Monday 23 April 2018

Munster's next generation writing their own history

Munster 41-16 Toulouse

Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan, and Billy Holland celebrate after Munster's victory Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan, and Billy Holland celebrate after Munster's victory Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A Munster semi-final in Dublin evokes some colourful memories of Trevor Leota's try for Wasps, Ronan O'Gara's celebration after his virtuoso score against Leinster and a sunny Croke Park soaked in red and blue.

This generation of players lived that history growing up and embrace it to a certain degree.

Tyler Bleyendaal of Munster kicks a conversion Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tyler Bleyendaal of Munster kicks a conversion Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

They welcomed Alan Quinlan and O'Gara into their dressing room after Saturday's win over Toulouse and they know what the red jersey means to those who have followed this team since their European odyssey began. Yet they are determined to write a new chapter, unburdened by the past.

None of them has played a minute of a European final; the two players remaining with medals from 2008 - Keith Earls and Donnacha Ryan - were unused subs in Cardiff and the last time they reached a semi-final in 2014 Paul O'Connell was driving them from the second-row.

Victory over Toulouse returned them to the elite category of European clubs after two dire years in the doldrums. Champions Saracens will come to the Aviva in three weeks and the capital will be painted red.

Of their four try scorers, only CJ Stander played in Marseille when they last made it to this stage and gave Toulon a rattle.

Andrew Conway of Munster scores his side's fourth try despite the efforts of Toulouse's Maxime Medard Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Andrew Conway of Munster scores his side's fourth try despite the efforts of Toulouse's Maxime Medard Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Their win was once again based on a simple game plan and the values of hard work and accuracy that have underpinned their resurgence. Backed by a packed Thomond Park, it's a heady combination.

Perhaps most significantly, it was achieved with a final-quarter flourish that took place with Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony, Stander and Keith Earls in the stand. In the absence of most of their leadership corps, the team just got on with it.

Having come into the competition as rank outsiders, they are back where many feel they belong. Inevitably it will bring on nostalgia, but the squad are determined to create their own history.

"Yeah, I was at the game in '09 in Croke Park and that was a huge occasion, but we're trying to distance ourselves a small bit from that," hooker Niall Scannell said.

"It's brilliant to see guys like Alan Quinlan, and ROG was in the dressing room afterwards. It's brilliant to see those guys reach out to us and still supporting us, but we have to do things our own way.

"So we'll probably be trying to distance ourselves from all that and just concentrate on what we have to do in the next game.

"I think we've been trying to do it for a few seasons, but then, like that, you go and play a European Cup game in Dublin and everyone's asking you about the old games and we probably struggled a bit (with that).

"But it's a different generation and there's not too many players left over from that era.

"Even guys like Keith Earls have just bought in so much to doing it our way. It's great to see guys like that, who it's tougher for because they're crossing a generation.

"So it's brilliant to see it, but not without Rassie (Erasmus) coming, you know, with a different view. A fresh voice has probably helped as well because it's something very outside Munster.

"When Axel first came in, Munster was what he knew as well and I think that's been a nice, fresh voice and that's probably helped. But I think we've been trying to do it for a long while and it's kind of coming good now and I think people are starting to notice it a bit more."

It probably doesn't help that at every turn there is a reminder of the history. The visit of Toulouse brought back memories of the great battles of old, while meeting Saracens will evoke images of era-defining wins on the road when the Munster European story was getting underway.

The balance is about embracing that past, while writing a new future and, most importantly, getting back to that pedestal as a new generation of players.

"I wouldn't say it gets on my nerves," captain Peter O'Mahony said of the regular references to the glory days of a decade ago.

"I was there when they won the two trophies and it was an unbelievable part of my life. I look back on it with fond memories and wanting to be there, wanting to get there to see the guys who had success at the club.

"That is what you want, to leave when you finish having won trophies with Munster and obviously nationally as well.

"I'd be massively jealous of guys who have won at Munster and it is a massive part of the group now and the guys that are pushing for semis and finals. What has gone on in the club has a big part to do with it as w ell."

Having scraped into this competition on the back of a poor league campaign, the Reds have laid waste to a host of established names to restore their place in the elite.

On Saturday they overcame the loss of Murray, who was ruled out on Friday, and went 10-0 ahead after Toulouse No. 8 Francois Cros stupidly got himself sin-binned.

John Ryan bullied his way over the line and Tyler Bleyendaal converted before adding a penalty.

They couldn't shake the French outfit, however, with Jean-Marc Doussain's boot keeping them in touch until half-time, but the home side put their foot down after the break and Stander crashed over from close range to give them a cushion.

Then came the wobble and as leaders shuffled off with various knocks the penalty count mounted and referee JP Doyle handed Toulouse the benefit of the doubt as Paul Perez scored from Yoann Maestri's blatant forward pass to give the visitors a sniff.

They weren't good enough to exploit the growing anxiety and ultimately punched themselves out. Darren Sweetnam pounced on a loose ball to score the insurance try, before Andrew Conway added the coup de grace.

Munster know their performance will need to be better against Saracens, but their confidence is high.

"The calibre of opponent there now, we have to keep growing," Scannell said. "We're still novices around this, but if we can kick on it'll be brilliant and we'll have to for the semi-final. You've got to beat the best if you want to get through."

The champions await.

Munster - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, J Taute (F Saili 78), R Scannell, K Earls (A Conway 57); T Bleyendaal, D Williams (A Lloyd 78); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 59), N Scannell (R Marshall 59), J Ryan; D Ryan, B Holland; P O'Mahony (capt) (D O'Callaghan 50), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander (J O'Donoghue 68).

Toulouse - M Médard, Y Huget (A Bonneval 70), F Fritz (L McAlister 70), G Fickou, P Perez; JM Doussain, S Bézy; C Baille (G Steenkamp 59), L Ghiraldini (J Marchand 50), C Johnston (D Aldegheri 50); J Tekori (P Faasalele 70), Y Maestri; T Dusautoir (capt) (T Gray 6-14, 75), Y Camara, F Cros.

Ref - WJP Doyle (England)

Irish Independent

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