ERC Quarter Final Preview: Munster vs. Toulouse

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RBS 6 Nations is in the books. The clocks have gone forward one hour. We are at the end of March which means that the ERC quarter finals are fast looming on the horizon. Munster entertains Toulouse at a sold out Thomond Park next Saturday evening in a contest which will see two perennial European stalwarts go head to head for a place in the last four. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action in a fixture which will be intriguing to say the least for a number of reasons.

Half Back Battle:

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Murray 50/50 for Toulouse contest

This is the weekend where the head coaches will earn their money. Both sides on paper look evenly matched so it will be interesting to see what mismatches either side try to exploit on Saturday. With partly cloudy skies the forecast (at the time of publishing the blog), a lot is to going to depend on the half backs.

Bleyendaal has being a real find this season for Munster. The New Zealander has had his injury problems but has shown his true worth at ten this season. Bleyendaal loves to play on the front foot; looking to engage defenses when he can launch the likes of Zebo, Earls, Taute and Scannell. The question on Saturday is can Bleyendaal mix up his game enough to keep Toulouse off balance defensively? His kicking from hand will be key at various points.

The big question leading into this contest from a Munster perspective is the fitness of Conor Murray. The shoulder injury sustained on international duty has resulted in the scrum-half sitting out the last two games (England and Zebre). Murray needs to be completely ready to go to start this fixture.

Duncan Williams has shown to be an able deputy when he executes the basics well. It will be interesting to see if Murray takes part in full training early this week. Williams if called upon needs to keep the game plan simple; good exit strategy / accurate passing from the ruck, nothing fancy.

If Murray plays, it is a massive boost to the province. The Limerick native has had a superb season; his game has evolved with ball in hand. Opportunistic tries from close range matched with some sublime passes (Zebo try against Leicester in round three) to the fore. Defensively, there is no better nine to organize and tackle. Murray’s should concern hopefully has addressed itself in the most important game of Munster’s season.

Toulouse half-back partnership for Saturday remains to be seen. Doussain and McAllister rotated the ten position in their defeat to Bordeaux Begles last weekend. Bezy and Doussain (filled in late on) played the nine position.

Bezy in particular was prominent in the opening period. His sniping runs off the ruck created excellent game line yardage in the opening half; one of these runs setup good Toulouse position to allow Medard to score his try. Munster must be wary of the running threat of Bezy on Saturday.

Doussain was designated goal kicker against Bordeaux and hit 2 / 3 attempts. The uncertainty on the half-back partnership surely will do little for Toulouse’s continuity ahead of this fixture. Munster have the slight edge if Murray is fit, otherwise 50/50 in this unit.

Pack Battle:

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Can Stander provide the platform for Munster to prosper?

Toulouse’s game plan is pack orientated; create the platform for their half backs to launch an exciting back line. The Bordeaux Begles contest saw the good and the bad of the unit. They were physically imposing in the opening half; won the pack exchanges and on another day should have more than the eight points on the board. Tekori, Albacete, Gray, Maestri to the fore. The front row is experienced; Johnston continues to be his abrasive best in open and set piece. Ghiraldini is a solid hooker and Steenkamp is a scrummaging beast.

The physicality and bulk of the pack can work in two ways: going well, they are formidable but there have being issues finishing out matches. Connacht’s win against Toulouse was created by a willingness to move Toulouse’s pack around the pitch; exhaustion set in with penalties conceded at a rapid rate of knots by the French side. Bordeaux employed a similar tactic last weekend; they saw more possession in the second half and were far more incisive in their running lines.

Toulouse’s pack going backwards was repeatedly pinged for breakdown infringements which gave easy points to the hosts in the second half. The Bordeaux try is perhaps a side note for Saturday; a break straight through the ruck area allowed the hosts to setup a 2-1 on situation allowing Lesgourgues to cross over and secure the win. The try created due to a lapse in defensive concentration at the ruck area.

Munster’s pack has improved this season. The set piece has being solid. The scrum in particular has gone well in the key fixtures where Kilcoyne, Scannell and Ryan have stepped up to the plate.

The abrasive running lines of Kilcoyne in particular has provided excellent platform for Murray / Bleyendaal to launch attacks. The second row combinations this season have being on point. Ryan has led the team with his work rate and leadership. His performances against Leicester (at home) and Racing Metro (away) were standouts. Kleyn and Holland has provided stellar support in set piece and open play.

Provided the scrum goes well, Munster’s back row options look ominously good. Tommy O’Donnell provides pace and abrasiveness at the breakdown. The other two back row players do not need an introduction. Stander has excelled this season to new heights; his ball carrying exploits will cause Toulouse massive issues particularly at scrum time.

If Toulouse focus too much on the South African / Castletroy resident, Peter O’Mahoney then comes into the equation. His performance for Ireland against England was nothing short of sensational. His form is peaking at the right time of the season. O’Mahoney’s option at lineout time also poses problems to a Toulouse pack who possess numerous options including the ever young Albacete, Maestri (whose temperament will need to be kept in check) and Gray.

