Sunday 21 January 2018

Munster stumble with final line in sight

Toulon 24 Munster 16 Heineken Cup semi-final

Ruadhri O'Connor

A PLACE among the legends beckoned for a whole new generation of Munster men but they let their moment slip here.

There was only so far their bravery and intensity could take them, they needed to add composure to the blend to book their place in the Heineken Cup final and, when it came down to those precious moments, that's what deserted them.

Cardiff beckoned. Rob Penney's men had ridden the Toulon storm and come out the other side. They had the wind at their backs and momentum behind them.

But, the errors that littered their unbelievably committed effort continued to undo all of their good work.

The champions had been exceptional to dismiss Leinster in the quarter-final but they never hit the same heights here. Relief replaced the raucous joy of three weeks ago.

When they threatened to pull the same trick again by pulling away in the 10 minutes after half-time, Munster dug in and hung on for dear life.

Then, CJ Stander made a play to give them the ball and their luck started to turn. Simon Zebo – a hero at the other end where he somehow forced Steffon Armitage to touch – superbly held off the England man and Drew Mitchell to score.

Two points down with 26 minutes to go, the game was there to be won but Munster wouldn't score again.

Instead, the holders wrested control back when Mathieu Bastareaud forced a turnover in midfield, Keith Earls was caught napping by David Smith who he then hauled down to receive a yellow card as Jonny Wilkinson extended his side's lead.

There would still be one last chance when they found themselves with a penalty on 71 minutes and a decision to make.

When Damien Varley pointed to the touchline rather than the posts he needed his team to deliver a try, but the maul was disrupted and Casey Laulala knocked on.

That was effectively that. The coach refused to condemn the decision, even if he admitted his brilliantly committed team had been their own worst enemies.

"It's small margins at this level," Penney said. "Goodness, we just made so many mistakes both sides of the ball.

"We showed a lot of courage at times to really get back and support each other when they made some breaches on the back of our errors. Just our skill level wasn't where it needed to be.

"I thought we set ourselves up and got ourselves into really good positions and then we would make an error.

"We thought we might get two or three clear opportunities. We ended up with five or six and we probably (only) took Simon's one.

"That is the frustration. The boys prepared really well and they had petrol in the tank but for some reason collectively we didn't quite have the accuracy. Everyone made just one slip up across the park and collectively it adds up to a lot."

Coming to the Stade Velodrome to play the European champions, Munster knew that chances would be thin on the ground and that seizing every one would be necessary to win, but they were handed an early shot when Juan Smith knocked on in his own '22', but the scrum collapsed and Dave Kilcoyne got the blame.

Wilkinson started as he meant to continue by opening the scoring after CJ Stander was penalised for not releasing, but Ian Keatley responded in kind after Zebo brilliantly chased the kick-off and Varley superbly forced the penalty at the ruck.

Munster were competing gamely, but there were cracks in the defence and Conor Murray went high on his opposite number Sebastian Tillous-Borde and Wilkinson sent the penalty over.

Kilcoyne's struggles continued, his third penalty brought with it a warning even though Carl Hayman looked equally at fault and as Toulon sought field position a strong Dave Foley choke tackle forced a maul which Munster subsequently collapsed and Wayne Barnes gave Wilkinson a chance to extend the lead.

Again, the kick-off gave Munster a way back in as Sean Dougall's pressure got to Wilkinson and Munster poured forward with Felix Jones forcing Delon Armitage to knock-on his up-and-under and Earls and Zebo taking Toulon on in the wide channels.

Juan Fernandez Lobbe's stamp on Conor Murray saw him sent to the bin and Keatley sent over his second penalty, but the man advantage did the Irish province no good as they were outscored 9-0 from then until half-time.

The otherwise outstanding James Coughlan spilled the restart and Wilkinson sent over a drop-goal to cancel Keatley's penalty out, before CJ Stander knocked on after the next kick-off and James Downey played the ball offside so the former England fly-half duly obliged again.

The half finished with Delon Armitage nailing a monstrous penalty from inside his own half after Earls had gone down a blind alley and held on in the tackle and the nine point lead looked near unassailable.

Just like they did against Leinster, the champions went for the jugular for 10 minutes after half-time but Downey miraculously stopped Habana twice, while also forcing a Danie Rossouw knock-on before Zebo heroically denied Steffon Armitage in the corner when he looked for all the world like scoring.

Having survived the killer blow, Munster almost committed hari-kari in their own 22 as they desperately sought an opening.

They needed someone to make a play and Stander provided the turning point by ripping the ball from Mitchell before Keatley's poor cross-kick worked out well as Fernandez Lobbe knocked on.

Toulon wheeled the scrum and Barnes – who had turned his tide in Kilcoyne's favour – gave a penalty. Two mauls later, Zebo was over in the corner and Keatley delivered the touchline conversion.

Two points down, they had their chance and couldn't take them. Keatley had a kick for the lead from the edge of his range, but couldn't make it before a harsh knock-on call on Murray sapped their momentum and then Earls' indecision proved his own undoing.

Wilkinson knocked over the penalty as the Moyross man headed to the touchline, but still there was an opportunity when Varley made the decision to go to the corner, but Munster couldn't follow through.

Coughlan denied Wilkinson a drop-goal with a superb block, but the returned Earls knocked on as they chased field position and, Wilkinson finally put it to bed with his sixth penalty.

Munster kept chasing their lost cause until deep into injury time, but by then the reality that the last Heineken Cup final would take place without them had dawned on everyone in the stadium.

They left Marseille with regrets. This was a chance missed.

TOULON – D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana (D Smith 50); J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde (M Claasens 62); X Chiocci (A Menini 54), C Burden (JC Orioli 59), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni 75); D Rossouw (K Mikautadze 63), J Suta (V Bruni 80); J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage.

MUNSTER – F Jones (D Hurley 73); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey (JJ Hanrahan 65), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 65), D Varley (capt, D Casey 76), BJ Botha; D Foley (D O'Callaghan 65), P O'Connell; CJ Stander, S Dougall (T O'Donnell 56), J Coughlan.

Ref – W Barnes (RFU)

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