You can’t buy grit.
Well, you can. You can buy 25kg bags of grit on websites like this. But when it comes to the kind of grit, toughness, heart and character that wins you rugby games when you’re under massive pressure, let’s just say that they’re not things that a man with a van will drop off in your front yard.
Grit. Toughness. Heart. Character.
I really don’t like to talk about these things too much because they can’t really be quantified properly in words. I can’t put a GIF here that shows you exactly what any of those qualities really mean. Well, maybe this one of Peter O’Mahony making two tackles on two forwards in two seconds.
Or maybe it’s Arno Botha making two game-winning tackles inside two seconds to seal the game with one boot missing.
Like I said, moving images on a website don’t really do it justice.
When you start talking about playing for the shirt on your back, your 80-minute brothers (or full-time brothers in the Scannell’s case), your family and “the cause”, some people’s instinctive reaction is to roll their eyes. For me, that place – grit, toughness, heart, character – is where most of the fun in rugby is. You do the technical stuff during the week so you can go to war on Saturday with your brother (or sisters) for a cause bigger than yourself. The money is good, sure, but it’s better at Montpellier and Toulon. Where were they this weekend?
Munster didn’t show all that much with the ball in hand in this game, let’s be clear.
At times, we were so under the pump that the lads out on the pitch couldn’t see anything but pump. All the statistics in this game favour Edinburgh. More carries, more possession, more territory, more defenders beaten and more penalties.
Yet the most important statistic – the scoreboard – read Edinburgh 13 Munster 17.
Let’s be clear from the outset, Edinburgh are a serious team, especially at home where they have a fantastic record over the last few months. Richard Cockerill has built an excellent squad over the past two seasons and they’re only a few key parts away from ascending to an even higher level. They’ll be a serious threat to anyone for the duration of the PRO14 regardless of who they face between now and the deadline for knock-out qualification. We might end up playing them again this season and I’d expect that game to be as fiercely contested as this was.
Ultimately, this was a game that Munster won without the ball.
Don’t get me wrong, Munster’s tries were put away excellently (and I’ll get to those) but it was Munster’s defensive work that was the key factor in this game.
That isn’t to say that we didn’t have attacking ideas.
We went after Edinburgh’s tendency to have their mobile flankers paired together in midfield with this inside ball from O’Mahony to Ryan to catch the slower Edinburgh forwards coming across from the ruck.
When we saw Barclay and Watson clustered together, we hit the spot inside them.
Ryan was unlucky with his offload attempt to Murray but the intention was solid.
But if I thought anyone wanted to see 15 second long GIFs of defensive sets I’d throw them in here but that kind of thing is for the masochists over at TRK Premium.
A lot of it can be summed up in just how hard Edinburgh had to work for ground outside of what they were awarded via the lottery penalty vending machine that is Pascal Gauzere. Even when they had excellent field position, the Munster defence consistently stopped them on or over the gainline.
The biggest set happened inside the first 20 minutes. Beirne saw 10 minutes in the bin and Edinburgh were pressing hard on the Munster try-line. A forward down, under massive pressure and Jack O’Donoghue somehow managed to come up with a mighty breakdown turnover under the shadow of his own posts.
That’s one of those little wins that let the opposition know exactly what they’re up against if they didn’t know already. Munster scored a try a few minutes later up the other end with Chris Farrell packing down in the Beirne-less scrum. Henry Pyrgos gave away one of the daftest scrumhalf penalties I’ve seen in a few years and, in the scramble, Keith Earls tapped and went and scored the first of his two tries.
Earls initial foray to the blindside behind the scrum in picking up the loose ball draws Van Der Merwe and Barclay away from the side where he’d have to tap the penalty. He used his pace and change of direction to reduce the numbers he’d have to deal with on the openside of the scrum. Essentially, he created a reaction from Edinburgh and then reacted to that reaction before anyone else.
He darted back against the grain, taps right at the spot of the penalty, powers through the gap knowing he can’t be touched until the try line and, right at the last minute, freezes out Mata with a feint inside – in full flight – for the finish.
