The Heather O'Brien rugby column
TO START with in Saturday's Champions Cup quarter-final at Thomond Park, Duncan Williams and Tyler Blyendaal renewed their half-partnership of the last two months.
That could have put Munster on the back foot, as Conor Murray wasn't risked, having failed a late fitness test.
This was the biggest occasion in a Munster jersey for Williams, who was edgy in those opening minutes, before going on to play a key role in setting up a European semi-final against Saracens.
He was not helped by a late hit by Toulouse’s number eight, Francois Cros. The TMO confirmed Cros had led with his elbow, so the penalty was upgraded to a yellow card. Munster played against 14 and took only five minutes to score. The rolling maul started the momentum and John Ryan scored after tight phases. The ever-improving tight head capped his man-of-the-match performance with an appearance on the score sheet.
Munster had 10 points on the board with just 10 minutes on the clock. Peter O’Mahony was dominating the line-out, and the maul was rumbling. Choke holds were paying dividends, via turnovers, or at least sucking in numbers. Some loose kicking by Munster caused the momentum to shift. One such kick, an uncharacteristic error from Blyendaal, sliced off the boot and went backwards. The Munster pack retreated to steel themselves for the Toulouse attack from the set-piece.
The French had the swirling wind in the opening 40, but Simon Zebo was well-positioned to nullify their high aerials. They had more success with a dinky grubber through the centre. Doussain found the smallest of gaps to probe for on-running Huget. Zebo did just enough to cover, impacting with the post for his efforts.
Munster did all but score at the opposite end, an over-the-head basketball pass from Ryan to Taute, back inside to Scannell with a half-break. His offload went to deck, and Blyendaal gathered to dot it down over the line. Closer inspection from referee, JP Doyle, and the TMO deemed that the ball had been knocked forward, so no try. When Toulouse looked to clear from the resulting scrum, Williams charged and blocked the kick, but it bounced dead. The visitors were rattled, but, for all Muster’s efforts, 13 points seemed a paltry return.
While never looking overly threatening, Toulouse, as they struggled to find a foothold in the Limerick fortress, trailed by just four points at the break. Travelling reserve, Ian Keatley, spoke of a “slow poison” game plan. Munster were ready for a fight until the end.
Munster halfbacks, Williams and Blyendaal, were growing into the game. The out-half took the next four chances at goal. Crucial decisions kept the scoring board ticking over, when the game hung in the balance. A half-chance looked as if it could change the game for the French. The lineout and maul were crucial, too, for Munster. A peel-and-transfer maul set up Stander to add to his try tally, but the contest was far from over.
While Munster fell the wrong side of the TMO scrutiny, the French came off lucky. Munster were caught short on the blindside. Maestri, the second row, showed turn-of-foot to exploit the gap. He found his winger, Perez, in support and he had enough gas to finish. The crowd were vocal and in no doubt of their feeling on the forward pass, but the TMO and referee, Doyle, deliberated. Doyle felt he could not get a clear angle to confirm nor deny, so he stuck with his original decision. The try was awarded. The ambiguity meant a score for the French from nothing and the visitors were back in the game, with just eight points the difference. Even Fabian Pelous couldn’t help a wry smile.
At 65 minutes, Munster were down their captain, Peter O’Mahony, due to a shoulder impact; CJ Stander was forced to succumb to an ankle injury; their most experienced back, Keith Earls, was off and Conor Murray was in the stands. Billy Holland took over leadership and Ryan, O’Donnell, Blyendaal, and Zebo came to the fore. Munster looked to be grinding out a tight finish, until a magic read from their electric winger. Munster pressure had Doussain on the back-foot. He lost the ball as Jaco Taute, the monstrous centre, tackled and Sweetnam kicked through. The ball bounced well and Sweetnam gratefully gathered for Munster’s third try.
Munster weren’t finished yet. Rory Scannell dummied, stepped and jinked from a midfield scrum to break through. He wasn’t held in the tackle and bounced up to steal more yards. Quick recycling and a beautiful, cut-out pass from Blyendaal put replacement, Conway, over in the corner. 41-16 was just reward for their dominance.
While Leinster stormed through Wasps in Lansdowne Road, Munster stuttered at times. It wasn’t the complete performance, but they finished four of their talismans in the stands. This was a squad performance against the four-time champions. If Munster stay at full compliment, there may be fun ahead.