IN the end, all that matters in knockout rugby is the score. 3-0 is as good as, well, 41-16 when you get down to the nitty-gritty and that’s certainly how Munster will feel this week.
Long story short, Munster pulled away from Toulouse in the last 10 minutes after a nervy third quarter but all that matters was the result, and the confidence it will bring.
Munster 41 Toulouse 16 is what the scoreboard says, but more significantly, Munster got the big win when it counts.
It doesn’t matter that it was uglier than it needed to be, or that Munster looked decidedly ropey at times - they got the job done. A European Cup semi-final. If you’d have predicted it back in September, you’d have been laughed at. Yet here we are.
By any standards, this season has been absolutely remarkable. And the funny thing is, it’s not even half done yet.
It was a game Munster never really looked like losing. You could point to the nervy third quarter, where Munster lost captain O’Mahony and Stander to knocks, but even then, they were relatively comfortable. In reality, the game was made look a lot closer than it was by some scandalous refereeing from JP Doyle. How he missed the forward pass in the build-up to Toulouse’s only try - and with his TMO prodding him as much as possible - will only be known to Doyle. If that last pass was anymore forward, it would be a pickup line from Casanova.
It was the type of game that hinged on the referee's whistle for far too long. When that referee whistle is dangling from the lips of JP Doyle, that’s a risky proposition. It made the third quarter a lot more tight than it needed to be.
The way to get at Toulouse was the same as it had been all season - run them around until they gas out and keep parity in the scrum. Munster, through the trojan work of Ryan, Scannell and Kilcoyne, kept a massive Toulouse scrum under control all day long. That took away a lot of Toulouse’s weaponry.
The late loss of Richie Gray took away much of Toulouse’s lineout dynamism and Peter O’Mahony would go onto steal three lineouts and disrupt a fair few more. With no set piece dominance, Toulouse were reliant on Munster errors to generate momentum and they found more than Munster will be comfortable with on review. The first major error was a bad slice off the normally reliable boot of Tyler Bleyendaal that, after a few tight phases, led to a Toulouse penalty. A few more needless infringements kept Toulouse much closer than they perhaps deserved. An old coach of mine used to tell us to “keep that fool with the whistle out of the game” and Munster were in danger of going against that age-old maxim at times in the second and third quarter.
Ultimately, Munster had the conditioning and mental resolve to overcome Toulouse’s second half mini-revival and, in the end, put them to the sword.
Toulouse came to have a scrap here. That was clear from Cros’ rash late hit on Duncan Williams after less than two minutes. What will please Munster greatly is the manner in which they answered that onslaught - front on. Much was made of Toulouse’s massive size but Munster nullified their big carriers handily enough, stopped Toulouse in the maul and matched their scrum inch for inch.
When you look at the stats, you can hardly believe that Munster ended up winning this game 41-16. Toulouse had more carries, more passes and a lot more of the ball in the first half especially. It paints a familiar picture; that of Munster exhausting the opposition by letting them batter themselves senseless against the Big Red Wall for 60 minutes until their resistance fades.
It was this defence that won the game, in the end. Much of Munster’s work with the ball in hand through the forwards met with the same result. Stander had a quiet game on the ball - mainly because he was being marked by two heavy beasts on every carry. But, unlike earlier in the season, this did little to harm Munster on the pitch. Munster will be somewhat disappointed that they were unable to stretch Toulouse around the fringes as they’ll see a world of gaps when they review the video. Sometimes, though, you’re better off without the ball - especially if the opposition comes at you around the fringes and are likely to exhaust themselves.
John Ryan richly deserved his man of the match award and looked top class in the tight. Peter O’Mahony looked like Grade A Lions material up until his early departure. Duncan Williams shook off the disruption of the late call up to have his best ever game in Munster colours and Donnacha Ryan showed the IRFU the folly of their penny-pinching. Simon Zebo looked like a test fullback, such was his composure and time on the ball.
Other than that, Munster were average enough. It was all about the collective. They would win this game as a unit, a battalion. This wasn’t a day for (too many) outstanding individuals - this was the Munster brotherhood going to war for each other, for the province, and winning.
When the story of this Munster team is written, this game may well be the key chapter. A European Cup Semi Final? Dreamland. But now it’s a lot more tangible than a dream. Anything can happen from here, and you know what? You wouldn’t bet against Munster.