Sunday 18 November 2018

'It is intense around Limerick and Cork, all over the province' - Peter O'Mahony on Munster's march to last four

Munster 20 Toulon 19

Stephen Archer and Peter O'Mahony of Munster celebrate
Stephen Archer and Peter O'Mahony of Munster celebrate
Munster head coach Johann van Graan celebrates their Champions Cup quarter-final victory over RC Toulon at Thomond Park. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

In the moments before their team took to the Thomond Park field, Munster's fans joined the soloist on the pitch for a rendition of 'Stand Up and Fight'. Never has the line about going toe-to-toe proved more apt.

In the aftermath, Johann van Graan reached for a boxing metaphor that was as obvious as it was fitting. His middleweight team find themselves in the heavyweight division, forced to go through the behemoths of France to get to the Basque Holy Grail.

Bilbao beckons, but first they must head to South Africa for a fortnight of Guinness PRO14 action, before returning home briefly before travelling to Bordeaux to face Racing 92, with the game likely to be on Sunday, April 22.

They never did it the easy way, but surely a Munster team has never had a tougher route to a final.

Toulon were the better team at Thomond Park on Saturday, arriving throwing a series of hay-makers in the opening 20 minutes and finding an opponent with a chin made of granite. Somehow, for all of their pressure, for all of their world-class operators on show, they couldn't cross the line.

As their captain Mathieu Bastareaud explained with a shrug, "no try, no win".

Munster’s Alex Wootton attempts to stop Toulon’s Josua Tuisova in his tracks. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster’s Alex Wootton attempts to stop Toulon’s Josua Tuisova in his tracks. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

There were times in that opening quarter when the home side wobbled, where they relied on bravery alone. Their centres, giving up at least a stone a man to Bastareaud and Ma'a Nonu, kept getting up from the canvas for more punishment; Simon Zebo injured himself denying Chris Ashton a certain try within two minutes of kick-off, Andrew Conway somehow drove Fijian powerhouse Josua Tuisova into touch.

They got the rub of the green too, another referee at a different venue might have sent Zebo to the sin-bin and awarded a penalty try, and Nigel Owens wasn't a popular man in the visiting dressing-room.

Slowly but surely Munster gained a foot-hold. They know they cannot slug it out with these teams, but their brains can so often beat the brawn and so it was that Conor Murray cleverly exploited Guilhem Guirado's knock-on, realising that the ball was out and dotting down.

It took a team of officials five minutes to establish what the Ireland scrum-half had realised in a split-second, and Munster led.

Munster's Alex Wootton in action supported by team-mates Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster's Alex Wootton in action supported by team-mates Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

From then on, they were able to control the fight and for a spell after half-time it almost looked comfortable.

But then they flagged, got drawn into a game they didn't need to play, and when the whole thing got loose the visitors seized their moment and put one foot in the semi-final through Ashton's try and a pair of kicks from Francois Trinh-Duc.

Six points down, Munster knew they needed to summon something from somewhere. Andrew Conway stepped up with the miracle play.

If it were a moment in American sports, his try would be distilled down to one thing, 'The Catch'. Somehow, he kept his feet in play and stretched to keep Trinh-Duc's failing touch-finder in play. Toulon assumed it had gone dead; Conway, who missed out on involvement in the Grand Slam through injury, didn't need a second invitation.

Andrew Conway scores Munster's second try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Andrew Conway scores Munster's second try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

He even went under the posts to make Ian Keatley's match-winner all the easier. Still, Toulon came through 20 phases at the death and Munster needed some help from Owens who could have given a few penalties either way before finally deciding to call Ashton for holding on.

Thomond Park erupted as the match of the season concluded with Munster battered and bruised, but standing tall.

Back in a semi-final for the second year in succession, ready for more punishment. Van Graan described the changing-room as a war-zone and the sight of Zebo and Murray limping off is the major concern.

Both Ireland internationals travel to South Africa for the two-game mini-tour ahead of their clash with Racing.

"It's an interesting scenario, when I took the job it was one of the first things that I saw," Van Graan said of the tour which takes in a clash with the Southern Kings in George and a meeting with conference rivals Cheetahs in Blomfontein. "At that stage, getting to a quarter-final was a long way away. To play in a quarter-final, hopefully win it, fly to South Africa, play two away games in the PRO14 - one at altitude, and then fly back and go into a European semi-final was always going to be tough. Now, it's a reality.

Ian Keatley kicks a conversion. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ian Keatley kicks a conversion. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"We've planned for it, we've said we're going to enjoy the tour even though nobody has even spoken a word about it. We'll just get to South Africa now and re-assess once we get there. Get back to zero, play two games there whilst having a big eye back north for when we come back for that semi."

Peter O'Mahony sees the benefit in getting away from it all as the hype will invariably grow ahead of the last-four date.

"It is intense around Limerick and Cork, all over the province, you have everyone coming up to wish you well and it is nice to be able to step back from it, keep your head down and work hard over in South Africa," the captain said.

Van Graan watched last year's semi-final defeat to Saracens from afar and knows his side must be better to take the next step. "I do believe we are growing our game and I thought our transition from attack to defence and from going to the air to playing was pretty good. It was not a perfect performance, there was a lot of room for improvement," he said.

Now, they take their show on the road, bidding to go a step further than last season when they lost to Saracens.

"The Munster way is to do it the difficult way," Van Graan added.

He's getting to grips with the place.

Munster - S Zebo (D Sweetnam 25); A Conway, S Arnold (, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, C Murray (J Hart 77); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin53), R Marshall (N Scannell 53), S Archer (J Ryan 53); J Kleyn (G Grobler 77), B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt), J O'Donoghue (R Copeland 59), CJ Stander.

Toulon- C Ashton; J Tuisova, M Bastareaud, M Nonu (M Fekitoa 59), S Radradra; A Belleau (F Trinh-Duc 53), E Escande (A Mathewson 59); F Fresia (X Chiocci 46-74), G Guirado (A Etrillard 74), M van der Merwe (E Setiano77); J Kruger(R Taufifenua46), D Atwood; R Lakafia, F Isa, D Vermeulen.

Ref - N Owens (Wales).

Irish Independent

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