The focus in the pack battle will center on the match referee: JP Doyle. Munster has at times had an uneasy time with Doyle in charge particularly in the breakdown and scrum. The scrum in particular will be huge on Saturday as Doyle’s officiating of the set piece in the recent Italy vs. Wales RBS game suggests that the official once he has made his mind up on who is infringing remains steadfast to that view. Both sides will look to kill game at the breakdown; Toulouse’s penalty count last weekend surely will provide Doyle with food for thought ahead of this fixture.

Munster’s age profile in the pack is less than their visitors and that could be crucial in the last quarter to see this game through. It is going to be an incredible battle. The back row battle intrigues me. Tekori is massively underrated; supreme ball carrier and tackler. His performance is an indication of how Toulouse are faring. If curtailed, Munster will have an excellent advantage; otherwise Toulouse and their monstrous pack will look to push on.

Back Line:

The two side’s back line units are full of pace and vigor. Munster’s squad depth in the back line has increased substantially this season with the emergence of Darren Sweetnam and the excellent form of Ronan O’Mahoney and Andrew Conway. This increased competition has only benefited the side and has kept the likes of Earls and Zebo on their toes.

Sweetnam has had an excellent breakout season. He has all the traits to become a world class back; his aerial ability (emanating from his GAA background) has proved invaluable for the likes of Murray in his box kick execution. Sweetnam’s ability to win aerial ball and ability to identify space with ball in hand has being a valuable asset to the team as opposition have had to change their point of defense allowing the likes of Zebo and Earls to maraud in the open field.

The center partnership of Jaco Taute and Rory Scannell has being rock solid. Taute’s power and defensive nous has complemented and allowed Scannell to grow and develop in the twelve position. Scannell’s kicking game has proved invaluable to Bleyendaal making excellent gains with superb touch finders. The added kicking option has allowed Munster to keep opposition off balance defensively.

Taute has being the standout transfer for Munster this term. The South African’s all action game has endeared himself to the Munster fan base and his solid defensive organization has improved those around him. When you consider that Francis Saili is on the bench, the squad bench at the three quarters is pretty on point. Saili’s impact off the bench with his ball carrying is a real asset; evident in his pivotal game winning try against the Warriors in the penultimate ERC pool round.

Toulouse’s back line experience is there for all to see. Medard, Huget, Fickou and Fritz flow off the tongue. These players ooze class and experience on how to win on the road, experience on what it takes to win at the business end of the season. Their ability to create scoring opportunities from anywhere is a warning shot for Munster; any loose kicks down the field will be punished. Medard is a gifted rugby player; elegant with ball in hand and able to turn a game in a matter of seconds. Fickou is the danger player of this Toulouse back line. Physicality but there is also searing pace with ball in hand evident in his try against Wales.

For Toulouse to prosper, Bezy and McAllister / Doussain will need to provide good fast early ball to their back line but recent performances have being disappointing; five losses in the last six games. The back line has suffered from lack of ball as the pack has struggled to gain parity in several games. Bordeaux Begles loss was a classic example; good moments but ultimately had to give second best to the hosts. The win to Lyon at home was emphatic; forty plus point score on the night and Munster has being warned that any defensive lapses will be gratefully taken by their visitors with the experience in the back line ranks.

Verdict:

The opening exchanges at set piece ultimately will form the story of this game. The scrum cannot be underestimated. Toulouse will look to target this early and plant the seeds of doubt into JP Doyle’s mind. Munster to a man need to stem the onslaught for the first quarter and build the platform thereafter.

Toulouse’s pack will be fierce but the key is tempo; move the pack around the park and defensive gaps will form. Munster with the passionate home support should get through based on their last quarter performance but Toulouse is due a big performance.

The ball carrying of Stander and O’Mahoney will be to the fore and defensive gaps will form in the Toulouse rearguard. The losses of recent weeks will serve as added motivation for Toulouse so Munster must be at their very best to advance to the semi-finals. Munster to win by seven points but it will be a tense, closely fought affair for at least sixty minutes of this contest.

Guinness Pro 12: Cardiff Blues 13 – 23 Munster

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Munster were far more cohesive on the night but they eventually broke down a hard working Cardiff Blues to secure a win that keeps the province in touch with Ospreys and Leinster at the summit of the league. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Full Game

Munster squad looking fatigued

It has being a grueling Guinness Pro 12 schedule for all teams during this RBS 6 Nations section of the competition, a period where squad’s are tested to their limits and depth issues are wholly exposed. Munster’s performances in recent weeks have lacked spark and cohesion with several crossing infringements penalized last night. The infringements mean one of two things: lack of communication in the ranks or players who are fatigued losing focus. The front five at times struggled. Kilcoyne and Marshall were their abrasive best with ball in hand but Stephen Archer really struggled on the night. The match officiating pinpointed Archer at scrum-time and when he did run with ball was easily dispossessed by the likes of Navidi who was one of Cardiff Blues best performers. The second row on duty had mixed evenings. Billy Holland was as reliable as ever; solid in the lineout and good in breakdown and open play. Darren O’Shea on the other hand had an evening to forget; minimal impact with ball carries and missed a couple of first time tackles. O’Shea will learn from this experience.