A few minutes later, Edinburgh were back in the game with a nicely taken try. Were there a few issues in the buildup? Sure. A crooked throw at the lineout, a forward pass and a straight off feet penalty straight out of the World Rugby handbook will be frustrating things for Munster but it forced another reset in how they would have to approach the game.
Munster lost Jack O’Donoghue in the aftermath of an HIA and Joey Carbery a few minutes after conceding a three-point penalty that put Edinburgh 10-7 up heading to halftime.
They started out on the hard road well enough, despite starting the half with another unforced error. Slowly but surely though, Munster started to pile on the pressure.
Bleyendaal tied the game up on 47 minutes with a well taken and well-earned penalty strike before Van Der Walt edged the Scottish club ahead with another penalty four minutes later.
As the game ticked towards the last quarter, Munster pressed again and almost saw Sweetnam go over in the corner off some lovely work by Bleyendaal, Farrell and Botha.
Toolis was right at the edge of the forward line and that created a bit of separation for Munster to work with. When Sweetnam stepped back against the grain, he had a target to run for but a last-ditch tackle from Johnstone kept him out.
From there, I felt that Edinburgh were a little lucky not to see yellow.
If Beirne was correctly yellowed for slowing up Edinburgh’s recycle illegally in the first half then Nel was guilty of the same here.
From the resulting penalty, Nel would have a huge impact.
Edinburgh won the scrum against the head and booted the ball back down the field. It felt like a huge moment and it was.
Whatever happened next, Munster would have to do it the hard way.
When Gauzere awarded a penalty just inside the Munster half with 10 minutes left, it felt like a pivotal moment in the game. If Edinburgh kicked it, it would put Edinburgh six points clear and put the game beyond even Munster’s reach but… that isn’t how it worked out.
Marshall was penalised for a soft push on Van Der Walt but then the penalty was reversed for an even softer shove on Tadhg Beirne from Pierre Schoeman.
A lot has been made of it since the end of the game, at least in my Twitter mentions.
Beirne made a meal of the contact – let’s be clear on that – but it was a penalty. Sometimes you have to exaggerate to get referees to notice what’s happened, and we’ve seen what happens when you keep your mouth shut and get on with it earlier this season I’ve had a few people talk to me about “honour” in the aftermath of this incident and the manner which Beirne drew attention to the shot he took off the ball, but I’ll tell you this – there are no points given for being quiet, stoic boys. Leicester’s Heineken Cup win in 2002 doesn’t have an asterisk next to it because of the Hand of Back. In Heineken Cup knock out rugby, there is winning and there is losing and that’s it. Nice boys get April and May off.
From the penalty, Tyler Bleyendaal drove the ball straight into the 22 with one of the best penalty strikes I’ve seen all season.
From there, Munster exploited a tendency that Edinburgh have shown all season to put Earls away in the corner.
Off the lineout – again, excellently cleaned up by Tyler Bleyendaal – Munster carried for two phases before hitting back against the grain to target the space where the lineout was.
Look at how far Edinburgh’s forwards come in on this phase against Toulon.
Toulon ended up going wide on the next phase but look at Pierre Shoeman and Bill Mata at the edge of the shot at 01:07 on the match clock. I wrote about this pre-game on the Red Eye. Look at the people on the blindside of this lineout.
Bradbury had a decision to make here – openside or blindside – and with Watson on the floor, he chooses the wrong option. Schoeman went after the breakdown without success and, off the break, Murray targeted the tiring Bill Mata back towards the lineout side.
Mata, who’d been looking tired since the start of the half, had nothing for Murray laterally and once the ball went to Scannell, it was Munster’s backline vs Edinburgh’s flyhalf, winger and covering scrumhalf as all of Edinburgh’s forwards and midfielders were behind the last ruck.
From there, Munster the angle and numbers they wanted, but they still had to execute. They did so superbly.
Bleyendaal ran a hard line outside Scannell, who pulled the ball back to Farrell in the second layer. Farrell got excellent lateral movement – while staying square to the ball – drew the shot from Pyrgos and fed the ball to Earls for the finish. Once the ball got to Earls’ hands, it was game over – it wasn’t a case of “if” he would score, just “how”.
