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.