European Rugby Champions Cup Round 2: Munster 14 – 7 Racing 92

Relief. Weather conditions made this fixture a lottery. John Ryan cameo key. A great win considering the malfunctioning lineout – Hawkeye Sidekick on October 21st at around 20:30pm GMT

Storm Brian made his presence felt in the surrounds of Limerick and Thomond Park this Saturday and the conditions he threw up setup a contest which was abrasive, hard hitting with no quarter given.

Munster Rugby are on the win column in Europe this season with an extremely hard fought victory over a Racing 92 pack who will review the video analysis and wonder how they did not come away from Limerick with a road win.

The pregame conditions were horrific; driving wind and rain coming in from the Clare Hills at various intervals. Both sides struggled to read the conditions even in warm-up expect for Ronan O’Gara who was gleefully collecting and driving kicks back at Dan Carter with renewed interest much to the delight of the Munster Rugby faithful.

The legend still has it and his actions on the pitch during warm-ups suggested a different team and mindset to the one which rolled over against the hosts at the start of the calendar year.

Poignant opening with the minute applause for Anthony Foley. Cue Donnacha Ryan and Ronan O’Gara to come out to the pitch with Racing 92 presentation and tribute to the Munster talisman. Emotional stuff.

The opening period was bereft of much in the way of genuine attacking play. Munster Rugby started the game with gusto but poor handling (inevitable due to the weather conditions) and abrasive Racing 92 defensive line thwarted any scoring threats. The scrum was a source of joy for Munster but the line-out was off from the first line-out.

Racing 92 were dominant in the sector putting Marshall under pressure to throw to the back of the line; an arduous task considering the wind and wet conditions. This was evident in a couple of line-out steals from the visitors in the first half as the hosts tried to build momentum; taking the option to go for the lineout instead of points.

The pattern of play for the middle section of the opening period was both sides doing well under aerial bombs, building phases but finding defensive weak points as easy as having some sunshine in Limerick on Saturday afternoon. Solid exit strategy. Several massive collisions in midfield as Rory Scannell and Anthony Tuitavake set the tone with enormous physicality.

Chris Farrell when involved carried excellent ball into contact, making hard earned game yards in the attempt that his side could create from quick ruck ball. However, the back row exchanges were 50/50. Both sides doing a good job of preventing quick ball throughout and a stalemate ensued for the remainder of the opening period.

Racing 92 and Dan Carter probing and with their front five’s confidence soaring with each passing minute, the hosts were now being forced into the tackle count. Scannell and Kilcoyne’s tackles crucial in the opening period to prevent Racing 92 from scoring the coveted opening try.

A friend of mine who will remain nameless quipped that this could be a 0-0 stalemate before kickoff and with nearly three quarters of the contest, it looked to be on the cards as both sides were on top defensively and line breaks were non-existent but then came the pivotal moment of the contest.

Munster’s line speed for some of Racing 92’s kicks lacked genuine urgency but Conor Murray whose had a difficult afternoon with the conditions timed his block to perfection as Machenaud delayed for just a fraction long; the ball was blocked and now it was contest to win the ball three meters from the Racing 92 line.

Murray won the race and with a greasy ball claimed possession to go over the whitewash. Cue home fans celebration. The reaction of several Racing 92 players particularly in the pack was noteworthy; a shrug of the shoulders and a few barbed comments to the scrum-half to boot.

Ian Keatley who grew into this contest particularly in the second half hit a gorgeous conversion over and suddenly Munster Rugby were seven nil up. Racing 92 for their pack dominance were behind and needed to take more risks with ball in hand. Cue Munster to score the decisive second try five minutes.

Racing 92 pinged for offside and a solid line-out delivery setup field position. Excellent ball carrying from the likes of John Ryan and the ever willing Dave Kilcoyne built further on the move. The ball was then spread out and Rory Scannell’s decision making was on point, holding up the Racing 92 defensive line enough to distribute an excellent pass to Andrew Conway to cross in the corner.

Ian Keatley again stepped up for the conversion; a near impossible kick from the sideline. Keatley had missed a kick from straight in-front immediately after Murray’s opening salvo but the kicking off the tee was an occupational hazard and give him a pass on that effort. This conversion was superbly hit, used the win superbly to bring it in. 14-0 and it was a long road back for Racing 92.

Tommy O’Donnell in the third quarter was a pivotal figure; his work rate, tackle count and ball carrying on point. Munster’s pack to a man stood up admirably to the onslaught from the physically imposing French pack were Claasens was outstanding. Nakarawa was a constant threat but credit the hosts for their video analysis work, the Fijian did not effect the game with his offloading but did get on the score-sheet with a smart close range effort. The close range conversion was good and with five mins left, it was 14-7 game.

The closing moments of the Castres game saw Munster’s discipline desert them and one wondered in the Thomond Park wind and rain whether this would happen again. The video analysis of the last five minutes will be a mixed bag; a couple of needless penalties conceded given quality field position for Racing 92 to strike late. The final play of the game; a Racing 92 lineout ten meters out from the Munster posts was initially taken but the ball was spilled forward. Munster Rugby reclaimed possession and the ball was kicked dead. Game over.

The good points for Munster Rugby was that they won this contest despite experiencing massive issues in the lineout set-piece. This was a collective failure from the unit; poor throwing but some questionable pod formations which made Racing 92 easily read the hosts intentions. Better days for the unit in this regard. The scrum went well. Archer / Ryan and Kilcoyne set the tone early and never relinquished control yielding a number of penalties.

Ian Keatley’s game management in the second half was a critical factor in the outcome of the win. The half-back has his critics but on days like yesterday, he delivers. Assured kicking from hand and his conversion were superbly taken. A genuine battle for the ten jersey is now on and with JJ Hanrahan improving and destined to get game minutes in the coming weeks in the position, it is a nice complaint for Munster Rugby to have ahead of the key December fixtures.

The back line defensively held tight. All players were good in aerial kicks defensively and ball carries were on point. Zebo’s pass to Earls in the opening period was a superb highlight reel moment; unfortunately the pass did not stick but it showed that the full back was looking for ways to unlock a determined Racing 92 defensive line. Conway’s cameo was typically sharp, industrious and full of endeavor. Great try with great passing from Scannell whose kicking game in the opening period was crucial, some great clearances in that opening half to relieve Racing 92 pressure.

Racing 92’s physical pack will cause the other pool teams issues in the rounds to come. Munster had issues in the lineout but also in the maul where Racing 92 had joy at different stages. Munster’s pack to the man produced excellent tackle count statistics but the weather conditions really suited Racing 92’s big pack to run the ball up the jumper for sustained periods. Munster’s resiliency to make tackles, defensive support work was to the fore and their patience paid off with two tries to win the contest.

December will be a critical make or break period for both teams. I sense Racing 92 could get ten points from Castres in the December fixtures. Castres were a pale shadow of one’s self leaking 54 points to a rampant Leicester Tigers. Munster Rugby face Leicester Tigers; not much between these two outfits and conceivably a win a piece for both teams at home could be the bookies call. This is the pool of death. This is the pool where conceivably all three teams could flirt with quarter final places in the last pool of games. Intriguing stuff.

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