Munster 31 Cardiff Blues 27
On the ground which became his home like no other, and where he made countless tackles and carries, and scored innumerable tries and earned man-of-the-match awards, the retiring CJ Stander bade a winning farewell to Thomond Park. He even did so with a successful, if contentious, captain’s challenge in the final play of a see-sawing game.
Tommy O'Donnell and James Cronin played their part too, even if the former's farewell lasted only 45 minutes, and the bonus-point win very much keeps their hopes of silverware alive.
In a contest between sharply contrasting styles, every time Cardiff went to their well-coached, classy backs, they looked dangerous, and every time Munster went to the corner and their forwards, so did they.
Cardiff played much the smarter, more inventive rugby for the first 25 minutes and in truth a 10-0 lead was scant reward for their supremacy. Whereupon, with Stander leading the way, Munster upped their line speed and intensity in contact, and competed fiercely at the breakdown, The other stalwarts making their Thomond Park farewell, Cronin and O’Donnell, won key penalties.
Munster went back to their other tried and trusted, their maul, and located Cardiff’s soft underbelly to score three tries in rapid succession for a 21-10 interval lead.
Back came Cardiff to draw the sides level entering the final quarter, before Munster resorted to route one and critically secured a bonus-point try and ultimately a nervy win.
Cardiff had been quicker out of the blocks and quick to expose frailties in the Munster defence. Finding space on the edge, they left one try behind before Willis Halaholo picked a lovely outside-in line off Jarrod Evans's nicely delayed pass to break between Fineen Wycherley and Damien de Allende and Tomos Williams was in support for a good third-minute finish which Evans converted.
Cardiff would have had another try but for Andrew Conway’s tackle on Hallam Amos and instead settled for a 10-0 lead courtesy of Evans’s penalty, which their start deserved.
The Blues continued to play with more invention whereas Munster seemed to spend the first 25 minutes in a torpor, epitomised by Conway and Craig Casey kicking out on the full after uninspiring attacks.
Finally, Munster’s defence got them into the game as they upped their line speed.
Stander brought some oomph to their tackling and fully 26 minutes in, James Cronin’s strength over the ball earned a penalty on halfway which finally awoke them from their slumber. This was backed up by Casey twisting Tomos Williams in the tackle and some counter-rucking to earn a penalty into the corner.
Cue a well worked lineout maul for Niall Scannell to score. Within four minutes, Tommy O'Donnell's strength over the ball enabled them to go toward the corner again.
This time, after De Allende trucked it up strongly, Wycherley scored off the recycle with relative ease. Within another four minutes, after Conway chased Casey’s box kick, Mike Haley’s grubber and chase earned another attacking lineout from which Scannell peeled off another maul to score his second.
Joey Carbery nailed all three conversions from the right to give Munster a 21-10 interval lead at the end of a slightly bizarre first half.
Cardiff drew energy from resisting another Munster maul on the resumption and, with the promising Ben Thomas acting as a second playmaker, Seb Davies took a lovely line for Amos to put the supporting Tomos Williams over for his second try.
After a Carbery penalty, Andrew Brace's decision to yellow-card for a high hit on Amos after he had been tackled by Conway looked a fair call. Cardiff's maul was repelled, but they kept the ball alive and after it went to ground their stalwart, Josh Turnbull, broke and put Lloyd Williams over for Evans to draw the sides level with the conversion.
One Munster attack having ended with Gavin Coombes going off his feet, when Jeremy Loughman did so after Munster failed to execute from their own half, Evans kicked Cardiff in front.
Munster needed something badly, and Coombes provided it with a key turnover, Carbery releasing Peter O’Mahony for a gallop, and Stander, Coombes twice and Kenyan Knox made strong carries before Knox was driven over by Jack O’Sullivan and Coombes.
Even then, Munster had to withstand a Cardiff maul and a 23-phase attack deep into overtime before a third captain’s challenge in the endgame, and a second by Stander, led to Lloyd Williams being pinged for nudging the ball back into the ruck.
The captain’s challenge may have been worth trialling. It’s definitely worth scrapping.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: T Williams try, Evans con 0-7; 19: Evans pen 0-10; 30: N Scannell try, Carbery con 7-10; 34: Wycherley try, Carbery con 14-10; 38: N Scannell try, Carbery con 21-10; 46: T Williams try, Evans con 21-17; 51: Carbery pen 24-17; 57: L Williams try, Evans con 24-24; 70: Evans pen 24-27; 76: Knox try, Carbery con 31-27.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Damian de Allende, Rory Scannell, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; James Cronin, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O'Donoghue, Tommy O'Donnell, CJ Stander (capt).
Replacements: Jack O'Sullivan for O'Donnell (45 mins), Peter O'Mahony for O'Donoghue (52), Gavin Coombes for Kleyn (61), Jeremy Loughman for Cronin, Keynan Knox for Archer (both 64), Diarmuid Barron for N Scannell (70), Nick McCarthy for Casey (77). Not used: Jack Crowley.
Sinbinned: Haley (54-64 mins).
CARDIFF BLUES: Hallam Amos; Jason Harries, Willis Halaholo, Ben Thomas, Josh Adams; Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Corey Domachowski, Kristian Dacey, Dillon Lewis; Seb Davies, Cory Hill; Josh Turnbull (capt), James Botham, James Ratti.
Replacements: Olly Robinson for Ratti (half-time), Lloyd Williams for T Williams (52), Matthew Morgan for Amos (55), Liam Belcher for Dacey, Rhys Carré for Domachowski, Dmitri Arhip for Lewis (all 63), Rory Thornton for Davies (76). Not used: Harri Millard, Matthew Morgan.
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU).