Wednesday 13 December 2017

Billy Keane: Munster bravehearts beaten but not broken

CJ Stander and Ian Keatley leave the pitch after Munster’s defeat against Saracens at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
CJ Stander and Ian Keatley leave the pitch after Munster’s defeat against Saracens at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: DIARMUID GREENE/SPORTSFILE
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

I'd nearly have left out wasp food for him from the pet shop if Munster had beaten Saracens and made it through to the European Champions Cup final.

Over and back he goes Mr Wasp, like the lateral passing of a Gaelic football team and it's barely six in the morning. The birds aren't up yet. What's all this about a dawn chorus? Around here the birds sleep it out on a Sunday morning and so the one-note bee buzz is the only backing track.

I took a couple of swipes at him with the match programme but missed. If we had won, the programme would have been a collector's item but now it is an instrument of death and destruction.

So on the morning after optimism, we must take stock. Munster tried their very best against a far better team. That's all you can ask. I wish though we had played smarter but that will come too, in time. The step up was a year or so early and we will learn so much game lore from the events of a day when all of Munster travelled to Dublin.

The supporters had suffered their share on the way up the N11. We heard stories of bumper-to-bumper traffic from as far out as Portlaoise.

Peter Clohessy, as Munster as could be, said it took fully five hours to get to Dublin from Limerick. Ah but Claw, it often took us three days to make the same journey.

Two Saracens lads jumped out of a taxi in Ballsbridge. There before them were more red jerseys than you'd see at the funeral home in Bejing on the evening of Mao's removal.

One of the Saracens took off his fez and scratched his head. They were in shock at the redness. It was as if they were cowboys who galloped carefree as could be over the brow of a hill, only to run in to 58,000 Sioux.

"Don't worry," I said, "ye will come to no harm here." Five minutes later they were drinking pints with the Munster fans.

Many of those fans had plans to make it to the Gaelic Grounds for the hurling league final between Galway and Tipperary. There's a massive crossover between GAA and rugby and they are well able to shout for their team unlike the day-trippers who come to big games in Lansdowne Road for a picnic. Munster shout and sing. They are there to help out.

The Munster supporters had the team going and for a while it seemed as if Munster were going to win, but it was pancake night. There were too many turnovers. We lost four in their 22 in the first half alone.

Munster were slaves to the high ball and targeted one winger in particular. There was only one plan and it was overdone.

Simon Zebo won the skies though. He was magnificent at full-back and on a beaten team full-backs usually suffer.

Warren Gatland will surely have said to himself, 'What I have I done leaving this man off the Lions?' Big mistake Warren. Zebo was the classiest player on a field with eight Lions roaming loose. He will be in New Zealand before the end of the series.

There are some valid excuses. Conor Murray was seen warming up before the game and the rumour spread that he was either playing or on the bench. He was only there to help out. No team, no matter who they are, can do without the best player in the world in his position.

When the plan wasn't working Murray would have had the authority to change the plan.

CJ used to be the national name for the late Charles J Haughey. Such is the impact made by Stander he's known as just CJ. He didn't play badly but I'm pretty sure CJ wasn't fully fit. Peter O'Mahony didn't seem 100 per cent either even though he too did well. So one Lion is injured and the other two are showing the effects of every blow that struck them.

It could be too that some of the substitutions could have been made earlier. Francis Saili's high hands offered illusions for sale and those swivel-fast feet finally made a Munster line-break but he was brought on too late. Ian Keatley looked the part when he was introduced.

Emotion

So where to now for Munster? For most of this season we were carried on the wave of love and emotion that came from the loss of Anthony Foley. Axel will never be forgotten but Munster need to be more clinical and professional.

All is not lost and the most of the supporters will still offer up 80-something minutes of that unconditional Munster love on big game days. Munster sang until the very end and the team, to their credit, rewarded the faithful with a late try. Munster played to the last whistle. We will ask a crucial question and it is this. Would Anthony Foley have been proud of his boys?

There's no shame in being beaten by a better team who are probably the best there is right now. The shame is in giving up or backing off. The shame is in keeping something for yourself. These Munster boys left it all out on the field. Hold your heads up high boys. Yes, there were errors but the man who never made a mistake hasn't been born yet.

Not one Munster player gave in when the game went against us. Not one shirked a tackle, or hid, or went down without getting up. Munster were beaten and battered but never broken. Anthony Foley would have been very proud of his team. Annoyed, but very proud.

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