Stirring Cardiff Blues Performance

The manner on how Munster fought back from being 13-3 down has to be admired but it was a struggle for the province throughout. Cardiff Blues were well up for this contest. Nick Williams showing intent early doors with a excellent tackle on Rhys Marshall. William was typically tenacious and with the likes of Navidi producing good work in the breakdown area, the hosts will rue some gilt edged opportunities which they let slip particularly in the opening period. Duncan Williams’ last ditch tackling saving Munster on a couple of occasions. Tom James was a standout with his ball carrying in the opening period and his game line breaks which on another day could have produced more points for Cardiff Blues who to a man left everything out on the pitch. The intercept try was well taken; anticipation was on point as Scannell’s loopy pass was gratefully received by Summerhill who went over unopposed. The concession of ten points in the final ten minutes was incredibly harsh on the hosts who contributed to a good contest in difficult conditions.

Munster win despite Keatley injury

The result is all the more astonishing given the fact that Ian Keatley was forced to retire from the game in the opening period. With no backup fly-half cover, Munster management introduced Francis Saili and switched Andrew Conway to ten initially, a position that I have not seen the player occupy in his career. Scannell then took up the role in the second half with mixed results. An errand pass which led to the Cardiff Blues try but the Cork native produced when required with an excellent drop goal to give Munster the lead. It remains to be seen the extent of Keatley’s injury but any lengthy period on the sidelines will ask questions of Munster’s squad depth at the ten position. Intriguing couple of weeks beckon on the ten front.

Munster young bucks continue to impress

The young Munster charges again produced encouraging cameos. Sweetnam again provided further evidence of his potential international credentials with an accomplished performance in the air and his ability to make space and offload caught the eye. Conor Oliver is a player who has really emerged as a superb prospect. The back row player has shown versatility in recent weeks; playing at six and eight last week against the Scarlets. Oliver’s try at the death showed great awareness of Cardiff Blues defensive breakdown on the fringes to score from distance. The try encapsulated Munster’s best period of the game; O’Mahoney tackle leading to Cardiff Blues losing fifteen meters set the tone, Saili’s pressure forcing the turnover and with Cardiff Blues not setup defensively, the back row scored the try.

Taute, Saili and O’Callaghan stand up

Jaco Taute defensively stood out throughout yesterday. His tackle count, accuracy and organizational skills are assets to this side. Taute has being a standout to the province this season. Munster fans will be hoping that the South African extends his stay next season but that remains a big if. Dave O’Callaghan was also a front runner for Munster; carried endless ball and his work rate defensively stood out. Francis Saili also deserves a mention; have being a critic of the New Zealander this season as he sometimes exposes colleagues with rash game management decisions. Saili was on point upon his introduction; super try to get Munster back in the contest in the second half and his controlled defensive press on Cardiff Blues posed problems for the hosts particularly in the last quarter. It was controlled rather than the frenzied approach seen against Scarlets last weekend.

Cardiff Blues – Encouraging Signs

For Cardiff Blues, the hosts had excellent performances from Williams, Navidi and James. The team were beset with injuries and international call-ups. However, the team that was put out produced a stirring performance. I had read comments specifically around the Connacht home game loss but the lack of effort and intensity was not in view yesterday. Tackles were made and the set piece was solid throughout particularly the scrum time where Munster may have thought that they would have an edge. The line-out was again excellent (92% lineout success this season is the best in the league). Cardiff Blues had a good start to the season but squad depth appears problematic; they have beaten Munster away from home and yesterday’s performance confirms that the side have all the attributes to beat anyone in the league. Consistency of performance appears to be the core of the team’s struggles. The last eight minutes will be a big disappointment for the hosts; the drop goal from Munster to go 13-16 was a blow but Cardiff Blues unfortunately spilled ball deep in their own half immediately after the drop goal concession which setup the Oliver try. Given the intensity of this contest, both teams will be grateful of weekend off this week.

Munster Announce Signings

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It is a total Munster party love in at the moment. Munster topped their tricky European Champions Cup pool, second seeds in the quarter finals and a home tie against Toulouse, medical staff absolved of any negligence over Conor Murray’s HIA procedures during the trip to Scotstoun. On this high, the powers that be in the province have announced more good news in back of three key signings and a couple of contract extensions to front line players. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the news.

