Pack powers Munster into knockouts
MUNSTER came up smiling at an expectant Thomond Park as Heineken Cup quarter-final qualification was achieved.
In truth, this was a mismatch from the sixth minute when Antoine Battut was shown a red card for alleged mis-use of his knee in a ruck. Racing were, from then, to paraphrase Sean Connery in 'The Untouchables', caught in a gun-fight with a knife for protection.
Of course any assessment of Munster must be qualified by the dismissal of Battut, but their achievement in advancing out of the pool stages represented a major triumph, given the extensive changes that were imposed upon the Red camp at the start of the season.
And while there are undoubtedly those who will question their ability to advance beyond the quarter-finals, the truth is Munster cannot be dismissed while forwards of the ability of Peter O'Mahony, James Coughlan, Donnacha Ryan, Tommy O'Donnell and Dave Kilcoyne wear the uniform.
Munster's pack was magnificent. Their conscious loyalties to the hard grind were determined equally by ambition and honesty.
After their slow start, they settled into a rhythm and as the fans sensed the rising tide of their defiance as a contagion of excitement built throughout the stadium.
It was all so frantic from Munster at the start that you began to worry would they win the match, never mind score the requisite four tries.
Those fears were allayed as soon as their maul was used to such spectacular effect in the lead up to Conor Murray's try. Mike Sherry hit his jumper Ryan with unerring accuracy and as soon as the second-row's feet touched the deck, Munster were moving.
They were an unstoppable force and drove through the heart of the Racing defence with the ferocity of a tsunami. Murray, as ever, was dictating the move from the base and as soon as he caught a glimpse of the white paint he showed his predatory instincts to charge over. The try was a tangible fillip to Munster's confidence and they proceeded to dictate the pace of the game.
The pack, after initial issues in the early engagements, subjected Racing to granite compression in the tight and it was a reaffirmation of the traditional as Munster worked through the phases to secure field position and opportunities.
The back-row were particularly effective. They carried the ball to great purpose and they contested the breakdown with courage and accuracy – driving the Metro players back off the ball.
And, when they let the ball wide, their backs were full of inventive running and ambition with none shining brighter than the majestic Simon Zebo.
The winger – so quick, so elusive – was the sledgehammer who smashed through Racing lines to claim three tries and illustrate once again how exciting the future can be for this emerging Munster team.
He sparkled with the effervescence of a glass of bubbly and provided the brilliant individual thrust that ultimately killed off Racing's challenge with his opening try after 28 minutes, following a rampaging run by Kilcoyne.
The prop – name-checked as one Lions coach Warren Gatland might take heed of by Rob Penney – took a gorgeously soft pass from Sherry before barrelling through the centre as Racing's tacklers bounced off him like skittles being scattered by a bowling ball.
Murray recycled when Kilcoyne was eventually put down and after the ball went through three more pairs of hands, Zebo somehow squeezed in the corner for the touchdown.
This was the score that truly validated what Penney has been trying to achieve with Munster this season. It married perfectly Munster's traditional marauding game with a more sophisticated, off-loading game as they edged into a 12-6 lead.
"There is a lot of talk about this being my strategy, my plan; it's a conglomeration of things," explained a delighted Penney afterwards.
"I've got a viewpoint on the way in which the game should be played, but I'm a massive believer in everyone having input and ownership. The implementers out on the track, the drivers, they need to believe in it most of all."
It has been obvious all season that Munster players have responded positively to the coach's exhortations to expand their game plan, but – initially at least – there was an over-optimistic concentration on seeking to move the ball wide at every opportunity.
This performance represented a more meaningful compromise between the old and the new.
They also played with freedom that ensured that with every passing moment, Leinster's championship pennant was growing smaller in the rearview mirror.
When they turned over needing just one try, it was never in doubt that they would reach the magic number – and just three minutes after the restart they achieved their goal.
Predictably, Zebo took the plaudits with a fantastic chip and chase to emphatically stamp his class on the contest.
He was on hand for try number five seven minutes later when Munster again worked the ball through the hands to afford him the opportunity to claim his hat-trick as another chapter was written in the magnificent Thomond Park experience.
Qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals is a magnificent achievement for Munster and should give the players an injection of confidence for the rest of the season – especially with Harlequins standing in their way.
"This result now gives guys confidence to push on knowing that there is a strategy in place that allows them to take teams on," added Penney.
"Even if we hadn't achieved the result today, I would still be very proud of what we've achieved in six months, which is a relatively short space of time.
"The key is to improve every week and the players are doing that.
"That's the confidence we'll take with us into the coming weeks and months and look to build on," he said.
If Munster do go on to beat Harlequins in the quarter-finals (to be played on the weekend of April 5-7), they would then face a trip to either Clermont or Montpellier in France.
Munster – F Jones; D Howlett, K Earls (JJ Hanrahan 63), J Downey (C Laulala 49), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray (D Williams 73); D Kilcoyne (Wian du Preez 76), M Sherry (D Varley 56), BJ Botha (J Ryan 73); D O'Callaghan, D Ryan (B Holland 73); P O'Mahony (P Butler 68), T O'Donnell, J Coughlan.
Racing Metro – G Germain; J Jane (B Fall 62), G Bousses, A Dumoulin, S Bobo; O Barkley, M Belie (S Descons 19), J Brugnaut (A Lo Cicero 45), B Noirot (T Bianchin 56), B Sa (JP Orlandi 33); K Ghezal (JQ Nailiko 76), F Metz (S Dellape 56); A Battut, B La Roux (M Matadigo 52), J Cronje.
Ref – W Barnes (England).