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European Champions Cup Reflections: Munster vs. Toulon

I blog on Easter Monday, a couple of days after Munster Rugby’s epic 20-19 win over Toulon at Thomond Park. The occasion and fixture failed to disappoint, a couple of thoughts on the encounter follow. Munster Rugby. Stand Up and Fight. 

Statistic Of The Day

Munster won against Toulon with 39% possession, 40% territory, 82 carries compared to 166 carries, 1 line break to Toulon’s 4 & 12 defenders beaten compared to 23.

Toulon Rugby

This was no ordinary French outfit coming to Limerick last weekend; the squad depth spoke volumes. There would be no capitulation from this side and so it proved as Toulon produced their most cohesive road trip performance in Europe this season. They dominated possession and territory. Only for an exceptional Andrew Conway solo effort at the death, the Toulon team would be looking forward to a semi-final tussle against Racing 92.

Accuracy

Munster’s opening quarter defensive display was incredibly accurate and on point. The defensive line speed, the accuracy in first time tackles on point from Munster. Conway’s fourth minute try saving tackle was exceptional and cannot be forgotten in the final scoreline. All credit to Munster, they tackled, got up and tackled again. Tackling was unerring throughout and to only concede one try to Toulon was a sublime defensive effort.

Neat

The ability of Munster front five to steady the ship after a shaky opening quarter showed neat game management. Archer after an early penalty slip in the opening exchanges did not waver thereafter. The front five gradually asserted dominance and with O’Mahony causing massive headaches in the Toulon line out, the platform and territory were finally established.

Determination

This Munster Rugby side is a team where honesty, integrity and determination to work for their colleague alongside them are the core beliefs. In a weekend where we witnessed certain sides gave way due to the sheer burden of defensive pressure, Munster Rugby to a man continued to execute the game plan, continue to assist their colleague in difficulty and provide sheer bloody minded resistance against a star studded Toulon. Incredible stuff to watch!

Unparalleled Atmosphere

The videos emerging from the game at Thomond Park are spine tingling. The Fields of Athenry and Stand Up and Fight songs were rocking the very core of this hallowed sports arena. I have being to some of the world’s best sporting arenas in the USA / Europe and Canada but they do not compare to Thomond Park on a crunch Munster European Cup tie.

The more important the game is for Munster Rugby, the more dog that comes out in the atmosphere at the Limerick venue. The television shot of the young Munster fan at the end encapsulated everything you need to know about what it is like to be at one of these games. Elation mixed with trepidation conscious that the result is very much in the balance, fantastic image.

Ashton

Love him or hate him, I have to mention Chris Ashton. He was the player who took the fight to Munster Rugby from minute one until the final phase where he was pinged by Nigel Owens. Ashton’s performance was superb; on another day, his first cameo of the day could have seen a penalty try awarded to Toulon.

The English winger was a constant menace with ball in hand his supporting running was sensational for the try that looked to break the game in favor of Toulon. Incredible performance; assured under the high ball. Ashton was the standout from a Toulon perspective.

Negotiating Adversity

When Chris Ashton crossed over for Toulon’s try in the third quarter, the Thomond Park faithful was stunned into silence. Some in the crowd heckled and booed (sad to see) but there was a sense in the crowd that Munster Rugby were in trouble.

How would Munster Rugby manage to gain field position to come from behind with only ten minutes left? Credit to the side for having the composure to not throw in the towel. The five meter scrum at the death was superbly defended by Toulon but then came Conway’s masterclass. Munster Rugby refused to give up, players ball carried with determination and precision as well as manfully fulfilling their defensive duties.

Driven

The front row of Ryan, Scannell and Cronin had a point to prove. Their starting front row comrades had provided the platform and they needed to produce an immediate impact. The opening scrum from the unit was nothing short of world class.

The Toulon front row driven back at a rate of knots. Owens had the simplest penalty award to make. A penalty awarded. Keatley slotted over and a 13-6 advantage to Munster. When you consider the margin of victory, how crucial was this cameo to the overall result?

Fans

When I left for Boston in November 2001, one of the things I missed most in my six and a half years over in the USA was Thomond Park and the Munster Rugby fans. The banter, the unwavering support to the side when more illustrious opposition arrived to town.

I think of Gloucester Rugby, Sale Sharks, Wasps, Northampton Saints who came and were beaten. The atmosphere of the fans and the connection between the fans and the players was back to the glory days of Munster Rugby last weekend. Incredible sight. Incredible sound. Sixteenth man.

Ingenuity

There is a debate currently on-going on who is the best scrum-half in rugby? The criteria is vast but for sheer ingenuity and ability to create opportunities from nothing, the ability to game read a move that the mere mortal cannot see dictates that Conor Murray has to be on the top of the list.

Murray’s opportunistic try in the opening period was a game changer. After a defensive bombardment, Munster Rugby needed points on the board. Toulon were 0-6 up and on the ascendancy. Murray’s interpretation of the ruck laws incredible; the ingenuity to apply the rules in the blood and thrust of a playoff match.

His quick thinking and communication to the touch judge to call out what happened, his ability to touch down incredible. The TMO review took a while but it was clear that this was a try. A key turning point in the contest. Murray yet again delivered. When you consider his cameo for Stockdale’s try against England a couple of weeks ago, Murray’s ability to see an opportunity is unparalleled at this time.

Genius

13-19. The clock was now the enemy for Munster Rugby. After a five meter scrum was superbly defended by Toulon, some may have felt that was Munster’s golden opportunity missed so when Trinh-Duc executed a kick to exit from the Toulon twenty-two, there appeared no danger. A kick right on the sideline.

Conway collected the ball right on the sideline and then what happened, I am still finding hard to quantify still. The sheer ability of Conway (who let us remember was coming back from injury) to tinkle toe his way past several Toulon defender in field was sensational. The Toulon rearguard had no response and Conway crashed over next to the posts.

Everyone was shocked. Munster fans celebrating in disbelief. Toulon players looking at each other, wondering how this could happen? This was a try that will be remembered for years to come in this competition. Genius move to win this epic tussle.

Halfway Line Battleground

Keatley’s conversion made the score 20-19. Four minutes left. Personally, my nerves were absolutely shot. I could not look anymore. My voice was done and dusted as Toulon started to recycle phase after phase. Munster players continuing to be disciplined in their tackling, continuing to get back on their feet and keep concentration.

Toulon slowly got to Munster’s ten meter line and the ball was with the dangerous Ashton. Toulon support for the ball carrier not quite there; Munster saw their opportunity and Owens sided with Munster on the breakdown as the home fans roared with approval. Game over. The halfway battle in those last four minutes were epic by both sides. Both sides refusing to relinquish the game. Classic European Cup Rugby.

The Aftermath

Limerick City was a hive of activity. Fans who I spoke to were buoyant but drained; the events of the day catching up. The Toulon supporters in the city were extremely generous in their words of congratulations. Limerick City after a successful community initiative led by Paul O’Connell on Good Friday to clean up the county and city looked the part.

The aftermath of this contest was hard to fathom. Munster Rugby had won. How they won given how the game ensued will be dissected for a while to come but let us be sure of one thing. David slayed Goliath here. Munster had stood up and fought and won! Munster Rugby. Stand Up and Fight.