Munster produce perfect end game to edge Perpignan

JJ Hanrahan’s late try snatches a dramatic win

Paul O’Connell celebrates after the final whistle. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Paul O’Connell celebrates after the final whistle. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho


Perpignan 17 Munster 18

This was the Rob Penney blueprint in full bloom. Munster have a new chapter in their folklore but it was achieved by modern means.

It felt awfully like another end game. Any talk of Irish rugby teams being unable to do what the All Blacks did at the Aviva Stadium last month should now be as muted as the Perpignan crowd.

A late try by Tommaso Benvenuti seemingly settled matters at the Stade Aimé Giral until Munster trusted their own skill levels. It was JJ Hanrahan who crossed for a stunning injury time try that banks nine points from back to back meetings with French opposition.

Hanrahan’s brilliant finish, side-stepping Perpignan fullback Joffrey Michel after Tommy O’Donnell’s offload sent him away, delivered individual redemption too. It was the Kerry outhalf’s late error at Murrayfield in October that contributed to Edinburgh’s victory in round one of the Heineken Cup.

But here, tonight, two late replacements combining to silence the hostile Catalans is an irony that should not be lost on anybody. It was uncanny how similar the end was to Dane Coles feeding Ryan Crotty for the try that broke every Irish heart last month at the Aviva stadium.

The oddness of the French. Abysmal on the road, ruthless and ultra-physical in their own garden.

“I’m just so proud of this young group,” said Penney. “The subs coming to the fore down that right hand channel. It was just beautiful to watch.

“Denis [Hurley] having the confidence to offload to Tommy and Tommy, who has been away [injured] and comes back and makes a definite impact with that offload to JJ, who shows sweet feet to leave the defender grasping at fresh air.

“The rest is history. It is just another layer of history, a special Munster moment which is just wonderful for this group.”

And for Penney the coach.

If not for the scrum – Munster’s chief weapon nowadays – the Thomond Park cake walk would have been flipped on its head here.

This being the Red Army’s first sortie into France since the retirement of Ronan O’Gara, the long shadow of the tournament’s most prolific point scorer loomed large this evening.

As Ian Keatley badly miscued the second of three eminently kickable penalties on the stroke of half-time, O’Gara’s retirement was more keenly felt than ever before. It’s a harsh but unavoidable fact of life; Keatley has enormous boots to fill and on this evidence the Dubliner has some way to go.

In such an unforgiving environment, locals in the far from packed 11,824 crowd certainly played their part, hissing and exaggerating so much as a hint of injustice. JP Doyle looks a decent, young referee but he seemed influenced by the crowd’s aggression and clever chiding of Perpignan captain Luke Narraway.

It needed all the authority Paul O’Connell could muster to turn the tight calls back Munster’s way, particularly when Peter O’Mahony was cooling his heals in the sin-bin following a scrap with Romain Terrain (Sofiane Guiltoune helped his hooker land a few digs).

Perpignan did their homework. They knew O’Mahony had the propensity to blow a gasket if assaulted. They knew he wouldn’t back down. They also liked the idea of taking him out of the equation.

As that fight heated up, on the other side of the pitch Samoan flanker Daniel Leo stamped on a Munster neck and threw at least one punch.

Doyle took an age to examine video evidence before producing two yellow cards, Terrain also walked, and cautioning Leo.

At that juncture it was 3-0 to Perpignan as Doyle had disallowed Sean Dougall’s fourth minute try after being convinced that James Downey blocked Narraway, denying the home captain a last ditch tackle.

Keatley did level matters after 15 minutes with a penalty from wide on the left but Tommy Allan had them back in front moments later.

Again, it seemed a like a harsh call to punish Felix Jones for a late tackle on Allan, after the Italian international had got around Damien Varley. Keatley kicked the restart stone dead.

Perpignan tails were most certainly up. Allan put them 9-3 ahead after 24 minutes when the returning Donnacha Ryan, again it looked harsh, done for entering a ruck illegally.

