There’s a moment in the TV coverage of Munster’s last-gasp win against Northampton in 2011 that has stuck with me in the years since.
A few minutes after Ronan O’Gara banged it through the posts in the 83rd minute after 100,000 phases, Miles Harrison, in his excitement, seemed to cry to the heavens through the medium of his microphone;
“How did they do it?“
I was thinking the same yesterday evening and then throughout the night. How did they do it? Thomond Park just seems to produce these immortal moments where time seems to slow, hearts seem to stop and the men in crimson red shirts win games they seem to have no right to.
How did they do it?
There’s just something about Thomond Park.
A man once said that the lame would come here and walk. I don’t know about that, but I do know that the people who play here can turn into giants beneath the shadow of Thomond Park’s arched stands. I also know that this ground produces results that defy logic and turns doubters into the truest of true believers.
Against the star-studded Toulon behemoth, Munster prevailed at the death once again. Same as it ever was you might say. That’s just what Munster do, right? Wrong. It doesn’t just happen, not by default. It has to be earned and against this Toulon side, Munster earned every point, every stroke of luck and every inch of this pulsating, nerve-shredding win. This ranks with anything that Munster have ever produced in Thomond Park in the European Cup.
Toulon were not overawed by the history of Thomond Park and played as well as I’ve seen them play all season. They were disciplined, powerful, accurate and seemed intent on grinding Munster out early. I can’t really think of higher praise for them other than they were playing to the sum of their world-class parts for much of this game.
Plenty of other big reputation sides have come to Thomond Park and wilted – not Toulon. They probably should have had a penalty try inside the first 60 seconds but they owned the ball thereafter and, for 20 minutes, Munster had to defend for their Champions Cup lives. This was the key part of the game, for me. Any breaks in this period of pressure and Munster could easily have slipped to 14/21 points down and the game would be gone.
What do we say to the Gods of Rugby and Logic?
It was stirring stuff. To limit Toulon to six points in this period was absolutely crucial, given they started the game like a train, and hemmed Munster into our 22 for much of the opening 20 minutes.
Munster’s tackle count was through the roof as Toulon narrowed their carrying alignment.
Toulon were trying to grind through Munster’s forward line to expose Keatley, Scannell, Arnold and Munster’s back line to their power runners. That meant getting Bastareaud, Nonu, Radradra and Tuisova into one on ones with Keatley, Scannell, Arnold, Sweetnam, Conway and Wootton.
Toulon wanted to narrow the Munster forward line, grind through the phases and then get their power runners onto the ball in space.
It was Munster’s performance in these scrambles – and denying them in the first place – that would keep us in the game. Munster’s backline defence was outstanding in its mobility and doggedness. There were some slipped tackles but no clean misses and all that played into keeping Toulon out.
Toulon were unable to get the kind of possession they wanted to test Munster’s width and mettle off the set piece. Munster denied Toulon a scrum platform to launch one on ones off of and, crucially, choked up their lineout to prevent the three-time champions from getting easy width.
With a clean supply of lineout ball, Toulon could take away Munster’s kicking game, narrow our forwards with maul options and then get the ball off the top to their monstrous backline. This, like Toulon’s phase play, was based on narrowing Munster in the forwards and isolating our backs.
Crucially, Munster would deny them.
O’Mahony’s work at the front with his lifters made the usually reliable ball at the front and middle a 60/40 lottery and that, in turn, made playing the ball off the top incredibly difficult.
It forced Toulon into tail alignments to avoid O’Mahony and it forced Guirado into throws like this;
Those little micro battles add up.
After Toulon’s start, Munster needed something to grab a hold of. Our kicking hadn’t been great to that point and the expected gains out of targeting Toulon’s back three under the high ball wasn’t paying the dividends we would have expected.
That something was three pieces of excellent Munster attacking that showed power, pace, kicking accuracy and brain power
First, this carry from Jack O’Donoghue off a smooth Munster throw to Billy Holland;
The pace, power and determination to get through four tacklers was superb, as was the tracking and ruck support of Kilcoyne and Archer.
