Munster advanced to the last eight of the European Rugby Champions Cup as second seeds with a hard earned 22-10 win over a gutsy and determined Racing Metro 92 at a sold out Thomond Park.
The predictions of some pundits that Racing Metro 92 would roll over and ship a heavy defeat were well off the mark after seeing the warm up performed by the French visitors which was high in intensity and physicality.
Racing Metro 92 were the dominant team for the opening quarter, their front five taking the game to their hosts causing disruption at the set piece and winning penalties at the breakdown. Munster were forced to defend deep in their own territory and to their credit, the defensive line speed and first time tackles were on point resulting in no points being conceded albeit Machenaud had a penalty which fell just short of the posts.
Munster took this penalty miss as the opportunity to create a platform in the contest gaining parity in the territorial stakes with improved lineout execution allowing the team to advance deep into Racing Metro’s half but credit to the visitors as they put their bodies on the line to thwart several Munster try scoring opportunities.
This was a brutally physical opening period. Both sides did not shirk their duties in defense and it was going to take something special to score the opening try. After Conor Murray thought that he scored a try just after the half hour, it was up to the mercurial Simon Zebo to score; identifying the smallest defense gap to squeeze over for the opening try. Bleyendaal duly added the extras and a sense of relief descended among the Munster fans.
Racing Metro were however not deterred and after another trip into Munster territory won a penalty which Machenaud converted. A significant score considering that the French side were down to fourteen players after the sin bin of Dambielle for deliberate kill the ball in a ruck with a Munster try almost a certainty. The game was in the melting pot and there was a distinct tense feel around the ground.
CJ Stander’s contribution in this opening period cannot be underestimated; his performance was sublime with numerous game line gain carries. His line break of thirty meters in the opening period only to be checked five meters from the Racing Metro line showed the tenacity, power of the player. His tackle count and breakdown led by example in a period which saw Munster plighted by several unforced errors and game management decisions which went wrong.
The second half was always going to be a far open affair given the tackle count of both sides in that punishing opening period. Munster started on the front foot and Ronan O’Mahoney was unlucky not to score a try in the opening moments of the half but the pressure exerted by the hosts yielded an additional penalty as Racing Metro were pinged for offside.
O’Mahoney was not to be outdone and he scored a deserved try with a smart close range finish. Munster awareness of space out wide to the fore as the ball went through several hands before ending up with Limerick winger who did not make any mistake. Bleyendaal struck a superb conversion and suddenly the scoreline was 17-3.
Racing Metro were now on the ropes but given their approach to the contest struck back with a try of their own just on the hour mark. Munster will be disappointed with some missed first time tackles but Racing Metro created space and overlap to allow Chavancy to score. There were possible arguments for a double movement but given the speed of the play, the officiating crew gave the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side. Machenaud hit the extras and suddenly, the mood got tense again.
This fixture was a test of Munster’s mental strength. Three European fixtures in three weeks, three bruising encounters were always going to the test squad physically but also mentally as fatigue naturally would kick in during the second half of this contest. It required cool heads from the half backs and astute game management from the leaders of the team to secure victory.
The defining score emphasized all these qualities as Ian Keatley superbly supported Andrew Conway whose offload was sublime to score the third Munster try. Even though, the conversion attempt went wide, a buffer was again created. Racing Metro were now getting tired and with issues in the prop positions, the rest of the game was played around midfield with little attacking moves created by both sides. In fact, both sides were guilty of wayward ball handling at times during the closing stages.
With Saracens beating Toulon 10-3, Munster knew that the mission of securing the second seed in the quarter final was secured with their twelve point victory over Racing Metro 92 who provided a stern test to their hosts something Leicester Tigers cannot say after their humiliation at the hands of the Glasgow Warriors. A tough, hard fought pool contest.
CJ Stander may have won the man of the match award again but Andrew Conway in recent weeks has really stepped up to the mark. His pace and ability to win the aerial battle has being evident. His contribution to the Keatley try was sensational and Conway’s versatility to play multiple back positions is a key bonus for Munster.
Munster’s renaissance continues. An exciting April beckons and a home tie against Toulouse. With RBS 6N tournament looming large, Erasmus and management will hope for no injuries to the Munster contingent playing in the coming weeks. The week off this week will be most welcome. It has being a bruising three weeks for the team but one that they have passed with flying colors. Superb performances in a tricky group and one that will set the team well for upcoming challenges into the Spring in this competition. Roll on April already!