Thursday 22 February 2018

Last-gasp heartache for Munster as Leicester steal dramatic victory

Leicester 18 Munster 16

Munster's Conor Murray is tackled by Leicester Tigers Lachlan McCaffrey
Munster's Conor Murray is tackled by Leicester Tigers Lachlan McCaffrey
David Kelly

David Kelly

Ten years after Ronan O’Gara broke Leicester hearts with a winning kick from half-way, Welsh wizard Owen Williams planted his feet upon exactly the same sod of turf and executed a spectacular riposte with less that 80 seconds left to clinch a dramatic victory.

And it completed a stirring rejoinder to their dismal showing in Limerick last weekend as Munster’s seven-game winning streak ended in dramatic circumstances in a match brimming with drama but devoid of sustained quality.

Leicester still, just, stay alive in this pool; Munster still have destiny in their hands but little wriggle-room; their New Year trip to Glasgow is now effectively a winner takes all decider.

Tyler Bleyendaal’s missed kicks were costly but his side’s overall laxity in possession and physicality were more enervating; they played for an hour against 14 men but never gained the upper hand for long stretches.

A late Niall Scannell try, with just five minutes ahead, seemed to swing matters their way decisively; but there was little decisive about anything they did all day and they only can blame themselves for allowing Williams to become the ultimate arbiter.

Munster had relaxed quicker in an error-strewn contest, matching Leicester passion with poise; George Worth took Simon Zebo out after the full-back’s chip ahead and Tyler Bleyendaal had an early chance to silence the hosts from about 45 metres out to the left.

Owen Williams kicks the winning penalty
Owen Williams kicks the winning penalty

He assumed the responsibility consummately.

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Still, his team-mates were dropping careless ball; three spills in the opening ten minutes as many as they managed last week. Leicester kept spilling pill too; one side trying too hard to make an impression; the other trying hard not to allow them to do so.

Leicester’s first lineout produced another turnover, a fine theft from Donnacha Ryan on half-way, then a maul penalty which was kicked to the corner for an inevitable rumble from 20 yards.

Another penalty was conceded but, like last week, Munster opted for caution, the second act of the age-old 3-6-9 approach to points gathering; he completed it as the clock edged us towards the end of the first quarter.

No quarter had been asked or given, as the fellah says, but it had undoubtedly swung Munster’s way.

Errors remained rampant; the 25th minute a perfect example; a series of turnovers seemed to go Leicester’s way but captain Tom Youngs charged with his shoulder to undo his back-row’s success.

Bleyendaal, astonishingly given his recent unerring accuracy, failed to follow through from the tee and the ball stubbornly obeyed an errant course.

Leicester needed their big guns to make an impression; unfortunately for them, Tuilagi again made the wrong sort; a second yellow in as many weeks for a craven late shoulder on Rory Scannell which prematurely ended his half.

Leicester's Lachlan McCaffrey in action CJ Stander
Leicester's Lachlan McCaffrey in action CJ Stander

Munster now had the chance to prematurely end this match but another Leicester steal on the floor, their third of the half, allowed them to clear present danger near their own whitewash.

Surprisingly, it was Leicester who produced the next worrying moments as Ellis Genge galloped beyond Taute down the left touchline; Leicester could only take the three points from the penalty advantage but it was worth more to their depleted side in psychological terms.

A scrum penalty lifted their spirits still further as Munster’s relatively firm grip on proceedings wobbled just a tad as the momentum shifted; Genge, the loose-head, produced another dash worthy of a three-quarter and this time Peter O’Mahony was pinged on the floor.

Owen Williams narrowed the gap and there was even time - 16 seconds in fact - to embrace the fact that they had won the sin-bin period 6-0 with just 14 men as Tuilagi trundled back to the field.

After the restart, Munster regained the lead they had clumsily conceded twenty minutes earlier.

Leicester remained unbowed, rising from the floor and asking for more as Munster struggled to dominate collisions as they had done so easily last week. Another Williams penalty resumed parity, 9-9, in the 50th minute.

The suckers of last week were being given a break this; a Jack Roberts breakaway from another in a succession of poor kicks, this time from Bleyendaal, ultimately led to another penalty - and a team warning.

The real warning was on the scoreboard, though, as Williams pushed his side into the lead for the first time in the 55th minute.

Still Munster ploughed forward, scenting blood; unfortunately, as Munster struggled from five metres out to find a way, taute tried to go wide but his wobbly pass was gobbled up by Adam Thompstone.

He galloped down the line and, before he realised he couldn’t go all the way, kicked ahead; before Simon Zebo realised he couldn’t go all the way either, he took the winger down. Yellow card, another three points and 15-9 was now a huge lead in these trying circumstances.

Munster are thriving on trying circumstances of late though. A lineout drive with five minutes left saw Niall Scannell emerge with a grin and the ball. Blyendaal’s kicked allowed everyone wearing red to smile, but only briefly.

Williams’ kick wiped it from their faces.

Munster - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, K Earls (A Conway 70); T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams 72); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 51), N Scannell (R Marshall 75), J Ryan (S Archer 75), D Ryan, B Holland (J Kleyn 51), P O'Mahony (c), T O'Donnell (J O’Donoghue 64), R Copeland.

Leicester Tigers - G Worth (H Thacker 78); A Thompstone, J Roberts, M Tuilagi, P Betham (T Braady 72); O Williams, B Youngs; E Genge (L Mulipola 62), T Youngs (c), P Cilliers (G Bateman 52), E Slater, G Kitchener (M Fitzgerald 52), L Hamilton, B O'Connor, L McCaffrey (M Williams 62)

Ref - P Gauzere (FFR)

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