Pyrgos took a lot of heat for shooting up as he did but he had no other option. He was defending the blindside backfield as a “split fullback” with Graham floating behind the openside. Once Pyrgos came into the line behind Bleyendaal – who drew in Van Der Merwe – Pyrgos was either getting beaten on his inside shoulder or his outside shoulder. He chose to blitz and was beaten by Farrell’s pass.
Munster took the lead and pushed it out to four points after this top drawer conversion from Bleyendaal.
Edinburgh would need a try. Without penalty access to the Munster 22, they bashed up against a Big Red Wall until the clock ran out.
Munster were clinical when the opportunity arose and defended superbly thereafter. For all of Edinburgh’s possession, they found it hard to win any kind of reliable gainline. Look at their combined forward carries over the game.
Their starting and replacement forwards carried the ball 117 times with zero clean breaks. All of their starting forwards – bar Bill Mata who took a lot of ball in the backfield off restarts and kick aways – struggled to make ground in the carry. On their 117 forward carries, Edinburgh made 175 metres. Eighty-four of those metres were made by Bill Mata – and most of those were easy metres in the backfield – meaning that 48% of Edinburgh’s forward metres gained came from the big Fijian.
As the clock ran out, Edinburgh were forced to dictate the attack. Unable to gain ground up the middle of the field, Edinburgh tried to fling the ball wide to get around Munster’s defence.
Every time they went wide, the metres they gained before being tackled and slowed allowed Munster to reset the defensive line as if it were the first minute. Look at this defensive reset 15 phases into a set after 80 minutes.
They would defend with the same vigour for another 17 phases and two minutes of in-game time. Thirty-two phases to seal out the win and it never looked in doubt from the minute Edinburgh restarted after Earls’ try.
This was far from a perfect performance but I’ll take it. Another European Cup semi-final against Saracens awaits in three weeks. If we’ve learned lessons from the last few years, it’ll be there where we’ll take the exam. Munster’s place as a solid top-four side in Europe is copperfastened – three European semi-finals in three years confirm that – but can we take the next step? We’ll be solidly up against it when we take on Saracens in a few weeks, who brutally swatted aside Glasgow in Barnet, but Munster are a tough side.
What does “tough” mean? It’s hard to quantify easily but you don’t beat this fully loaded Edinburgh side in Murrayfield with 39% possession and 30% territory without being tough at a bare minimum.
The road goes on to Coventry.
The Wally Ratings: Edinburgh (A)
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating given the way the game went.
I thought Niall Scannell was very good. Excellent lineout work, strong scrummaging and a huge work rate around the field. He hit a double-double (hitting double figures on tackles made and carries) with 17 tackles being the standout.
Tadhg Beirne had a great game too. A mountain of defensive work – both tackles and defensive ruck work – and excellent counter-jumping were the highlights for me. He ran a smooth lineout too and had a crucial cleanout in the build-up to the decisive try.
Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Arno Botha had really impressive games from a defensive POV. All three had incredible work-rate and O’Donoghue was heading in the same direction until his withdrawal due to an HIA.
I thought Chris Farrell and Rory Scannell were massively impressive from a defensive perspective and had the vision and skill set to put Earls away when it counted.
Billy Holland and Stephen Archer had a big impact off the bench. Billy Holland played for 10 minutes in the first half and had a superb impression on the end game with a crucial lineout steal.
Stephen Archer worked himself into the ground in his 13 minutes on the field. He made a tackle a minute and made a crucial carry the phase prior to Earls’ second try.
Tyler Bleyendaal had his best game since 2016/2017. He came on for Joey Carbery slightly earlier than planned but he knocked it out of the park. His line kicking and handling were a crucial part of the win, and his conversion from the touchline set up the parameters of the endgame. Outstanding work from The General.
Whenever anyone asks “who’s the man?” it’s your duty as a Munster fan to tell them that the Man is, and has always been, Keith Earls.
On a day when Munster didn’t have many opportunities to attack, Keith Earls was a constant threat. His two tries were the kind of scores that an arch-assassin like Earls will put away for you when you need them, and boy did we need them. When the big moments show up, big characters show up to boss them – that’s what Earls does. ★★★★★
Who’s the man?
There’s much to cover in this game and I’ll be doing that in TRK Premium all week long with GIF and Video Articles.