Gerry Thornley: Munster stare into the abyss and find their true character
Comeback victory in Clermont up there with the province’s greatest days in their storied history
In the movie Wall Street, Charlie Sheen’s character Bud Fox comes into his office one morning where, unbeknown to him, he is about to be arrested for insider trading. Bud’s world is about to collapse around him.
His wise and older work colleague Lou Mannheim, played by the brilliant Hal Holbrook, puts his arm around Bud’s shoulder and brings him aside.
“Bud . . . Bud, I like you. Just remember something. Man looks in the abyss. There’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”
Munster were staring into the abyss after 25 minutes on Saturday evening in the Stade Marcel-Michelin. Trailing 28-9, their prospects of keeping their Heineken Champions Cup aspirations alive looked remote.
Had things ended like that, Munster would now be trailing the top four in Pool B by six points. Instead they stand fourth, two points ahead of Clermont. They’ll still have to beat Clermont at home and Harlequins away to reach the quarter-finals, but they’re alive.
Of course, their character has rarely been in doubt. Their body language was never that of a team resigned to a losing fate. Critically, their belief – emanating from their work in the video rooms and training ground – was fuelled by Mike Haley’s 29th minute try.
This was the first of several sweetly-executed launch plays off lineouts and scrums which they had kept under wraps for the occasion.
Animation and decoy runners everywhere, this blur of high speed red bamboozled les jaunards
From Peter O’Mahony’s take, rather than go through with the maul set-up, the ball was transferred via CJ Stander to Rhys Marshall, haring around the tail. He fed Damian de Allende but with Clermont expecting a straight charge by the Springboks’ centre, he turned and passed to Liam Coombes on the wrap, all designed to target Camille Lopez, whose tackle Coombes burst through and with both de Allende and Chris Farrell clearing out, this also took out Fritz Lee and George Moala.
Off the recycle, Stander then shaped onto the pass from Conor Murray, and his decoy run took out Etienne Fourcade and Judiceal Cancoriet. Instead the ball went behind Stander to O’Mahony, who ran a hard diagonal line which drew in Jean-Pascal Barraque before he slipped the ball to Mike Haley. Just before he received O’Mahony’s pass, Haley turned out past Barraque to finish sharply. Animation and decoy runners everywhere, this blur of high speed red bamboozled les jaunards.
There were other launch plays to demonstrate Stephen Larkham’s influence, often using Stander as a distributor, which might have had more reward but did lead to three-pointers by JJ Hanrahan.
His nine from nine was up there with O’Mahony’s leadership and the performances of Tadhg Beirne and Stander. He provided one of the game’s abiding images when choke-tackling Clermont replacement hooker Adrien Pélissié and smiled broadly, in the knowledge that a turnover scrum was coming Munster’s way.
Munster also problem-solved both on the pitch and during the interval, dealing better with Lopez’s hanging restarts and the Clermont scrum
It was significant too, leading to the scrum penalty which Stander, having taken over the captaincy, had Hanrahan kick to the corner for the second cleverly worked catch-transfer-drive which sealed the deal.
CJ appears to have decided that if this is to be his last season as a pro player, he’s going to enjoy it as much as possible.
Munster also problem-solved both on the pitch and during the interval, dealing better with Lopez’s hanging restarts and the Clermont scrum. Josh Wycherley survived being driven into the air by Rabah Slimani to turn the tide and not only outlast him but have the measure of Sipili Falatea in a bravura 76-minute Euro debut.
This was another example of the worth in bringing the former English coaching ticket over en bloc. They are vastly experienced, none more so than Graham Rowntree. During the Lions 2017: Uncovered video at half-time in the third Test you see Rowntree showing Tadhg Furlong a scrum on a computer screen and telling him: “Extend that shoulder through.” Whatever he said in the away dressing-room at the Marcel-Michelin, Rowntree earned his corn.
This was the first time an Irish club has won at Marcel-Michelin since Leinster in the 2002/03 season. Since then Clermont had beaten Munster and Ulster three times apiece and Leinster twice.
Of course Stade Marcel-Michelin was without the Yellow Army as well as the Red Army, and perhaps the excellent Matthew Carley might not otherwise have been so composed as both the tally of penalties (17-10) and yellow cards (2-1) went in Munster’s favourite.
In the first 20 matches this season there have been 11 away wins, compared to five, seven, six and six again after the 20 matches in the last four seasons.
Munster have written another entry into their top ten greatest days in their storied Heineken Cup history
But Munster were worthy winners, also having more territory, possession, line breaks and even as many offloads (11 each) as Clermont.
The most contentious issue of the weekend was Tom Wood’s clear-out at the RDS when catching Josh van der Flier in the face/head. On Channel 4, Eoin Reddan argued that it was a red card offence, whereas Alan Quinlan maintained otherwise. On BT Sport, Brian O’Driscoll said it was a rugby incident and, on review, that there was mitigation.
O’Driscoll physically demonstrated the difficulties facing players in Wood’s position with little or no target, and that otherwise players will have to watch rather than clear away an opponent in the jackal.
Maybe so, for most probably the solution, as Lawrence Dallaglio suggested, is to remove that mitigation, and no less than in the tackle, if a player catches an opponent in the head it’s a straight red card.
Alas too, on foot of four cancellations, the onset of stricter restrictions looms in January. But whatever happens, Munster have written another entry into their top ten greatest days in their storied Heineken Cup history. And, for the time being too, once again went a long way toward saving the tournament as well as themselves.