JJ returns home

This is the key addition for Munster next season. The return of JJ Hanrahan adds quality and competition to the ten berth and will push Tyler Bleyendaal on to higher performance levels. The fact that JJ has left Northampton Saints after only two seasons speaks volumes of a period where his potential at ten was unfulfilled instead plying this trade either at full back or at twelve, the very reason why the Kerry native left the province in the first place. Northampton right now are in a state of flux; head coach rumors circulating and with the likes of Tom Woods moving to Saracens next season indicates all is not well in the East Midlands club. This is a good move for Hanrahan, it is a move which will define his career and it will be an interesting off season to see how the ten battle unfolds already. Erasmus has a player with numerous positives; ability to game manage, astute tactical kicking. It is a win win for the fans who for the majority were sad to see the player go. Let us not forget the circumstances surrounding the departure with Anthony Foley making the call to appoint Ian Keatley as his first choice ten while Hanrahan was reduced as an utility back. Interesting times for the player next season. A fresh new start as it looks almost inevitable that Ian Keatley will depart for pastures new (probably France) in the off-season.

Scrum Half backups secured

With the departures of Cathal Sheridan (injury plagued) and Tomas O’Leary whose lack of game time prompted a loan move to Montpelier, it was essential that Munster identified sufficient backup options to Munster. The new recruit is James Hart, a potential shrewd signing from the province who is well regarded by management at Racing Metro 92. His brief cameo against Munster last weekend indicated a player who is quick to distribute from the ruck. With a good off-season, Hart will be a pivotal squad player who will challenge existing incumbent Duncan Williams for the backup scrum half spot. Williams is rewarded for a positive start to the season with a contract extension. Some may have their negative vibes on the player but Williams is well respected in the Munster dressing room and management team. Williams has played superbly in recent weeks particularly away to Glasgow two weeks ago. His assured box kicking and game management was to the fore. A potentially troublesome position resolved next season. Erasmus will have plenty of competition for places in the twenty-three man first team squad.

Chris Farrell

This is a signing which will prompt speculation on the futures of the likes of Saili and Taute. Chris Farrell has significant upside; aggressive ball carrier, physical and strong. His age profile means that he will come to Munster with his best days still left to come. Fans need to be patient on this signing so hopefully either Taute or Saili are also in the squad next season as both players have contributed massively on both sides of the ball in recent months. Farrell will need experience around him to nurture him into the defensive system of the province and also gain familiarity to the attacking plays. Either Taute or Saili would fit the mould perfectly or potentially Keith Earls as well. A signing which has a lot of upside given the age profile of the player. We await to see his impact.

Contract Renewals

Munster have tied down the futures of six Munster players whose age profile means that the province will enjoy the peaks of their playing careers. Bleyendaal at ten this season has being excellent; yes, they are questions from yours truly on his ability to vary up his game but his passing and ability to hit his targets has being on point. 2019 contract means that the player will be eligible for Ireland duty well before then. Is he a player in the plans of Joe Schmidt?

Dave Kilcoyne has signed on until June 2020. The abrasive prop whose ball carrying provides Munster with endless attacking opportunities has being a revelation this season. His set piece has improved this season and his error count has reduced compared to last season when he was exposed in set piece, offside and the occasion knock on. Kilcoyne’s suitors were many but the UL Bohs stalwart has made the right decision; a team which is on the up. Kilcoyne can bed down and hone his craft in familiar surroundings. Excellent contract extension.

The Scannell brothers have being standouts of the Munster revival. Rory Scannell at twelve has transitioned into a quality three quarter. His ability to spot space in behind opponents defenses with superb kicks has setup endless opportunities for Munster to launch attacks. Scannell’s defense this year has being sublime. Niebaner and Farrell have to be credited for this, his first time tackle success rate is on point. A player who will only improve in the coming years and his kicking makes him a good option at ten also.

Niall Scannell is the first choice hooker in the team even if Casey, Sharry were in the squad fit and healthy. His progression this season has summed up Munster’s rise; his error count has reduced and the Cork native has really improved all facets of his play. Lineout has being on point evident in his call-up to the Ireland squad for the upcoming RBS 6N. What I am loving about these signings is the age profile, all the guys are young and their potential has yet to be fully realized. Exciting times for the province. A key player for the team in the years to come.

Darren Sweetnam before his injury was excellent. Kirchner’s hit during St.Stephen’s Day was a sickener as the player was increasing in confidence in both sides of the ball. His GAA background proved a great asset for Murray in box kicking aerial duels but his ability to identify space in the open field was to the fore. Superb prospect and along with Ronan O’Mahoney is a player with massive potential to flourish in the years to come. A no brainer but a move which was needed to be tied down now. Exciting times indeed for Munster!

European Rugby Champions Cup: Munster 22 – 10 Racing Metro 92

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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!

 

 

Guinness Pro 12: Munster 29 – 17 Leinster

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A sold out Thomond Park saw Munster secure a bonus point win against an under strength Leinster outfit. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Introduction

Munster vs. Leinster. A local derby game to whet the appetite of supporters from both provinces was somewhat devalued by the decision of Leinster (more so IRFU) to enforce the player welfare protocol which saw the likes of O’Brien, Heaslip, Cronin, Toner, Ringrose rested for the encounter. A huge shame for those supporters who paid good money several weeks ago anticipating to see two full strength teams go at it hammer and thong. Munster had a full squad to chose from and the pundits and bookies point spread was indicative of pregame perceptions that the visitors would struggle.

