The Wally Ratings

Heineken Champions Cup 2021/22 :: Munster 24 Toulouse 24 (Toulouse win on penalties)

Munster 24 Toulouse 24
Down, out, but not out out.
Forget about gallant losers or moral victories. This was a loss, plain and simple, but one that showcased the best qualities of this sport, this club and its fanbase. Munster fought the European champions to a standstill in front of a boiling, intense Aviva Stadium and could only be separated by a penalty shootout. This one will be remembered for quite some time.
Match Intensity
Match Quality
Match Importance
Standard of Opposition
5

I’m sick of learning things in defeat. Sometimes you learn nothing at all, except what it feels like to hurt.

That’s what my main takeaway was as I navigated the Dublin Port Tunnel on my way home last night. My second takeaway was, man, this is a long tunnel. Like seriously, it’s longer than the village I grew up in. By the time I got to Junction 14 – along with every other Munster fan who drove up, seemingly – I had decided that this was more than just hurt. I’ve felt sporting hurt before. That loss to Saracens in 2017 was just hurt. That loss to Racing in Bordeaux a year later was just hurt. That loss to Leinster in 2009 was… just hurt. Hurt is raw and metallic, like tasting your own blood after a bust nose. The only thing of any value that you get is an aversion to it.

People tell you that losing “isn’t an option” but losing is the most readily available option there is most of the time. The only question is how you use it. Not in the Instagram Hustle Chad Grindset type of way, I’m talking about the losses that light something ablaze inside you. Why didn’t last year’s loss to Toulouse do it? Because there were still too many guys at the tail end of their careers taking part and there was no crowd present to witness it. Behind closed doors games were training matches with dire consequences and that’s all they were. Without a crowd, they were literally just a game. With a crowd watching – a hot crowd – the real magic of sport can take place, especially when it comes to how you turn losses into something useful. The reaction of the crowd cauterises the pain into a scar that can be useful. It’s very rare that you see a knight with shiny, unblemished armour winning big in rugby these days. The teams who lift the trophies after a long period without them usually do so with a tonne of scar tissue. That’s how it worked for Munster in 2006, how it worked for Leinster in 2009 and how it worked for Saracens in 2015. You could even say the same for Toulouse after their near-decade of hurt. The right crowd can help you turn scars into stars.

The reaction of the crowd in this game will have cauterized the wound of the loss almost immediately and excited the players who can lift trophies to a place where they will lift trophies. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve been at a lot of big Munster games over the years, lots of days when the crowd was up but Saturday at the Aviva was something else entirely, from almost the minute I hit the road for Dublin. I saw cars with Munster flags, houses with Munster flags all the way through the Tralee to Limerick road, I saw petrol stations jammed with every Munster jersey from 1998 to 2022, I saw pubs in Dublin 4 rammed with Munster accents and stands full of lunatics who weren’t there to watch a game, they were there to play.

That crowd witnessed a game for the ages where two sides slugged it out for 100 minutes. We couldn’t be separated. We stood up and fought, stood toe to toe, traded blow for blow and essentially lost via decision against a champion Toulouse side. Penalty kicks were a necessary evil to separate sides in this case because I think we’d still be playing without them, and the crowd would still be there watching them.

Toulouse should have won the game in regular time and extra time. Munster should also have won the game in regular time and extra time. That it came down to Ben Healy and Conor Murray pulling penalty kicks to ultimately decide who would progress is an unpleasant fact but someone’s got to miss, someone’s got to win and it was Toulouse here.

There’s a real danger of falling into Gallant Loser territory here which I’m trying to avoid like the guy in my section who was shouting “respectevous nous traditions si vous plais!” when some Toulouse fans were shouting during a kick. Just… no. Like, stop.

Whatever about the pride I feel today after a few watch backs it becomes clear what this defeat teaches us when it comes to moving beyond a team like Toulouse next season.

I have three main issues – heft, more heft and time.

Time is for the experiences that this game will brand onto the minds of our young playmakers – Casey, Healy and Jack Crowley watching from the sidelines. Seeing drop goals drift wide and penalties pull to the left with the game of games on the line is as painful as it gets for the guys involved and the guys in the same position watching from inside the Red Zone. That’s a pain you can only feel in the moment or in the “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling that comes when you’re not the guy. Everyone can learn from that and learn they will. Ronan O’Gara landed a lot of big drop goals and penalties in the mid-2000s but you’d forget that he was 29 years of age in 2006. When Ronan O’Gara was 22 the biggest game of his career to that point was for Cork Con. A year later, O’Gara had that game against Northampton in the Heineken Cup final. When speaking to Joe.ie about what kicks he’d want back, he answered with this;

“Northampton, 2000. The final in Twickenham. The last one because, you know, winners take it all. It would have been a great reward for the legends of the game that paved the way for everything that’s good about Munster Rugby. All the guys that never got the opportunity in 2006. It’s not great leaving down great warriors, you know? And they were great warriors, those guys.”

Ben Healy is probably feeling the same way this morning. When you’re a young player – and even a broken-down ould lad like me – you visualise scoring the try, landing the penalty, nailing the drop goal that wins Munster the Heineken Cup or the big game. I can imagine on both of these occasions, Ben Healy could well have been thinking about the massive moments that could have been but weren’t. The width of a ball is the difference between being a guy that shows up in highlight reels 20 years from now for epic moments and a guy who has to wait for the next opportunity to enter that rarified club. Small margins.