When the ball came back, Murray hit Keatley, who dotted this through for Conway;
It had the accuracy, it had the weight, it had the distance and it had a chase from Andrew Conway that would add value to any kick. From there, we entered an episode of Law & Order: TMO.
After five whole minutes of TMO deliberation, Nigel Owens rewarded Conor Murray’s quick thinking improvisation that brought Munster into a lead that was the very definition of “against the run of play”. But that’s what happens at Thomond Park.
A few minutes later, Munster stretched their lead through an Ian Keatley penalty and the opening 20 minutes of pressure seemed years away.
Munster started the second half with the same intensity that finished the first but couldn’t convert the that 20 minutes of relative dominance into scoreboard pressure bar one penalty converted by the nerveless Keatley. Toulon, like Munster in the first twenty minutes, weren’t for breaking easily. In a mirror of the first half, Toulon would absorb the pressure and strike right back with what they thought was a series of killer blows between the 60th and 67th minute.
First, a Trinh-Duc penalty, then a superb try constructed by Trinh-Duc on one of the few occasions where Toulon managed to isolate Munster in centre-field. Bastareaud’s running and Ashton’s superb support line produced a try that would have been worthy of winning any game.
A few minutes later, the enigmatic French fly half (is there any other kind?) slotted over another penalty. From 13-9 down to 19-13 ahead in seven minutes.
The clock ticked on.
Munster’s scrum began to dominate but Munster couldn’t make it stick. We were held up over the line by the defensive prowess of the impressive Bastareaud and when the ball lay at the base of a Toulon ruck with 6 minutes left on the clock, it looked like the jig might have been up.
Nobody told Andrew Conway.
It was a try for the ages. Trinh-Duc missed his touch and Andrew Conway made him pay with a price that only Thomond Park can extract.
When Conway teetered an inch away from the touchline to claim this kick, he had so much to do it can barely be described. Toulon had exposed themselves to a kick transition – most of their cover was on the other side of the pitch after the prior defensive set – but what Conway managed to do on his weaving run was remarkable. With every twist and step, Andrew Conway wrote himself into the annals of Munster history. As counter-punches go, this was as good as it gets.
But the job wasn’t done. Grobler made a massive play off the Toulon restart to win a Munster scrum…
… and, from there, we kicked away to defend for our European Cup lives.
Twenty phases of hard defence later, James Cronin stepped over Chris Ashton, Nigel Owens lifted his arm into the air and Munster arms followed in exaltation.
Implausibly, improbably, impossibly – Munster had done it again.
Munster weren’t perfect here by any means and we certainly lived on the limit of our luck at times but the grit, iron and balls we saw in this game were a credit to the squad’s character.
In the aftermath of games like this, you have to remember the joy that you felt in the aftermath of Conway’s try and Cronin’s steal. Life is short and sometimes special moments like this can end up being disposable endorphin spikes in the internet age. Don’t let this one fade. This was as special as any of the Munster days gone by, so cherish it. You were there, you saw it live. A semi-final awaits.
Johann Van Graan saw warriors earlier in the week. We all saw them on Saturday.
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. I didn’t rate JJ Hanrahan or James Hart due to not enough time on the pitch. I didn’t rate Simon Zebo due to leaving the field after 24 minutes.
Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland, Gerbrandt Grobler, CJ Stander, Jack O’Donoghue, Robin Copeland, Conor Murray, Ian Keatley
As a pack performance, this was really, really impressive. There’s fronting up, and then there’s this game – to a man, they were excellent. Toulon aligned up narrow to focus the forward-on-forward confrontation, and Munster stood up to the pressure.
Both of the Munster front rows played extremely well. Kilcoyne, Cronin, Scannell, Marshall, Ryan and Archer were powerful in the loose, vicious over the ball and outstanding in the set piece – lineout and scrum. The scrum dominance in the second half was built on the solid work of the starting front row. Savage work from all involved.
Jean Kleyn and Billy Holland were the rock that Munster’s defiance was built on. Kleyn was a monster, hewn from teak and marble, and his power in the tight exchanges was the kind of enviable grunt that changes games. In a game of small margins, Kleyn is a difference maker.
