Munster cruise to home Champions Cup quarter-final but must wait to learn who their last eight rivals will be
Munster 22 Racing 92 10
Munster were made to fight every inch for their Thomond Park victory which guarantees them the home quarter-final they crave after a two-season absence from the knock-outs by finishing as second seeds.
Time will reveal who they will face - one of Glasgow, Toulouse or Toulon depending on tomorrow’s results, amongst the endless permutations and a home semi-final could possibly follow, perhaps against Leinster.
They have enough time to worry about that later, just as they had enough time to worry about today’s effort before their patience and perseverance paid off with a deserved win.
Ronan O’Gara promised his Racing side would turn up and they were true to their word; Munster led just 7-3 at the break though Simon Zebo’s try after a long scoreless spell and, despite being tagged back again to 17-0 after Ronan O’Mahony’s score, a late score from replacement Ian Keatley saw them home
Racing, after their humiliation in Paris, had come to play.
Eschewing the vapid kicking game that blighted their efforts there and were intent on running ball from all points east and west, taking two kick throws and off-loading at will.
They earned an early penalty to reward their enthusiasm but Maxime Machenaud discovered that, even on this breathless but slowly freezing evening, the 10-metre line was beyond his range as his penalty effort in the tenth minute fell short.
Munster were struggling with Racing’s physicality and, aside from an early effort by Conor Murray to replicate his blindside chip for Andrew Conway - this time producing a penalty for the wing’s high tackle on Marc Andreu rather than a try - they found themselves mostly camped in their own half.
Even when they spoiled a Racing put-in in their territory, their attacking attempts came to naught after poor consolidation of possession as they probed the fringes; errors and indiscipline in the face of intensity from their opponents blighted their opening quarter.
Winning a kicking duel gave them key entry in the 22 as the second quarter opened; a penalised lineout drive offered Munster the option of a scrum; despite conceding heft, they drove Racing back once and, winning a penalty, went again.
Using it this time, Munster were guilty of white-line fever a tad until Murray effected an NFl-style leap beyond a ruck of bodies, temporarily losing control of the ball as Andreu got a hand in, as the TMO confirmed. An odd call, though; the ball went backwards but Racing got the scrum put-in.
Munster re-grouped and from the clearing line-out, CJ Stander blasted through Benjamin Dambielle with a fend akin to his famous Paris try; he was held up short and the out-half, clearly miffed, picked up the ball a mile offside; his walk to the bin was inevitable.
So did a Munster score but Dave Kilcoyne spilled the ball. Frustration for Munster once more. But the pressure remained intense as the two committed sides locked steely horns as half-time beckoned.
Munster changed tack, moving from scrum to maul once more; eventually, it paid off, Simon Zebo spinning through a mass of French beef to score his sixth try of the season - and sixth against this opposition in Europe - in the 36th minute. The first knock-out blow; Bleyendaal adding extras from no distance.
Munster still ended the half in defensive mode though; Zebo smashing Andreu as the wing threatened to scamper home before Peter O’Mahony’s post-tackle loitering allowed Machenaud to find his radar and reduce the half-time gap to 7-3.
Some breathing space for Munster but they needed to find more of it on the field against their suffocating visitors.
A Leone Nakawara high shot on Bleyendaal after Munster ran a scrum free-kick edged them 10-3 ahead in no time. Munster were changing tack; kicking at goal and kicking for territory to avoid the often illegal breakdown morass.
Ronan O’Mahony went close in the corner as Munster played an advantage; but was denied by Teddy Thomas. Munster changed tack once more; opting for a catch and drive. The maul skewed sideways so Munster deployed it to set up phased play.
Two pick and goes later, Munster went wide and Rory Scannell skipped Zebo with a wonderful right to left pass, brilliantly picked up by Ronan O’Mahony on his toes, after staying tight to the touchline, and he completed his 16th score in Munster colours.
Bleyendaal converted from out wide and in the 50th minute, his side were free of all burden. Well, not all of them.
Zebo’s unnecessary knock-on, after an earlier penalty for holding on, invited pressure and Teddy Thomas’ wonderful off-load to Henry Chavancy, despite Zebo’s best efforts, allowed him to stretch and score his side’s first try on the hour.
Nervous groans swirled around the field as Machenaud converted for 17-10. Zebo had to clutch from the air as replacement out-half Franck Pourteau tried to find Andreu with a cross-kick. Then Murray kicked ahead for O’Mahony but was beaten - to the punch, which is illegal - by Thomas.
Munster regained control of the breakdown battle as the final ten minutes dawned; it got them closer to the line as Racing threatened to wilt.
Ronan O’Gara was proud of his Racing 92 side as they gave Munster a fright in their Champions Cup tie on the turf he graced for 17 years as a player - and said his former province would be hard to stop now after making their first quarter-final in three years.
“I’d forgot how good this place is if you were a Munster player. I was in Limerick last night and it was really warming. When you’re away, you get on with your own work and when you come back, it’s nice.
“It’s only when you’re finished, you realise how good Munster have it. It’s one of the best atmospheres in world rugby and we’d fellahs motivated by it, it gets the best out of them.
It’s an incredible journey Munster are on. Four months ago, nobody was interested in them, they’d lost their identity.
“They’re on a roll, they’ll be hard to stop and they have real clarity about themselves. They need to concentrate on the next match, not the finishing line.
“Having 15 people against 30,000 is something special. Munster have clarity. It feels like the vibe is back.
“There are three nights a year that European rugby comes here and they are special nights. Munster have qualified, they beat us out the door at home.”
“It was a good hard game. They had the capacity to pull away from us and kill us with a few more scores but our guys hung on and now we can re-build for the Top 14.
“Attitude was right tonight and that goes a long way in sport. We weren’t clinical enough on the ball and the yellow card was a killer, you can’t do that against Munster.
Munster captain Peter O’mahony was delighted to lead his side into a first quarter-final in three seasons.
“We knew they’d come hard, it was the most physical game I played all year. Yannick Nyanga told me if they weren’t up for it physically, they’d be in trouble and I think his team proved their point.
“We were a bit down but we’ve had three hard weeks in a row and won all three matches and the strength and conditioning has stood to us in that time.
“We haven’t had a quarter-final in three years and we can look forward to it every morning in three weeks.
“We’ll have time off for Munster now and others amongst us will have a lot of competition in the Six Nations so it’s an exciting time.”
Again, they went wide; Andrew Conway fending off Brice Dulin after receiving Bleyendaal’s long skipped pass; the man skipped, Ian Keatley, with his first touch, scored his first European try to confirm the win and munster’s return to the European elite.
Munster - S Zebo (I Keatley 70); A Conway, J Taute (F Sailli 48), R Scannell, R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams 71); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 13), N Scannell (R Marshall 61), J Ryan (T Du Toit 68-72), J Kleyn (B Holland 52), D Ryan, P O'Mahony (c), T O'Donnell, R Copeland.
Racing 92 - B Dulin; T Thomas, H Chavancy, E Dussartre (A Vulivuli 63), M Andreu; B Dambielle (F Pourteau 63), M Machenaud capt (J Hart 74); E Ben Arous (J Brugnaut 55), C Chat, B Tameifuna (C Gomes Sa 31-76), M Carizza, L Nakarawa (A Williams 66), Y Nyanga (C Masoe 65), M Voisin, S Fa'aso'oy.
Ref - M Mitrea (FIR)