Frenetic Opening Exchanges

Despite Leinster coming into this contest as underdogs, they started this local derby fixture in positive fashion. Leinster’s line speed in attacking and defensive duties caught the eye early doors as Munster at times struggled to cope as they struggled to establish quick go forward ball and also missed first time tackles which allowed Leinster early game line gains. It was this line speed which was to the fore when the visitors took a deserved lead on fifteen minutes; a well executed scrum saw the Leinster half-backs to combine brilliantly to allow Zane Kirchner who took a superb direct running line to go over for the try. The concession will be disappointing from a Munster perspective; defensive line speed was poor and an unfortunate slip from O’Mahoney allowed Kirchner the time and space to turn on the afterburners and score. Nacewa duly tacked on the extras and the try temporarily stunned the Thomond Park faithful into silence.

Superb Munster Response

The response from the hosts to the opening score concession was excellent. A well executed Munster lineout on the Leinster 22 rumbled into red zone territory. Several phases later and the ball made its way to Simon Zebo who somehow acrobatically got over despite the close attentions of Gibson-Park and Barry Daly. The try was superbly created; Zebo had no divine right to get the ball down for the try but it showed the player’s class and creativity in securing enough space to get over in the corner. The subsequent conversion from Tyler Bleyendaal was on point; an excellent kick from the sideline and the sides were level. The Munster opening try stirred the fans and despite Leinster retaking the lead from an Nacewa penalty (conceded after Jean Kleyn was penalized for a neck roll tackle), the momentum had shifted to the hosts.

Defining score

Munster had the momentum leading into the interval but credit Leinster’s defensive line was solid and at times, the hosts looked devoid of ideas despite the best efforts of Conor Murray whose quick distribution was to the fore and James Cronin who tried a between the legs pass. Twenty-one phases later and Leinster’s defensive back wilted with Bleyendaal spotting O’Mahoney in space on the sideline and the Limerick native crossed for a superb score. The lead-up to the try saw a potential flashpoint not picked up by match official Nigel Owens, a clear late hit off the ball on the impressive Darren Sweetnam from Zane Kirchner. Player welfare issue surfaced after the resumption when Sweetnam failed to reappear for the second half; it was a reckless tackle and one that should have being seen at least a yellow card. Bleyendaal again executing a superb conversion from the touchline and the hosts were 14-10 up at the interval.

Dominant Munster Third Quarter

The game was put to bed in the third quarter. Nigel Owens again to the fore; on another day Leinster hooker James Tracy may have won his side a penalty under his posts for a determined breakdown win but Munster got away with it and Murray’s kick to the corner where Tommy O’Donnell jumped superbly to retain the ball and cross over for the third try. Bleyendaal again slotting the conversion and suddenly Leinster were facing an uphill battle.

The Munster faithful could sense a bonus point try was not long in arriving and it duly arrived when the workhorse CJ Stander crashed over from short range. Munster’s pack led superbly by Jean Kleyn mauled imperiously to the Leinster line and Stander had the simplest of tasks to touchdown. Despite Bleyendaal’s missed conversion, 26-10 was a match winning moment in the contest.

Leinster resiliency

The one word that best described Leinster’s performance last night was resiliency. They refused to take a step backwards in defensive and attacking duties. The squad depth of the province is such that seven Ireland international fronted up in the pack and despite inexperience at the half-back positions, their back line boasted the likes of Nacewa and Kirchner. Eric Byrne at fly-half given time to develop will be a superb player; his game management in the opening period belied his professional career inexperience with probing kicks deep into Munster territory.

James Tracy at hooker has all the attributes to become a standout player for both province and national team; his energy and work  rate is infectious. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster despite disappointed with the result will point to several good performances from his inexperienced lineup which will be required during the 6N period of the Pro12 tournament when squads are tested to their limits.

Leinster edged the last quarter and were rewarded for their efforts with a try from Strauss who spotted a gap in the fringes to cross unopposed. An opportunistic try but one that exhibited Leinster’s patience in phase play and ball retention during the leadup to try.

Job Done Munster

Munster will not get carried away with this win over their arch provincial rivals. The manner in which the hosts scored their tries were very impressive and illustrated good game management decision making. Creativity was to the fore for the first and third try scored.

Conor Murray continues to impress at scrum-half; the Limerick native is playing some of his best rugby of his career. His distribution from the ruck is fast and on point; his box kicking has never being in question but he has added flair and creativity in identify opposition defensive gaps. His pass to Zebo against Leicester a couple of weeks ago, his superbly pinpoint kick to O’Donnell are new traits to emerge from the player who is leading the battle for the Lions number nine jersey.