Billy Holland just keeps getting better. He’s as tough as they come and a real slugger in the work that the cameras don’t always pick up. Unsung heroes don’t come much bigger than this guy but games like this are where the Ballad of Billy Holland gets played long and loud. Superb.
Gerbrandt Grobler had a small amount of time on the pitch but his impact on the Toulon restart – throwing Trinh-Duc back 5m and forcing a spill and scrum – was a crucial play in the context of this game.
CJ Stander and Jack O’Donoghue had very good outings here.
CJ Stander brought the kind of physical sledgehammer presence that has become his trademark over the past few years. He was Munster’s top carrying forward and top tackler, which you’d almost come to expect from him, such is the consistency of his excellence but we shouldn’t take this kind of brute physicality for granted. He’s a special player.
Jack O’Donoghue had the kind of game I had always believed he was capable of. He was consistent in defence, athletic in the carry and brought the kind of narkiness in contact that you want from a flanker with international ambitions. He ran himself into the ground, such was the scale of his work rate against a colossal Toulon back row.
Robin Copeland continued his excellent form off the bench. What a player Connacht have signed if he keeps this form up.
Ian Keatley played this game with nerveless confidence. A few shaky kicks aside, he was flawless off the tee, with his two strikes in the first half being particularly important.
Conor Murray had a few critical interventions in this game, but what would you expect from a guy who’s in the conversation for the best player in the world right now? He wasn’t flawless here by any means – he had one or two poor options off the ruck and a few kicks that were below his best – but he’s just so good at what he does, it doesn’t really matter. His try was an example of a man nearing the peak of his powers as a player. He just sees things that other players don’t.
Peter O’Mahony, Rory Scannell, Sam Arnold, Alex Wootton, Darren Sweetnam, Andrew Conway
Peter O’Mahony is a game changer.
When he plays like he did here, his presence in the lineout can alter the geography of a game. O’Mahony was the man of the match on the day and it was richly deserved. His work rate, leadership and technical application at the set-piece, breakdown and in the carry was exactly what you’d expect from a man with his totemic impact.
He’s the embodiment of what Munster rugby is all about. He was absolutely immense here, on par with the colossal performances of the men who came before him.
Alex Wootton and Darren Sweetnam came into this game in different circumstances – Wootton from the start, Sweetnam after 25 minutes – but they both faced the same challenge. Could they stand up to the physical onslaught that came their way? They wouldn’t have to make every tackle they attempted, just get something – anything – to stop the massive Toulon runners. They did that and then some. A fine display of grit, energy and technical excellence in defence.
Sam Arnold and Rory Scannell had a simple task in description – stop Nonu and Bastareaud. When you put it like that, it almost seems easy doesn’t it? It’s anything but easy. Both men faced the biggest challenge of their young careers when they lined up against as big and as powerful a midfield duo as you could hope to see.
Both men came through that challenge with flying colours.
Rory Scannell was as tough as they come on either side of the ball and didn’t put a foot wrong in defence all afternoon.
They hit everything that came down their line, took their lumps and handed out a few of their own. One moment stands out for me when it comes to Sam Arnold. A few minutes after taking a bad bump in a tackle that required him to get patched up, he lined up off the next scrum across the way from Mathieu Bastareaud and said…
“I want the ball”.
He took everything they threw at him and wanted the responsibility of trucking the ball up into Bastareaud one more time. That’s what you want from a 21-year-old making his European knock out rugby debut. Superb.
Finally – Andrew Conway. To do what he did after 74 minutes of intense rugby having not played since the Castres game in the pool stages was absolutely remarkable. His try-saving tackle in the first half was good enough, as was his chase that lead to the first try but few moments will ever surpass the moment he produced in the 74th minute of this game. He had so much to do to even catch Trinh-Duc’s kick, let alone beat every man in front of him and have the wherewithal to angle towards the posts rather than into the corner. One for the highlight reel, one for the annals and one of the best tries ever scored in this magnificent stadium.