Thursday 22 February 2018

'We kept making stupid mistakes'

Skipper Damien Varley left to rue error count as Munster fluff big chance

A dejected Donncha O'Callaghan, Munster, at the final whistle. Heineken Cup, Semi-Final, Toulon v Munster. Stade Vélodrome, Marseille, France. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
A dejected Donncha O'Callaghan, Munster, at the final whistle. Heineken Cup, Semi-Final, Toulon v Munster. Stade Vélodrome, Marseille, France. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Toulon vs Munster Stats
David Kelly

David Kelly

At one stage during a fraught half-time interval at a heaving Velodrome, Paul O'Connell seized his troops in a vice-like grip of rhetorical urgency.

"This has been a half of our mistakes," he spat furiously. It was a point that hardly needed emphasising but O'Connell needed to make it to shake his side from their mental torpor. "It has just been them kicking their points ... !"

They hadn't planned for this. Munster had spent the whole week charting a course that would steer them to a Heineken Cup final, notwithstanding the supposedly insurmountable odds and the seemingly yawning chasm in financial terms.

Instead, they remained moored in that poor first half. And, as thousands of pieces of paper were scattered to the Mediterranean mistral in glorious triumph by the locals, as many cruel ironies fluttered in their wake.

That the loss was not statistically confirmed until the final minute was just one of the many, many bittersweet reflections; that Munster only managed to sustain their most pressing period of possession when the game was in trash time another.

It was mentioned that they could win this game if it were replayed again next week; or it had been played in Limerick or Dublin. That missed the point entirely; Munster had planned for this one day and, for much it, they fluffed their big chance.

Truly, Munster handicapped themselves more than at the hand of any overly trumpeted disparity in class or money; that they managed to do so in so many different ways was a depressingly inventive exercise in sporting self-harm.

For 27 seconds, though, Munster had started like a dream. Ian Keatley's hanging restart, Simon Zebo manhandling Steffon Armitage with sufficient roughness that Juan Smith was forced to knock-on; cue a scrum.

PEACOCK

It was abundantly clear that Carl Hayman was dropping his knees; the preening peacock that is Wayne Barnes viewed what Munster averred was a "different picture".

It was a blinkered one.

"He had a different interpretation," noted Damien Varley, with a circumspect diplomacy that the quite objectionable Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal distances himself from with a crass aloofness.

Toulon kicked to safety and, from that moment on, as incredible as it may seem, Munster were chasing the game, comfortably exceeding their average Heineken Cup concession rate in a first half of abject cerebral collapse.

The dream slowly unfurled into a nightmare.

Penalty begat penalty; panic became the midwife to a slew of unforced errors. Physically, Munster were more than rigorously ready for this task; mentally, they suffered an inexplicable meltdown.

Once the early rot lodged itself in their brains, they couldn't arrest the slump.

"Hayman was certainly going down on his knee and flat on his face. The picture from Wayne's point of view was it looked as if Killer (Dave Kilcoyne) was hinging a little bit," Zebo, one of Munster's star performers, attempted to reason.

"It took a while to understand Wayne's interpretation. We came out on top from a scrum point of view but it was too little, too late. We didn't get our set-piece going in the first half and we were chasing our tail too much then throughout the game.

"If those things went the other way? We'd be having a different conversation now. That's the game. It's so hard to take, especially after last year. There's a lot of guys in there who won't be able to go through this again, so we'll need to right our wrongs for next season."

Yesterday was their best chance to do so.

"We gave ourselves every opportunity," Zebo added. "We were very confident this week. We knew what was ahead of us.

"We had said we'd try to lay down a marker in the opening 20 minutes, make a statement. But our error and penalty count was too high in the first-half. It cost us in the end."

Yet in the end, while they may have collapsed to the ground in despair, Toulon slumped to the turf with desperate relief, the flagging galacticos discovering that wealth and prestige are not always more powerful fuels than passion and commitment.

Zebo's incredible tackle on Armitage just after the break, preventing a try that would have ended the game there and then, instead of sparking it into renewed, chaotic life, typified the commitment to radically re-write the script of the afternoon.

"It was just one of those things," he demurred. "You don't really think about it, you just throw your body there and hope his foot hits the line.

After saving a try at one end, 10 minutes later, the one he scored breathed renewed life into the challenge.

"That wasn't planned. We'd been told we had to use it from the maul and we'd fancy ourselves in a two-on-two, myself and Conor Murray. So we went for it. There wasn't much space to do much – you hope for the best and try to stay in-field. Luckily enough, we did."

Keatley's remarkable conversion made it a two-point game; his audacious attempt that drifted narrowly left from 53 metres almost nudged Munster ahead. Almost, but not quite.

Another error from Keith Earls gifted the home side a five-point buffer; with 71 minutes on the clock, down to 14 men, Munster spurned three points and opted for another maul.

This time, their luck ran out. Fittingly, as the maul died, so too did the next phase via a catastrophic handling error. Every time they moved wider than the one-out runner, it seemed, they coughed up possession; this time, it was fatal to any lingering chance of success.

"It was a collective call," confirmed Varley. "We felt that we were really on top, our set-piece didn't get going as much as we wanted in the first half and we felt that we'd get a maul together and walk them over.

BACKWARDS

"We back the decision 100pc but again unforced errors... I felt we could always do it throughout the game but in the last 10 minutes when we were making stupid mistakes and kept going backwards, we just weren't clinical enough.

"With three or four minutes to go, when they got the last penalty, we still felt we were in it but when you're going backwards you're at nothing."

And Munster, ultimately, got what they deserved. Nothing. And it wasn't about the venue or the bench or the Toulon billionaire or the 10 players on €500,000 salaries or size.

These were factors but not decisive ones. It is the ones that get away which hurt the most.

"Munster is always about passion, but they won and we lost," summed up Varley.

"It was more disappointing because it was in our control and we made unforced errors. But the record books will show that we lost."

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