonus point for all their considerable efforts and ambition.
As with Leinster they are down, if not quite out in their case. But their re-arranged game away to Stade Francais now assumes the status of a must win game away to the reigning French champions.
“What have we, three games left? The Stade away game now becomes, in this competition, massively important,” admitted Foley. “It is [a must-win] yea. It is. We have to go over there and do a job. It’s a hard place to go. They’re French champions and they’ve done well over the last fortnight as well, picking up the maximum in both fixtures [against Treviso].”
“It’s going to be tough. We have to dig in. We have to create an understanding around the little finer points of it. Possession is everything. Maintaining possession and maintaining pressure is everything in this game, and when we give those momentum swings away like we did, away from home, it does not bode well for the result.”
That Munster played some of their best rugby of the season without any reward only made the coach’s sense of frustration all the more acute.
“It undoes a lot of the good work,” said Foley, who singled out the frontrow of James Cronin, Mike Sherry and John Ryan. “I thought there was a lot of outstanding performances out there but if you don’t score it’s very hard to win a game.”
With this being their fourth successive defeat in both competitions, before Christmas derbies at home to Leinster and away to Ulster and before three European games on the trot, Munster need a huge turnaround. And quickly.
Acknowledging that this was a tough period in their season, Foley said: “We all want to be winning. It’s not going to get any easier. We’ve Leinster next week, Ulster the following week after they had a great win in Toulouse. Then we’ve Stade back to back and Treviso away, so a tough couple of weeks for the boys and the coaching staff. It will turn and if the boys keep playing the way they’re playing and just finish it off I think they’ll be a hard team to beat.”
By dint of completing a superb double over four-time winners Toulouse, Ulster have given themselves a shot at reaching the last eight – albeit most probably as runners-up to the group’s runaway leaders Saracens and thus an away quarter-final.
Benefitting from another Man of the Match performance from Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson’s ran superbly and utilised the potency of Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall and Andrew Trimble; the latter two scoring two fine second-half tries as Ulster’s defence and togetherness withheld a much-improved Toulouse
Up front, loosehead Kyle McCall –their find of the season – was credited with an astonishing 21 tackles and South African Franco van der Merwe, who was credited with 17, had a big game, as did Robbie Diack and, of course, their warrior captain Rory Best.
“We knew it was going to be a very tough place to come and win – and that proved to be the case,” said Best. “But the way the boys fought back against their momentum with our defence and our willingness to get back into the line was great. I can’t ask for more as a captain.
By contrast, Leinster are left to reflect on four defeats out of four and elimination at the group stages for only the third time in 11 years after surrendering a 16-5 lead in Saturday’s 20-16 loss against Toulon at the Aviva Stadium, a fourth successive game without scoring a single point in the second half.
“We’ve just got to take the positives out of those and fully focus one week at a time on the Pro12,” said their captain Isa Nacewa. “We’re still here to chase trophies and that’s going to be our goal from Monday.”
Looking at the shift in power to the big-money Anglo-French axis, Nacewa said: “Look, the landscape is changing every year. I don’t really think about it too much, to be honest. We’re here to focus on winning each week, there are so many things out of our control that are not worth thinking about.”
The IRFU should be thinking about it though.