The work rate of the side was good for the second and third quarters of this contest, the spell where the hosts put this fixture to bed. Erasmus will potentially look at the slow start in the opening period; the management team will realize that such a lethargic start will not be good enough on the road to Galway, Paris or Scotstoun in the next couple of weeks.

The news of Jaco Taute extending his stay for an additional six months is superb news. The South African player has made such a positive impact to the club with his leadership, professionalism. Rory Scannell at twelve is a different player this season; much owes the impact of Taute who has allowed the Cork native to make line breaks and probing kicking behind opposition defensive space.

Francis Saili introduction to proceedings in the last quarter is more welcome news to Munster. The competition for places even for game day squad is intense; a good way to be leading into a crucial period of games in January. Munster travel to Galway on New Year’s Eve with a probably diminished squad to chose from but it will be an opportunity for players such as Marshall, Du Toit, O’Shea, O’Donoghue to stake their claim for more first team starts.

Five points clear at the top of the Pro12 league. It has being a great end to the year in the league for Munster. It is a great shame that the resurgence for team and fan base took place immediately after the tragic loss of Anthony Foley. Thomond Park sold out signs are back in vogue; the team is playing a brand of rugby which is incorporating Munster forward values yet adding offensive width as well with the likes of Sweetnam and O’Mahoney availing with several tries each scored so far this season. Exciting times ahead for the province but tougher challenges lie ahead.

 

 

Munster 27 – 14 Maori All Blacks

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Last Friday evening in Thomond Park was a night that I will remember for quite a long time. The debut of the Maori All Blacks was a resounding success and one would sincerely hope that the New Zealand side will be back in Munster HQ sooner rather than later.

The pregame tribute to Axel Foley was incredibly moving, the gesture of the Maori All Blacks to present their jersey with AF at the back to Anthony Foley’s two sons was particularly striking. The subsequent Haka performed by the touring party provided the crowd with unforgettable moments even before the start of the contest.

Media reports have being incredibly harsh on the two teams on Friday night. The game was played quite frankly in a monsoon. The torrential rain a hour before kickoff made the ball like a bar of soap but both sides tried to play as expansive as they could. Yes, there were some patchy periods of play but it was understandable considering the conditions. Sometimes, I question some media hounds on their assessment of games.

This was a fixture which would have  immensely pleased Rassie Erasmus and coaching staff. The players on duty were given their opportunity to confirm whether they were able to produce a performance in the first team jersey and did the team deliver? There were several eye catching displays from the team in red.

The front row was dominant from the first scrum exchange. Archer, Scannell and Cronin provided the early platform where Munster settled into the game. The second row was a revelation on the night.O’Shea and Madigan were prominent in set piece but it was their work rate around the fringes which really impressed me. O’Shea’s cameo in particular caught the eye; lineout was assured in extremely testing conditions and he continued to make bone crunching tackles until the final whistle stopping the All Black Maori’s at source. Madigan also was to the fore; some impressive hits which caused Munster turnovers.

The back row contest was sublime. Ioane as a ball carrier was a beast and he showed his potency in the lead-up to the Maori’s second try making massive yards. However, Munster and particularly Robin Copeland can feel proud of his efforts. Copeland revels when games are open in nature which Friday was. His ball carrying caused the Maori’s massive headaches which sucked more players around the fringes allowing Munster to attack on the wings with deft drubber kicks. O’Donnell’s captaincy was on point and Conor Oliver was snipping in his breakdown and ball carrying duties.

The highlight of the game for me personally was the performance of Darren Sweetnam whose poise and class throughout shone through. He has the ability to see the game so quickly and was evident in his try just before the interval which swung the game to Munster. A try which came from an inaccurate Maori’s pass was latched onto by Sweetnam whose kicks were perfectly judged. Quality finish. You can see why Erasmus rates the player so much.

Ronan O’Mahony also was to the fore; his try came from a deft chip behind the Maori defensive line by Duncan Williams. A hint of offside about it perhaps but his awareness of the opportunity was obvious clear from his shout to Williams to kick over the top. Munster’s young squad players have played superbly in recent weeks.

While the youngsters were revelling in their surroundings, the more experienced back line players gave leadership when required. Taute and Conway were sensational on the night. I spoke to Taute post game and he ‘dearly wants to stay’ in the province beyond his short loan deal expires.

Taute brings physicality in defense and attack; very much a Trevor Halstead mould of player which Munster fans love, needs to be signed long term. Conway at full back was on point; his catches in diabolical conditions and game line yards were immense. No Munster player lay down and the win was fully merited.

Maori All Blacks did show in the opening period flashes of brilliance. They ruthlessly punished Munster on two occasions when the exit strategy was not executed correctly. The offloading on the wings were superb. Ioane was a fulcrum for the visitors throughout, his ball carrying posed the USA Eagles massive problems and his ball carry led to the second Maori try.

