Sunday 15 December 2019

Tony Ward: Kick to the corner an expensive error in heroic last stand

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Moral victories may be long a thing of the past for Irish rugby but there's still something special about Munster even in defeat. They lose as they win – with all guns blazing. Seldom if ever do they fail to deliver a performance appropriate to the occasion. And so it was at the magnificently-appointed Stade Velodrome in sun-soaked Marseille.

That Toulon deserved to win over the 80-plus minutes is beyond dispute. They controlled the game for longer periods and had in Jonny Wilkinson the game manager supreme. He may be nearing the end of a phenomenal career but when it comes to out-and-out matchwinners under pressure, there is still none better than the brilliant Toulon playmaker-in-chief.

It would be wrong to suggest he was the only difference between the sides but when it comes to maximising the opportunities that come your way, the England World Cup winner is in a class of his own. He missed one first-half kick from six attempts (knocking over four successful penalties as well as a trademark drop goal) that seemed to leave the outcome 'done and dusted' for even the most blinkered Munster supporter come half-time.

Munster failed to fire in that first half and while the 'home' team were not an awful lot better, they had control for most of the opening 40. Factor in a very questionable yellow card shown to Juan Fernandez Lobbe and it's fair to assume that Rob Penney dished out a right rollicking at the interval. The underdogs were in a hole. It would take something special to dig them out.

And while we pondered on a possible Simon Zebo intercept or maybe a Keith Earls touch of dancing magic to spark a revival, it was, most ironically, Zebo's last-ditch wonder tackle on Steffon Armitage that ignited Munster's latest European comeback.

Had Armitage made the corner unopposed and Wilkinson almost inevitably added the extras, the contest was over bar the shouting. What we got instead was typical gutsy Munster, as only Munster can in desperate times like these.

Zebo's subsequent try, brilliantly created by Conor Murray and converted by the near nerveless Ian Keatley, meant that with close to an hour gone, the gap was just two points. At 16-18 it was game on.

The crowd sensed the shifting tide and, more relevantly, so too did both sets of players as for the second year running Munster had red-hot Gallic favourites in a bind on French soil.

Alas, they came up short and on this occasion were the masters of their own downfall. At 21-16, a good 10 minutes left on the clock and down to 14 (with Earls in the bin), the decision to go for the corner was at best ill-advised.

Had Keatley closed the gap to just a single kick of the ball (penalty or drop goal), the pressure on the champions would have been like nothing they had ever experienced. My gut feeling was of a star-studded side on the verge of cracking.

There are times when you speculate to accumulate but this was not one of them. Perhaps I am old-school here but certain principles (not least planting seeds of doubt for the final phase) are as relevant to today's game as they were when Munster beat the All Blacks way back when.

In the cold light of day I suspect Damien Varley, Paul O'Connell and Keatley (the most likely decision-makers) might acknowledge the error of that call. And no, I do not accept that had they scored when going to the corner we would all be singing a completely different tune. With 14 against 15 and Earls set to return, there was one definitive call to be made and in this must-win scenario, it wasn't.


Let it not detract in any way from the courage of this second-half performance. Here, as ever, was Munster turning rugby logic on its head and Toulon, if not quite fully rattled, were wobbling.

This match certainly wasn't a classic with precious little broken-field running but in terms of intensity and sheer honesty in the tackle and at the breakdown, it was a semi-final of the highest calibre and in a different league to the one-sided romp witnessed at Twickenham the previous day.

In individual terms, O'Connell was good, so too Varley and while Keatley displayed some real composure under pressure, it was Murray and, most particularly, James Coughlan who were the stand-out performers for me.

If there is any justice (and I believe in Joe Schmidt there exists the right man in the right place) then a seat should be found for the Munster No 8 and Ireland 'A' player on that summer flight to Argentina.

In the final analysis, the better team playing the more composed and better controlled rugby eventually won through but not before the most illogical team in the tournament, the one that has made this incredible competition what it is, had emptied the big-match tanks as only they can. Match lost, cup gone but global reputation further enhanced.

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