Keatley should have reduced arrears when O’Connell was obstructed in an attacking lineout but he missed. As did Allan after O’Mahony didn’t release in the tackle.

This was when O’Gara couldn’t but spring into thoughts of the travelling faithful. More so Keatley missing a second in front of the posts seems inexcusable at this level.

The Munster scrum takes the spotlight off him. They got a penalty try eight minutes into the second-half. Still, Doyle let it go to a eighth put-in, having awarded them three penalties and a free kick, before walking under the posts.

For something that seemed inevitable, it took an long time to happen. Keatley’s conversion put Munster 10-9 ahead.

Not that it’s a slight on O’Mahony’s leadership abilities but it looked pretty clear from the stand that O’Connell was calling the shots. They needed the Ireland captain’s experience in this hostile environment.

O’Mahony was in the thick of it throughout. Same can be said for the outstanding James Coughlan. In fact, the entire pack and James Downey were unrelenting in defence.

Still only 23, James Cronin grows in stature with each experience.

Perpignan really should have regained the lead near the hour mark but scrumhalf Nicolas Durand refused to settle for an easy three points, tapping and flinging the ball wide. The Munster line held. Perpignan got an attacking scrum after Downey knocked on but you can guess how that went.

Keatley’s punt got Munster 50 metres down field as Rob Penney launched Dave Kilcoyne and O’Donnell into the fray. Donncha O’Callaghan had already relieved Ryan. The pressure, however, didn’t relent as Damien Varley’s lineout was stolen.

Back came Perpignan and a penalty for not releasing saw Allan make it 12-10 with a fine strike from wide left.

Thing about being a place-kicker is there is always a chance for redemption. Sure enough, on 67 minutes, a rag-tag Perpignan maul offered Keatley such an opportunity. His technique delivered and Munster inched back in front.

As the clock ticked down Perpignan’s heavies came off the bench and went for the jugular. A long distance kick at goal was correctly spurned as their lineout maul gave Allan a shot in a similar position to his previous efforts.

He missed. Seven minutes remaining now.

The Benvenuti try will have the Munster coaches pulling their hair out. First Keith Earls was caught in possession on the left touchline. From the resulting scrum Perpignan did one loop around , throwing two forward passes that, again, Doyle badly missed. A concussed looking Earls was helped off the pitch as Allan missed the conversion.

Then came Munster’s impression of New Zealand or is it Canterbury? Not that Penney really cares about that talk anymore.

But it was far from perfect. Perpignan are a tough yet average team and Keatley hit the post with the last touchline conversion.

Still, this is victory for the new generation of Munster players to savour.

Scoring sequence – 6 mins: T Allan pen, 3-0; 15 mins: I Keatley pen, 3-3; 19 mins: T Allan pen, 6-3; 24 mins: T Allan pen, 9-3. Half-time. 48 mins: penalty try, 9-8; I Keatley conv, 9-10; 64 mins: T Allan pen, 12-10; 67 mins: I Keatley pen, 12-13; 77 mins: T Benvenuti try, 17-13; 80 mins: JJ Hanrahan try, 17-18.

J Michel; R Haughton, L Mafi, W Votu, S Guitone; T Allan, N Durand; S Taofifenua, R Terrain, P Ion; S Vahaamahina, G Vilaceca; D Leo, A Strokosch, L Narraway (capt). Replacements: T Benvenuti for R Haughton (18 mins), G Guirado for D Leo (20-23 mins) and R Terrain (49 mins), J-P Perez for D Leo (53 mins), J Purll for L Narraway, D Marty for L Mafi (both 67 mins).
MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Sheridan; J Cronin, D Varley, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony (capt), S Dougall, J Coughlan. Replacements: D O’Callaghan for D Ryan (52 mins), T O’Donnell for S Dougall, D Kilcoyne for J Cronin (both 61 mins), D Hurley for F Jones (71 mins), S Archer for BJ Botha (72 mins), JJ Hanrahan for K Earls (77 mins).
Referee: JP Doyle (England).