Zebo strikes thrice as Munster successfully enter bonus territory
Munster 29 Racing Metro 6:Never in doubt, as Rob Penney noted dryly afterwards. And save for a palpably edgy first 20 minutes, in truth there wasn’t much doubt about Munster reaching their target of a four-try win, even achieving that minimum requirement with something to spare against opponents reduced to 14 men for 75 minutes.
Thus, by the standards of these drama kings, the scoreless last quarter almost constituted an anti-climax, and the players had to return to the pitch to spark something resembling celebrations; a clearly thrilled Donncha O’Callaghan leading the way.
Most of a 25,600 crowd had left their seats by then, and given Munster had secured a 14th quarter-final in 15 seasons, perhaps the Red Army have become a little blasé. More likely they were just too cold to hang around any longer.
Circumstances having fallen their way, Munster kicked off knowing that a win with four tries would ensure their progress barring a Toulouse defeat with two bonus points. Opposing them were a Racing side who had made 14 changes from defeat at home to Saracens.
They still had a place in the Amlin quarter-finals to, eh, motivate them, but one ventures their trek to Bordeaux next Friday is of much greater concern. They were further debilitated by the sending-off, after five minutes of flanker Antoine Batut. According to Wayne Barnes, Batut dropped his knee on Tommy O’Donnell.
That O’Donnell, having just enacted one of Munster’s choke tackles for a turnover, should be at the forefront – albeit somewhat unintentionally – of one of the game’s pivotal moments was fitting. For the second week running, this late developing, all-action 25-year-old Tipperary openside. O’Donnell made more metres than anyone – one rampaging burst of 50 metres being the standout – and no Munster man made more tackles. On any other day, he or the excellent Peter O’Mahony would probably have won the Man of the Match award, but this was Simon Zebo’s day. Not so such a case of lightening striking twice – even though he moves like greased lightening – more a case of Zebo striking thrice. In 11 Heineken Cup games the ever-improving 22-year-old has now scored eight tries, and 20 in just 45 games for his province.
That he is a crowd favourite was emphasised by the crowd serenading him with chants of ‘Zee-bo’ after his second try in the 48th minute secured the bonus point, before finally feeling confident enough for a rendition of The Fields moments later. Signing him to that three-year deal looks an even smarter piece of business now.
The cheery atmosphere by then was in sharp contrast to a first quarter when you could almost reach out and bite the ice-cold, breezy air. Munster were winning plenty of possession and were mostly on the front foot, and trailing 3-0 was immaterial, but it was as if Batut’s sending-off only heightened the collective mood that Munster should have been scoring tries immediately.
After one phase of shifting the ball laterally and statically across the line from right to left, with no decoy or straight runners, the crowd could scarcely conceal their frustration. In fairness to the Racing boys, they continued to keep bringing carriers in red to the ground, none more than outside centre Alexandre Dumouli, who made 19 tackles.
But gradually they began to find a real balance to their game, the forwards making traditional in-roads for the backs to penetrate out wide off go-forward ball. Their work-rate, especially at the breakdown, was huge again, at least there was clarity in what was required of them, and unlike last week three-pointers were eschewed as they went to the corner.
Of considerable comfort too was their line-out, which operated slickly all game, and the mood lightened considerably once Munster manoeuvred their maul into overdrive from a penalty to the corner and Conor Murray, whose good form and increasing influence has been one of Muster’s rays of light this season, ripped the ball from Mike Sherry and barged over the line.
Thomond heaved a collective sigh of relief and with one bound Munster were more or less free. Within four minutes James Coughlan, Murray, Keatley and Earls went blind off a scrum, and when Murray passed infield soft, quick hands by Sherry released David Kilcoyne for one of his trademark surges up the middle, From quick ruck ball, the halves and Earls combined to put Zebo over in the corner.
If Joe Schmidt was inclined to take the dog for a walk then, he assuredly was when Munster grabbed their third try four minutes before the break.
Again they went to the corner from a penalty, and from another Donnacha Ryan take they steadied themselves calmly for the drive as first first O’Donnell and then O’Mahony helped drive Sherry over the line.
Earls even came close to scoring the fourth with the half’s last play with a pacey kick and chase, but some drama was at least kept for the second-half. Penney and Simon Mannix would have enjoyed the bonus point try as Felix Jones went some way to justifying his selection when fielding a restart to instigate a counter-attack. Keatley was the link, making good ground to release Zebo for a delicate grubber, catch and score.
Qualification secured, but Zebo wasn’t finished yet. Launching Murray infield off the tail of a line-out in one of their signature moves, the pack then made the hard yards before swift hands by Murray, Keatley, Jones and Earls enabled Zebo to finish in the corner for a classic try.
There ought to have been more, but instead the pedantic Barnes, briefly laid out in the first-half when Keatley inadvertently kicked the ball into his head, dominated the end game.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 13 mins: Germain pen 0-3; 25: Murray try, Keatley con 7-3; 29: Zebo try 12-3; 32: Germain pen 12-6; 36: Sherry try 17-6; (half-time 17-6); 48: Zebo try, Keatley con 24-6; 55: Zebo try 29-6.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett, K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha, D O’Callaghan, D Ryan, P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: C Laulala for Downey (49 mins), D Varley for Sherry (56 mins), JJ Hanrahan for Earls (63 mins), P Butler for O’Mahony (68 mins), J Ryan for Botha, B Holland for Ryan, D Williams for Murray (all 73 mins), W Du Preez for Kilcoyne (76 mins). Not used: du Preez, Williams Sin binned: Butler (80 mins).
RACING METRO 92: G Germain; J Jane, G Bousses, A Dumoulin, S Bobo; O Barkley, M Belie; J Brugnaut, B Noirot, B Salemane Sa, K Ghezal, F Metz, A Battut, B Le Roux, J Cronje. Replacements: S Descons for Belie (19 mins), J P Orlandi for Sa (33 mins), A Lo Cicero for Brugnaut (half-time), S Matadigo for le Roux (52 mins), T Bianchin for Noirot, S Dellape for Metz (both 56 mins), B Fall for Jane (62 mins), J Qovu Nailiko for Bousses (75 mins). Sent off: Batut (6 mins). Sin binned: Matadigo (77 mins). Attendance: 26,000 Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
Sent packing Four-time European champions Toulouse beaten by Leicester at snow-swept Welford Road
Leicester sent four-time European champions Toulouse skidding out of the Heineken Cup at a snow-swept Welford Road to book their place in this season’s quarter-finals.
The Tigers will be away to Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon in early April, where the weather should be considerably warmer than on an Arctic east midlands afternoon when Toulouse saw their hopes of a fifth European title plunged into cold storage. Outhalf Toby Flood was the Leicester matchwinner, making light of punishing conditions by kicking three penalties, while Toulouse marksmen Lionel Beauxis and Luke McAlister crucially missed five shots at goal between them. Flood, though, could have gone from hero to villain when he was sin-binned by referee George Clancy for a deliberate knock-on 12 minutes from time, but the Tigers held out by showcasing all their trademark resilience.
Toulouse wing Yann Huget scored the only try in a Pool Two encounter dominated by the incessant wintry weather.
It is the first time since 2007 that Toulouse have failed to progress from their group as Leicester thwarted them on the back of Flood’s goalkicking accuracy.
Flood’s yellow card meant frayed nerves, yet Leicester sealed the deal when Louis Deacon and Geoff Parling combined to steal a 78th-minute lineout on Toulouse’s throw and the Tigers could start their celebrations.