The Maori’s were second best in the pack exchanges; the scrum misfired all night and game management was off in the wet conditions. They may have had an grievance on O’Mahony’s try but they could have had easily multiple players in the bin due to tackling Munster players without the ball on several occasions. The opening half was not capitalized on by the visitors and Munster played the percents particularly during their sin bin. Scannell’s kick to the corner during this period was sublime. Two neat finishes by the Maori’s was the end product; improvement a plenty for the Harlequins fixture.

The result was never in doubt in that final quarter. Maori’s tried to score but Copeland and company were not in the mood to let this happen; several breakdown steals ensued. Munster were deep in Maori territory when the ball was lashed into touch by O’Donnell. A magic night, one to remember. Munster momentum continues. An exciting December beckons and with the fan base re-energized again, exciting times lie ahead for the province.

Munster 33 – 0 Ospreys

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This time of year gives me the creeps when it comes to the Pro 12 tournament. November internationals; sides are depleted, squad depth of certain teams is highlighted, squad depth in other teams are exposed. These three statements were particularly true on Friday night when Munster continued to their recent good form with an emphatic win over an Ospreys side who were missing twelve first team players.

A sold out Irish Independent Park (Musgrave Park to the old school masses) continued the renewed support of the province since the tragic death of Axel Foley. The energy of the home support has inspired the Munster team in recent weeks and there was plenty to be positive about from a Munster perspective for Rassie Erasmus. Dave Kilcoyne produced a barnstorming display; full of intensity and work rate in the loose. His ball carrying ability and game line yards set the platform for Munster to launch attack after attack. A power packed performance which has earned the UL Bohemians clubman a thoroughly deserved international call-up.

Munster were rarely troubled by an Ospreys side who were quite passive in the opening exchanges. This was in comparison to the hosts whose line speed, work rate and organization in the fringes were on point throughout. The ability of Munster players to support their colleague was a pleasure to watch. This set the tone for the first try of the contest where concerted Munster pressure led to a maul from close range which rumbled over the whitewash.

Darren Sweetnam and Ronan O’Mahoney made big statements to the coaching staff tonight. Sweetnam looks like a real find; the Cork native seems to have so much time on the ball and his ability to beat the first tackle shows the ingenuity and creativity of the player. Sweetnam’s kicking game from hand is a work in progress (one ball went out in the full) but his deft chip behind Ospreys rearguard at the death of this contest oozed class. His close range try was clinically executed. A player which the province must retain and secure; exciting times ahead.

O’Mahoney has had an encouraging Munster career to date but his cameo on Friday night suggests a different side to his play. His two tries came from absolutely nothing, the latter when he latched onto an Osprey’s mistake to score. His work rate and ability to win the game line battle was evident throughout . Two promising youngsters on the wings; the academy is producing genuine talent which can make it to the top again.

Peter O’Mahoney was on a different planet; his ability to read Ospreys’ lineout calls got ridiculous at times. Darren O’Shea certainly assisted in this department but O’Mahoney is like a brand new player for the province. His actions inspire his colleagues to follow suit; the way he got up from a nasty looking fall from a lineout in the second half was nothing short of remarkable. O’Mahoney bounced straight back up and Mitrea was startled that the Ireland international got up so quickly. O’Mahoney’s work rate offensively and defensively was on point.

Tyler Bleyendaal continues to impress; yet again the pack were in dominant form but the New Zealand player continued to game manage with efficiency. His kicking both from the tee and out of hand was on point and Ospreys were struggling to make defensive reads on Munster such was the accuracy and precision of Bleyendaal on the night. A position which Munster have struggled in the last eighteen months, it is now imperative that Munster keep their NZ player fit and healthy in order to retain the momentum of the side.

Ospreys will rue the fact that so many players were unable due to injuries and international duty but the defensive line setup was at times inconsistent, something not exposed in Challenge Cup fare but when in Pro 12 action can be magnified three fold. When the Welsh region had chances to put pressure on, their set piece let them down. The scrum was second best and the lineout misfired at key times in key territorial areas. Better days lie ahead for the Ospreys but the side looks jaded and the break has come at the right time. Steve Tandy needs to assess and try to get players back in the squad to shore up gaping holes in the front five and back line.

The most exciting part of the night for me personally was the introduction of Munster’s scrum half Griesel who even in the eight minute cameo showed all the attributes required to suggest that the province have a scrum half who adds a different dimension to Munster’s play. His quick ruck ball, his physicality to tackle in the fringes was promising. The SA U20 capped player will keep the likes of Duncan Williams (who was good) on his toes particularly during international rugby sabbaticals of the season. Munster’s squad continues to evolve for the better.

Erasmus will be happy that Munster kept the door shut at the death; the line speed in defense did not abate. Munster will have tougher tests starting with the sold out fixture against the Maori’s in Thomond Park this week. Maori’s will be unashamedly aggressive with ball in hand and will try to create from anywhere. An useful exercise for the side ahead of European Cup action next month. Interesting times ahead and Munster head into the Pro 12 break in a quite healthy position second in the table. The fans have come back to support the province; progression is the keyword at the moment and Munster are delivering this requirement.

