A day which will live long in the memory, a day where old school rugby traditional values stood out to the fore before, during and after this rearranged fixture. A day where Racing Metro 92 club class and generosity shone through to Munster fans and team. A day where Munster’s pack went back to the values of their fallen head coach and smashed their way to a bonus try point win.
The weather in Paris was somber; freezing fog and icy conditions greeted both sides. This was not a day for flamboyant offloading in the tackle. This was a day where old school basics needed to be executed, a day where pack dominance would set the foundations for victory.
Racing Metro’s preparations for this contest were less than ideal. The never ending saga with their South African fly-half Goosen has dominated news in Parisian rugby circles. Goosen’s performances last season for Racing Metro were sublime and played in no small part their successful season winning the domestic league and coming so close to winning the European Rugby Champions Cup. A player who clearly wants out of his contract with the club, a club who in their rights expect their employee to fulfil his duties. When the legal system gets involved, it does not look good from the outside with regards to Racing Metro 92.
Their team selection on paper looked decent. An exciting back line with the likes of Imhoff and Martin aided by the New Zealand pair of Laulala and Rokocoko for dynamism in ball carrying. The front five looked compact with the likes of Van der Merwe in their ranks. The subs bench boasted the mercurial Dan Carter in their ranks. A competitive yet not outstanding team on paper but whether the team had their minds on the job given the Goosen legal problems remained to be seen.
Rassie Erasmus used the week leading to the game to quell emotions and talk up their opposition in an attempt to focus minds of players and fans alike. The Munster management’s decision to rest most first line players for the trip to Galway was a sensible move.
Erasmus had a virtually fully fit squad to chose from apart from the flu stricken Kleyn and Du Toit. The only eyebrow raising decision was the absence of Ian Keatley from the twenty-three man squad. Given the performances of recent weeks, few could argue with Erasmus and management for the call and the bench had options to make an impression with Keith Earls ready to take his chance.
Munster started this contest in emphatic fashion putting their hosts under pressure from the off. The work rate around the fringes, first time tackles and defensive line speed were all on point and Racing Metro were struggling to cope. Munster on another day could have had two tries on the score within that first ten minutes but only for last ditch defending prevented try concessions.
Stander and Murray were picking holes from the ruck and Munster ball carriers were making good yards past the game line. It was only a matter of time when the hosts tackle count were catch up with them and the first quarter really set the foundation for this emphatic victory.
Racing Metro were probably happy to only be three points down after twenty minutes but that all changed in the blink of an eye when Munster scored their first try. The pack to the fore as they moved Racing Metro from side to side, more patience shown to identify the defensive line weakness. Zebo spotted space and wiggled his way over. 8-0 quickly turned to 11-0 soon after as Munster’s pack continued to make good progress deep into Racing territory. The hosts out of sheer exhaustion were now giving penalties away for offside and were being punished by Bleyendaal.
Cue the moment of the game and it was fitting that Munster’s current number eight was pivotal to the score. CJ Stander has being a revelation for the province since Axel Foley gave him his chance two seasons ago. Stander was pivotal in Munster’s second try, first blocking an attempt clearance from Racing Metro and then received the ball and spotted a gap in the hosts defensive line to stride over from thirty meters.
It was superbly taken, appreciation of space was paramount but the support from the likes of Taute, O’Mahoney (Ronan and Peter) was evident too. The celebration of Peter O’Mahoney spoke volumes; Munster were in control and the bonus try point was on. Bleyendaal superbly hit the extras and suddenly from being a modest 3-0 up after the first quarter, Munster were now 18-0 after thirty-five minutes.
The hosts were rattled; no cohesion in the half-backs with a front five consistently going backwards. Murray sensing unease in the home ranks produced a deft kick in behind exposing Rokocoko defensively which allowed Andrew Conway to collect the ball and over for the third try. Bleyendaal again slotted the conversion and it was game over. 25-0 and the elusive fourth try was looming large in the horizon.
No doubt Ronan O’Gara had some harsh words to say to his charges at the interval. For O’Gara, it was a bitter sweet day. His current employer were getting smacked in the face at home by Munster and there was no reaction from his side in the opening period. The hosts tried to rouse themselves in the first ten minutes of the second half, winning the restart and advancing deep into Munster territory but when in the red zone, the hosts were again outgunned physically. The Munster pack were in no mood to let Racing back into this contest; the emphatic scrum on forty-nine minutes and the incredible work rate of the imperious Donnacha Ryan in the maul where he single handed won Munster a scrum summed up the day.
Munster in seasons past would have lulled into a false sense of security but this season’s team has shown in recent weeks that they are ruthless when opportunities arise. The fourth try duly arrived and it was again the pack who laid the foundation. Numerous lineouts deep in Racing territory did not yield a score but more mauling from the Munster pack broke the hosts resistance and Niall Scannell who had a super game at hooker crashed over. Fourth try on the board. Mission accomplished. Cue Munster management to throw the bench on and minimize injuries for the trip to Glasgow.
The rest of the contest lacked cohesion; both teams were guilty of poor ball handling. At least Racing Metro did score a try; a messy score from a Munster perspective. Murray and Zebo failing to deal with a kick in behind. The try was welcome as Andrew Conway would have surely received a yellow card for holding back a clearly frustrated Imhoff in the leadup to the try. This was the end of the scoring and the rest of the game was unremarkable with eyes focused on more arduous tasks.
Munster to a man delivered. The motivation, hunger and intensity were on point. The pack deserve massive credit, laid the foundations early and never stepped off the gas. Stander may have received the man of the match award but Donnacha Ryan for sheer work rate, intensity was my pick. He was ably assisted by Billy Holland. The front row controlled the set piece and in the second half dominated the scrum. The back row were abrasive and mobile to offset the threat of the likes of Masoe. Yes, there were a couple of breakdown errors but it was an excellent performance. The half-backs provided control, game management with the back line playing percentage rugby in tricky conditions. Rory Scannell’s boot to find touch is becoming a real asset. Conway was rewarded for an industrious performance with a deserved try. Ronan O’Mahoney was solid in all facets of play. Zebo was typical Zebo, makes things look ridiculously easy.
Racing Metro 92 will lick their wounds; their pack was beaten all ends up. A trip to Thomond Park in two weeks time is not what they want to see but I expect a more abrasive performance from the French in the return fixture; a couple of forwards are playing for their futures after yesterday. O’Gara will want a response as well and Munster management are only too aware with a titanic struggle with Glasgow away next week that squad freshness may be an issue leading to the home game finale.
Munster are in pole position to secure the pool top spot but as Rassie Erasmus has mentioned, there is a lot of rugby still to be played in the next two weeks. Munster have shown encouraging signs in recent weeks; form continuation is key but this win has to rank up there as one of the most emphatic French road wins for Munster.