Friday 14 December 2018

Billy Keane: Munster rain supreme as they home in on big prize

Ian Keatley, who was perfect all day, and Munster's superior scrummaging, put us three up. Photo: Sportsfile
Ian Keatley, who was perfect all day, and Munster's superior scrummaging, put us three up. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

When we saw the state of the pitch, with pools of water, and a puddle up the middle, some of us thought there would be little chance of scoring four tries on such a bad day.

But Munster are now in the quarter-finals with a home draw. As the song goes "home boys home, home I like to be". Home today was a wet field on a rainy day.

There were all-weather men in oilskins draining Thomond with fearsome three-prong pikes normally used for threatening neighbours over land boundary disputes or fighting yeomen in 1798.

Munster even brought in a multi-prong pricking machine that furiously punched holes in the turf and probably decapitated a million earth worms, but, not to worry, the little creatures can grow back whenever needs be.

The game was put back for three hours, but we were fed in the Thomond Suite with a starter of warm wild salmon, on a wilted spinach pancake with Hollandaise sauce and a poached egg.

Miracle

The master chefs managed to produce yet another Thomond miracle - the miracle of the 472 soft eggs.

While the drying was taking place Castres became also-rans barring a series of impossible events. The four teams in each group were to play simultaneously, but Munster had the advantage of knowing exactly what they had to do. Every cloud has a silver lining.

The tide went out and the game went on. The swamp was drained. And thanks to the groundsmen who worked so hard in the worst of the weather.

Munster were slow to get going and referee Ben Whitehouse used Oval Office logic when he gave Castres a soft three points. But he did make amends later on.

Ian Keatley, who was perfect all day, and Munster's superior scrummaging, put us three up. This Munster team buzzed and swarmed. Their line speed put Castres under terrible pressure and the French were forced to think too quickly.

Castres went down to 14 and Conor Murray changed the point of attack with a quick tap peno. Murray, the master of illusion, used his forwards as cover for his tricks.

Off went Keith Earls at top speed in the direction of Moyross, like as if his mam was calling him for his favourite supper in his old home over the wall. Earls, who is playing the best rugby of his life, went over for that vital first try.

Rory Scannell flicked an overhead pass from the NBA YouTube channel of trick shots, but we knocked on. And we wondered if this was the big chance gone.

Munster did go in 13-3 up and the travel agents were counting their money and the romantics spoke of weekends in France in places where the restaurants have more stars than Garryowen.

There was a poignant tribute to Dolores O'Riordan at half-time. Such emotion in her voice. Only those who truly care can reach those places in our hearts where words and music enhance and explain our lives.

I wonder if she knew how much she was loved in these parts, and everywhere else too.

Munster started the second-half as they had finished the first. Dolores was a petite girl, but maybe she pushed Munster over for that second try after just three minutes.

Jean Kleyn is now fully fit and he carried like Paul O'Connell. He led the charge and the French were all over the floor, like overnighters at a student party.

Earls went over again but was denied by a close call on a forward pass. We were getting worried when Murray was denied a touchdown on a fifty-fifty by the TMO.

No luck.

Time was moving on and on. Then Mr Whitehouse sent Castres another goodbye card. By now the Munster pack had pounded their opponents into submission. Munster did most of the damage during the yellow card time, but the softening up was going on all game long.

The penalty try came almost immediately. Then came try three shortly afterwards and try four was the best of all.

Earls caught a very difficult high ball and somehow managed to keep out of touch with a mid-air, demi-swivel. He went up to full speed, with no wind-up time. Castres didn't expect the audacity and it was a slalom to glory. Simon Zebo was on his pal's shoulder and he beat three men to score.

This was a very difficult week for Munster rugby what with all the controversy over the Grobler case. The players kept up their concentration. They stuck together. Munster will face Toulon, who have more big names than any in the competition.

Last time they beat us on a hot day in Marseille, but we are a better team now, with fast footballing backs, a big scrum, and a pack that can travel the field, or fight hand-to-hand if needs be.

The road to the final in Bilbao, in the Basque country of Spain, is a camino of it's own. Pilgrims, there are only three more stages to glory.

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