Sunday 16 December 2018

Red Army now adding magic touches to familiar heroics

Andrew Conway is mobbed by his Munster team-mates after scoring the late try to edge his team ahead of Toulon at Thomond Park on Saturday. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Andrew Conway is mobbed by his Munster team-mates after scoring the late try to edge his team ahead of Toulon at Thomond Park on Saturday. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Mathieu Bastareaud scans the turf in confusion as if trying to find the slingshot which has slain his goliaths.

He need not bother; the wonder is all around him.

Paul O'Connell's stirring gospel of old comes to mind: "They think they know us, but they haven't a clue."

Turns out Munster may not have known everything about themselves either.

Sure, the immediate emotional impact of the final whistle intensified the sense of almost impossible Spartan defiance.

All known metrics refuted the evidence of our own eyes: Toulon carried twice as much ball; they made 530 metres to Munster's 300; they dominated territory and possession 60-40; beat twice as many defenders; offloaded three times as much as Munster; made four breaks to one; won twice the number of rucks and mauls; forced Munster to make 100 more tackles.

Folklore will attempt to impose a homespun, heroic sheen upon this day and, for sure, it will take its place alongside the miracle and the drop goal and Saracens and Chabal.

But, no more than in the past, there was much more to this day than boot and blast and bollock and bite.

Andrew Conway's winning score was not merely a moment of genius, but one thieved from the land of his opponents. It screamed a French accent.

Indicative

His was not merely a frenetic dash to the line; the ability to catch, then balance, then scan, was indicative of much more than mere instinct or guts.

After all the resistance, this was the 'piece de resistance' and a reflection of the technical skill that infuses this side well beyond the non-negotiable limits of heart, spirit and character which, to be blunt, are almost never nearly enough on their own to produce such a triumph.

"I agree 100pc," says Munster captain Peter O'Mahony. "It takes a lot of work to be able to put in a performance like that.

"And, as you said, there was a lot of technical stuff that was done extremely well. We trained. We had a plan for the game which we implemented well. Our defensive system worked really well.

"Billy Holland does a huge amount of work on our lineout defence and attack. It paid off for us massively today, all the hours he puts in on the laptop.

"It's one thing stopping Mathieu Basteraud and Ma'a Nonu when they have the ball, but if you can take it away from them at source it makes things a lot easier for everyone. And we did that at times, which was good as well. A lot of hard work goes into a performance like that."

Without it, there would have been no opportunity to pounce as they did at the death. Francois Trinh-Duc missed his touch - from the coaching box it seemed for all the world as if the kick was bound for the bleachers.

The Toulon side were loaded on the other wing, with Josua Tuisova not co-ordinating a kick-chase but attempting to negate the expected quick throw.

"It was a good opportunity to reload our position with the ball," was coach Fabien Galthie's view.

"We decide to kick too early, but we had a good line-speed defence if we keep the ball. We needed to do that. That is the game."

Conway's perspective - and perception - was all that mattered. Johann van Graan was minded to recall the 2007 Super Rugby final when his Bulls side also trailed late on before a moment of magic from Bryan Habana.

And yet earlier that year, in Donnybrook on a bright spring day, a young Conway was doing something similar for a Blackrock side who were also chasing a late, late win.

The irrepressible Fred Cogley caught that moment superbly: "Here's Conway. He's still going. Seems impossible to stop. Sensational!"

At the time, no schools player this century, aside from perhaps Gordon D'Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald, had been more feted, but of the trio Conway has bloomed the latest.

Galthie's fleece bears a motto that screams Toulon's bold mission statement: "International Rugby Legends."

Instead, his side have been thwarted by an emerging stock of, potentially, new stars.

"He has a face that says, 'just give me the ball'," says van Graan.

"I hope some of these players become real legends in the Munster jersey."

However, for all the distance they travelled on Saturday to re-imagine who they are and what they might become, they still have some road to travel.

"It's going to be difficult," adds the captain. "We're going to be away from home. It will be a neutral ground, but against one of the most consistent teams in Europe with a lot of pedigree. It will be hugely difficult but it's nice to be able to say we're there.

"We need to be in the right frame of mind. That was probably our best performance of the year, certainly defensively.

"And if we want to win the semi-final, it's going to have to be a step up again. Guys have to understand that it is not always easy to do. These performances take a lot of guys, a huge amount. Not just physically, but emotionally, the whole lot.

"So guys have to have to get themselves mentally, physically and emotionally ready for the next biggest game of their career.

"I thought going into last year's semi-final we were well-prepared. We've taken steps forward. There are parts of our game in which we are much further down the line now.

"The next few weeks will be very important. You can't just skip past all the processes that we need to get ourselves right."

Munster once scored after 41 phases here. A different time, a different story.

Andrew Conway scored after 41 steps on Saturday. And so this year's tale will continue.

Who knows where it may take them.

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