Time will be the big healer there. Use the hurt of the misses to temper your mindset for the next time but you’ve got to know that it isn’t a straight line. I spoke earlier about Ronan O’Gara in that final against Northampton but what you might not remember is that he was the hero with a late penalty against Saracens in January 2000 earlier that season. For Ben Healy, the key will be understanding that there’s one big kicker out there who doesn’t have a few ghosts floating around their heads with memories of a world that never happened. In an alternate universe, I’m talking about how Ben Healy won this game for Munster with the clock in the red but we don’t live in that universe. If Ben doesn’t want to get torn up by this, he can’t live in that universe either. Joey Carbery might well be feeling the same after his two penalty misses that were notable because he just hasn’t been missing those this season but he’s that bit older and more seasoned.

Becoming a kicker who can win big games isn’t easy, or straightforward. Otherwise, everyone would be a knockdown kicker and they aren’t. It’ll be up to those lads – Carbery, too – to take the hurt from this game and turn it inwards for the next time. It might not be the healthiest thing but man, I don’t know what it is about avoiding pain as opposed to chasing glory that leads to generally better outcomes? Who’d be a kicker? Not me.

As for heft and more heft? Well, that’s a different story entirely. Our ball carrying was actually really good in this game, relatively speaking. We played exactly the type of high Pass Per Carry game that we needed to attack this Toulouse side and did it really really well.

Our relative lack of size really hurt us in the scrum where Toulouse really used their weight and power advantage really well, on both sides of the put in.

You can see we’re trying to technique our way out of this but there’s genuinely only so much you can do against that type of power. They’ve got a combined 270kg in the second row directly pushing around 355kg worth of front row beef and it was even heavier in the second half. That comes with downsides elsewhere – Toulouse switched out their entire front row after 46 minutes – but in the scrum, it meant unreal amounts of pressure on our own put in when Toulouse didn’t have to worry about a strike on their own ball.

It genuinely turned the game for Toulouse at key points.

How do you fix that? You just need to match power with power, size with size. That takes time and a bit of luck to develop yourself or big investment because this kind of size, as we know, is expensive. Toulouse have done a bit of both, to be honest, for every Charlie Faumina they’ve signed in, they have equally brought through guys like Marchand, Baille, Mauvaka, Aldergheri and Neti. When it came to the scrummaging exchanges, in particular, we were giving up a lot of weight which, in the modern scrum, is a deciding factor when your technique is in any way comparable.

That’s where the modern arms race is in the front five. Enough explosivity and dexterity to be a modern attacking component in complex systems, with all the heft and power to impact at the breakdown, defend at the maul and go forward in the scrum. There aren’t very many of those guys around and Toulouse augments their props with relatively small minutes. They swapped out their entire front row and two of their back-row by 50 minutes. They don’t need their props – or some of their locks – to even be 60-minute players when it comes to it but even that is a balancing act. Everything has a cost and a benefit. Toulouse are set up and salary capped to focus on that pack, half-back and fullback. They play accordingly.

Yet, despite that size advantage, Munster still should have beaten them.

Remember this and this from the Red Eye? That same concept almost won us the game.

That’s the kind of analysis work that we’ve done really well all season long and it’s all the more heartbreaking to consider how close we came off the back of that. That’s what will sting most of all. Our scrum was vaporised, sure, but even with that we were so close to winning we could taste it. No scrum, no win

By the time I’d gotten home and watched the game back – I spent most of Sunday sleeping and resting because, as I’ve already established, I’m an old man now – I’d decided that this game wasn’t really like the Wasps game in 2004. That is a ready-made example because it’s in the same city and kinda the same stadium on a similar day with similar heartbreak at the end. That Munster side in 2004 was closer to winning it all than I think this Munster side is. If you’re looking for a parallel I think it’s Munster vs Toulouse in 2003. Same missed drop goal at the end, the same core of a top side with key areas to be improved on, the same tantalizing injury “what ifs”… that makes sense to me.

But, in truth, that’s looking for castles in the clouds or poring over ancient texts for coincidences that we can interpret as signs. We don’t know what this result means other than what is for sure – that we lost and that for this season, Europe is done. We have played Toulouse twice in the last two seasons, gone both close times but lost all the same in the end. We’ve improved, that much is for certain, but more will be needed to get to where we want to go.

I think one thing is for sure – a big story has started again with this young Munster side. On the big occasion against one of the best club sides in the world, they left absolutely nothing out there and went out on their shields. That is enough for today. But it is not enough for tomorrow, and the tomorrow’s to come. Can they build on this? Can they build on pushing Toulouse all the way in a one-off knockout game?

If they can, there’s a trophy in this side – even a trophy this season – but it won’t be done by accepting your place. There are a few jigsaw pieces yet to be filled, for sure, but there is the glimmer of a serious side here waiting to emerge and for that, we can be grateful and hopeful.

They stood up and fought, went down swinging and that’s all you can ask for on a given day against the best opposition. For the better days to come – as we always hope – I’ll be forever glad that I was in the stands for this one. Let’s call it “chapter one” and hope we don’t have to wait too long for the happy ending we want.


The Wally Ratings: Toulouse (H)

The Wally Ratings explainer page is here.  

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.

NamesRating
Josh Wycherley★★★★
Niall Scannell ★★★
Stephen Archer★★★
Jean Kleyn★★★
Fineen Wycherley★★★★
Peter O'Mahony★★★★★
Alex Kendellen★★★★★
Jack O'Donoghue★★★★
Conor Murray★★★
Joey Carbery★★★
Simon Zebo★★★
Damian De Allende★★★
Chris Farrell★★★★
Keith Earls★★★
Mike Haley★★★
Diarmuid Barron★★★
Jeremy Loughman★★★
John Ryan★★★
Jason Jenkins★★★★
Thomas Ahern★★★★
Craig Casey★★★
Ben Healy★★★
Jack Daly★★★