European Rugby Champions Cup: Munster 38-17 Glasgow Warriors

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Best of luck to today, emotional afternoon beckons. Team and fans in unison. Let’s do it for Axel! – Hawkeye Sidekick (Morning of October 21st)

Glasgow Warriors, a team who produced the standout performance of the opening round of the tournament last week scoring fifty points against Leicester Tigers would have felt confident of producing a performance against a Munster team whose attentions were far removed from the training ground after a traumatic week.

Munster had just lost their head coach. Munster had just lost a man who embodied the province. Munster had lost a legend of their club. It is in this backdrop that 26,000 Munster fans assembled. It is in this backdrop where a group of Munster players and management came together and produced a performance which defied logic but rekindled an atmosphere in Thomond Park which has being missing for a number of years.

I knew that there was something special about to happen in Thomond Park by the number of fans who were making their way to the grounds at least two hours before kickoff. I was in Raheen at around 11am on Saturday morning and multiple buses with Munster supporters were leaving, the volume of support spoke volumes. Castletroy, a similar story. The locals were going to Thomond Park to support the team, to be the sixteenth man, to provide the guidance to the team in their hour of need.

The events leading to kickoff were impeccably executed. The tributes, the sight of numerous Shannon flags in the crowd was a great touch, a reminder of Foley’s connection with the Shannon RFC, a link between the amateur and professional sides of the game in the province. The tribute from the West Stand was sensational; it was an emphatic tribute and the atmosphere around the ground was crackling; it was back to the Miracle games against Gloucester and Sale.

Any confidence that Glasgow had going into this contest was gone. The fans had set the fixture, lifted the team and management to new heights. The hunger, intensity and power of Munster in the first ten minutes was incredible; winning the 50/50 battles. The running lines were full of speed and aggression and offloading was on point evident in Earl’s sublime pass to Bleyendaal who with plenty to do evaded several Glasgow tackles and over for a sensational try.

The subsequent conversion had Munster seven points to the good. Glasgow were stung, surely there was a reaction coming. However, Munster continued to control the pack exchanges, game line yards were being made, breakdown clearouts were emphatic. A second try was coming and with Scannell making a superb line break, the ball was spread out wide to Jaco Taute who went over, a physical player who needs to be signed long term to the province. The resulting conversion was sublime; the curl of the ball coming in at the last moment, this was going to be Munster’s day.

Even a red-card to the hosts could not derail the atmosphere in the venue; it even increased the cauldron atmosphere. Earls tackle was worthy of a red card; loss of control than cynical. Glasgow were fighting a losing battle even playing against fourteen. As Gregor Townsend said post-game, Glasgow were playing 26,000 people, not just 15 players. Scannell at twelve produced his best performance in a Munster jersey; his ability to beat the first tackle was key to the third try as the ball found its way to Simon Zebo who just got over for the try. Axel probably gave him a shove over the line. Another excellent conversion from the touchline and Munster had a 24-3 lead at the break. How could they have this lead? Down to fourteen players. Logic out the window.

Glasgow were again on the back foot in the early exchanges of the second half with Munster’s pack to a man excelling in their ball carrying duties and set piece. John Ryan had an inspired afternoon;,,dlodlo scrum time dominance built the platform for Munster to launch penalties deep into Warrior’s territory. A fourth try was inevitable and more pressure on Glasgow’s scrum resulted in a penalty try; reward to the Munster pack. Axel Foley would have being pleased.

The inevitable exertions for the fourteen players took their toll in the third quarter and Glasgow suddenly found some form. Two quick tries for the Warriors, the second try was a superbly executed score and highlighted Glasgow at their best; quick ruck ball allowing Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg to orchestrate. Mark Bennett expertly scored and suddenly the gap was down to fourteen points. The home crowd reacted and the players followed suit.

A clinically worked fifth try was scored to provide much needed breathing space in the last ten minutes. The Munster pack again to the fore; making several game line breaks and Murray spotting Scannell out wide to go over in the corner. Ian Keatley who had replaced Bleyendaal by then continued to set the tone with a superb kick from the touchline. 38-17. Game over.

The crackling atmosphere in the Thomond Park stands and terraces continued until the final whistle as Ian Keatley lashed the ball out of play following a Glasgow knock-on. Mission accomplished but there was one last moment to remember. The Munster players escorted Axel Foley’s sons to the middle of the pitch to launch into ‘Stand Up and Fight’; a massive statement for the players to make. This result was for everyone. Everyone in the ground contributed to the result. Unforgettable memories and one hopes that this is how it will be going forward in Thomond Park going forward.

Glasgow Warriors are still very much in this pool. Their attacking rugby will yield additional wins in this tournament but they came up against a force which was almost paranormal in nature. As the great man would say, Munster played with a bit of dog in them. Foley’s charges delivered their most emphatic performance. Erasmus must now identify how to channel this performance in a consistent manner. Epic. One for the annals.