At some point, you’d think that you would get sick of nabbing wins from behind in the last 10 minutes. I can’t tell you when that might be because it’s been well over 20 years at this stage and it still feels like finding €20 in an old jacket. It happened again here, with yet another smash in grab in the last 10 minutes on a fired up, if error-prone, Ulster side. For the umpteenth time this season, Munster found themselves down in the last 15 minutes only to come back and nab the win at the death. Imagine Indiana Jones snatching his hat from under the closing wall over and over again and you’ll have some idea of how it feels.
This time around, it was a close in rumble from Dave O’Callaghan in the 72nd minute that did the job, assisted by a whiffed Paddy Jackson drop goal in red time but that won’t concern Munster too much. This is the time of year where results are the only currency that pays the bills. In that context, a manky two point win for four valuable match day points is money in the bank for Rassie Erasmus’ team as they secured a Pro12 semi-final with two rounds to spare.
The focus will now turn to Saracens in the Champions Cup, with only a win in Treviso standing between Munster and a home semi-final in the Pro12. One suspects that eyes may have been on the Big One for some a little sooner than others.
That isn’t to say that the performance was feckless. That would be harsh. It would be fair to describe it as “sloppy” and “unfocused” though, and that applied to large tracts of Munster’s game. It’s understandable, in a lot of ways. Champions Cup semi-finals don’t grow on trees and it’s only natural that some of the team today were a little below their best.
When a coach is analysing opponents ahead of a game, they look at their most recent performances to get a flavour on how they’re performing. Saracens’ analyst team (situated in the Globo Gym computer centre) will have a tough job analysing Munster’s performance here. Attacking structure? There was none worth looking at. Lineout? Nothing but the basics. Tricks and gimmicks? Nope. There was some strong mauling, some decent close in carrying, some powerful scrummaging, a few flashes of individual brilliance but other than that, not much in the way for Saracens to sink their teeth into.
Was that the plan all along? It certainly seemed like it at the time. Caution was the name of the game from a Munster perspective. In attacking structure and most everything else. This was “keeping your powder dry” made flesh and bone. You certainly got the impression that players had an eye on the game next week. Some of the tackling was a notch below its usual intensity in the first half and some of the ruck work was well below par. Nobody wants to be the guy injured the week before the Big One. Yet even with this caution, Darren Sweetnam lasted less than 30 seconds after a nasty clash with Charles Piutau and Rory Scannell left the field assisted after badly tweaking his ankle under Stuart McCloskey. Two unfortunate events for both players and, indeed, the squad as a whole. But, as with this game, you feel that Munster will find a way to overcome the hardships.
Ulster showed up to Thomond Park with real fire in the belly and that was most evident in a teak tough opening quarter that threatened to boil over on occasion. It could even be said that Ulster had the better of this game overall when you gnaw at the number of big moments both sides had. UIster had more ball. More territory. More linebreaks. They had everything except the mental strength to finish the job.
Munster, on the other hand, had mental strength by the bucketful. When Ulster snuck ahead with 15 minutes to go and Munster lost Rory Scannell and Andrew Conway forcing Rhys Marshall to inside centre and Peter O’Mahony to the wing, you’d have backed Ulster to get the win. Yet instead of shrinking, Munster grew.
In some ways, Munster are like a monster in horror movie with the hand always springing out of the grave at the end credits.
With the result in the balance, Munster went up the field and scored. When the time came for Ulster to do the same, they wilted from the responsibility. This was a recurring theme for Ulster, and their fans deserve better. Ruan Pienaar kicked the ball dead at a vital moment, they lost lineout after lineout to Billy Holland and Peter O’Mahony, and Charles Piutau played like he didn’t give a fuck once he didn’t have the ball.
Their game was summed up by Jackson’s snapped drop goal attempt in the dying moments. Instead of working for position, they shovelled the ball out to Jackson who had to pull at the drop from an angle. Ball wide. Game lost.
A rebuild awaits for Ulster. Munster will know all about that feeling, having been where Ulster are now this time last season. Jono Gibbs has a lot of work ahead of him, but the raw materials are there.
Munster had to dig deep to win this, but not so deep that the digging will hurt.
Munster now turn to the Aviva and the looming threat of Saracens. They’ve got more Lions than the Serengeti, internationals everywhere and are any sane bookie’s favourites. Yet part of me thinks they’re the excellently kitted out soldier wandering through the woods, training his rifle on shifting shadows while the old red beast lurks in the darkness. There’s the scent of an ambush in the air.
Can you smell it?
Tommy O’Donnell, Jack O’Donoghue
I’m a huge fan of the TOD. Who isn’t? Weirdos and goons, that’s who. But as ardent a fan of the TOD as I am, even I have to point out how off the pace he’s been as of late. Is it a confidence thing? Whatever it is, it would want to turn around fairly sharpish. He was pretty poor here. His usual defensive work rate didn’t really compensate for his lack of impact with the ball in hand or at the ruck. The game seemed to pass him by.
Jack O’Donoghue isn’t having a vintage season. He’s a hard worker, a solid defensive player and a growing jumper at the lineout but he just isn’t having the kind of impact on games that you feel he should have. He had a poor game here and didn’t really get going. He stuck his tackles, for sure, but he didn’t make a statement carry or impact that, you’d think, would push him on. He needs one statement game to push him to the next level. He has all the tools to be a genuine superstar but needs to start putting it together sooner rather than later.
Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Niall Scannell, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer, Donnacha Ryan, Jean Deysel, Dave Callaghan, Abrie Griesel, Ian Keatley, Tyler Bleyendaal, Rory Scannell, Francis Saili, Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo
Outside of two poor performances in the back row, most everyone else was decent.
Francis Saili had the ultimate mixed bag game. A superb, world class step, run and offload for Keith Earls try, and then a mistimed shoot to leave Marshall in at the other end a few minutes later. Frustrating, at times, but you get the feeling that he’ll have a big statement to make before this season is all said and done.
Billy Holland, John Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Angus Lloyd, Keith Earls
What a game Peter O’Mahony had. Turnovers, some vintage old school collar grabbing, lineout steals, carrying and a mountain of defensive dirty work was the O’Mahony standard here but he added some lovely touches for Angus Lloyd’s try with some excellent second touch handling. He’s more Lion than Mufasa. If Gatland has eyes in his head, that is.