Tuesday 21 November 2017

Billy Keane: If Napoleon had Munster's Anthony Foley they'd speak French in Moscow

Munster forwards coach Anthony Foley
Munster forwards coach Anthony Foley
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

When these giants of men from Toulouse ran out on to the field of Thomond, we feared the worst. One of their second-rows had at least two metres of chest between his nipples and their smallest forward would take up a double seat in the cinema.

Giants can be brought down to size if you are brave and clever. Munster were both and so it was we played our best rugby of the season, in this our homeplace where the quest for glory never wanes.

Make no mistake, Toulouse were up for this. We travelled to the game from The Sin Bin pub on their bus. Trevor Brennan was explaining all about Thomond in fluent French. They're mad about him. Louis Picamoles' dad sat next to us. He's a lovely, friendly man. We explained, in fluent English, that there was no place like this anywhere in the rugby world. Monsieur Picamoles believes me now.

There was a savage Munster warm-up, when tackle bags were mushed into eiderdown. Peter O'Mahony didn't lead his men along the shortest route to the dressing-rooms, up through the middle of the pitch – Munster ran by the touchlines and the crowd went into a frenzy. Toulouse looked on, astounded. Never before had they seen a team complete a lap of honour before the match.

The French were confident. They made the mistake of relying on last week's game against Leinster for their form lines but Munster kept all the best maul moves for Thomond. Toulouse were constantly jumping on the wrong TGV.

Our rolling mauls were cunningly conceived and brilliantly executed. If Napoleon had Anthony Foley, they'd be speaking French in Moscow and in the Crimea. He is the leading expert in maul subterfuge and red herrings.

The Toulouse pack were expecting the Munster maul to travel in a straight line – understandable enough in that a straight line is still the shortest distance between two points, even in the new maths.

The Munster maul would head in one direction and then with half the Toulouse pack fronting up, Munster smuggled the ball to a colleague. Fagin would have been proud.

Three of these secret switches led to Munster tries. Toulouse were as shocked as the man in the meadow near Limerick Junction who stopped for a while from the saving of the hay to take a sup of tea, only to see the train coming straight for him.

The win was a credit to Rob Penney. The coach has left a lasting legacy. When he came here first, Munster ran every ball and sometimes we drifted hither and thither without any penetration or guile.

But there was a good reason. Penney wanted a team with good ball-handling skills from 1 to 23. It was all a rehearsal for days like this. So it was Munster were the ones playing the offloads and Munster were the team showing all the French flair. It was fusion cooking. Bacon and cabbage au vin.

The pride in the jersey was always there. All that ever changes are the names on the back. Keith Wood and Marcus Horan were in the Newstalk commentary box just in front of us. You could see their delight when the front-rows fronted up. Dave Kilcoyne just has to be either playing or on the bench for Ireland. He's a ferocious competitor and if he learns to avoid yellow, then he will be as good as we have ever seen.

Damien Varley is the first to take on the big men. His motto is 'volunteer for everything'. Our world champion BJ Botha loves the big day out. He is a man who will never give in or give way. On came John Ryan and his first scrum led to a Munster penalty. Duncan Casey's throw-ins always found the target. It will not be too long before his style is copied worldwide.

Peter O'Mahony needs recovery time. He has shipped far too much punishment this season. Sean O'Brien and Stephen Ferris have also suffered for the cause. These three ferocious competitors will not last unless we mind them. CJ Stander came in for O'Mahony. The youngster was very emotional afterwards. He was man of the match on a day when every Munster man played to his best. CJ, you're one of us now. A Munster man.

Our backs were very good. Simon Zebo skips over the ground. His boots are never dirty. No player has a better left leg and his fielding is so sound. The kids call his name, always a great sign. One young lad shouted out "just give it to Zebo".

Paul O'Connell scored the sixth try. His first in a long while. Paul crashed over from fully two yards but they love him so much here, it was as if he ran the length of Thomond with the Toulouse pack on his back. A perfect end to a perfect day but now we must move on. There are no medals given out for winning quarter-finals.

The only negative is the trip will be to France, and not to Dublin to take on Leinster. C'est la vie.

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