Monday 19 February 2018

Munster's Champions Cup hopes hanging by a thread after Leicester loss

Leicester Tigers' Vereniki Goneva in action against Munster's Conor Murray during the European Champions Cup, pool four match at Thomond Park, Limerick, Ireland Credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Leicester Tigers' Vereniki Goneva in action against Munster's Conor Murray during the European Champions Cup, pool four match at Thomond Park, Limerick, Ireland Credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Munster delivered the best and worst of themselves at Thomond Park but this coruscating defeat leaves them on the verge of European elimination.

Munster 19 Leicester 31

And there will be renewed speculation about the prospects of a move south for Leinster out-half Ian Madigan – after Munster’s Ian Keatley was removed to a cacophony of ironic cheers from the Limerick locals.

Three missed kicks and a missed tackle in the build-up to one of Leicester’s three tries added up to a miserable occasion for the Dubliner – who had no reported injury before or during the game - and he was a beaten docket well before his belated late departure.

 Munster must win in Paris next weekend but a side who cannot win even in Newport, and who made so many mistakes as they did this evening – notwithstanding the positives – look unlikely to achieve such a mountainous task.

 Munster led 6-3 early on but they conceded two soft tries in the seven minutes before half-time to Vereniki Goneva and Michael Fitzgerald and trailed 18-6 at the break, despite a promising opening quarter.

 The home side responded immediately after the break with an opportunistic James Cronin score but Ben Youngs’ 53rd  minute score, exposing more poor defence, gave Leicester a 25-13 buffer against Mike Sherry’s third Munster try could not, Tom Bell adding a brace of late penalties to extend their winning margin and confirm their control in this pool.

 Tyler Bleyendaal gave Munster an unwanted late scare when he was forced to retire from the bench when his tight quad problem flared up again, Rory Scannell while Leicester were also inconvenienced with their last-minute change, experienced Lions back-row Tom Croft also slipping from the bench with Dom Barrow stepping up.

 Although Leicester are infamously remembered in these environs for the part they played during Munster’s meandering Odyssey towards the European summit, thanks to the “hand of Back” final defeat in 2002, neither had managed to win on home soil in this fixture aside from that Twickenham occasion.

 Aside from their shared successes on opposition soil during the 2006/07 season, Munster also won away in the 2003 quarter-final. Leicester arrived here with a maximum ten points so Munster, with only five following the postponement of their Stade trip, needed to renew their momentum.

 But Munster didn’t get the good start they wanted, a poor box-kick from scrum-half Conor Murray putting the breakdown under pressure and Niall Scannell was pinged for over-zealously holding the tackler.

 Owen Williams nailed the penalty and there was less than two minutes gone.

 But from their first attack, Munster put some good phases together and when Dan Cole blatantly infringed near his line, Romain Poite spurned the yellow card option as Munster spurned the penalty kick into the stiffish breeze.

 However, they spilled the pill before really getting any momentum and, when another attack fell down as Andrew Conway over-ran for the second time within a minute, a relieving scrum penalty for Leicester seemed ominous in more ways than one.

 However, a stunning break by James Cronin, splitting the Leicester close-in defence after a beautiful pass from Francis Salii set up, perhaps fortunately, a scoring chance that Ian Keatley could not turn down.

 The Dubliner made no mistake in the 15th minute to level matters but Murray’s box-kicks into the wind were causing his side some measure of angst as he kicked out on the full from the restart.

 Leicester should have scored an opening try after Telusa Veainu’s dazzling footwork but Dave Foley pounded Marcus Ayerza when he seemed set to score beneath the posts from Ed Slater’s delicious off-load; Dave O’Callaghan’s poach cleared the danger.

 After a better contestable kick, this time from Ian Keatley, a flood of Munster players, led by BJ Botha, forced Leicester into conceding their fourth penalty of the night.

 Captain CJ Stander pointed to the posts; it was a much more difficult kick from the 10 metre line into the swirling wind; his swing was as unerring as his accuracy as Munster led 6-3 as we entered the second quarter of an already compelling contest.

 Owen Williams was given his own fortunate chance to level, when Brendon O’Connor did not dis-engage when Denis Hurley was guilty of holding the ball on the ground; from virtually half-way, he tied it up again at 6-6.

 Back came Munster; Ed Slater took Andrew Conway out in the air – Poite refusing TMO intervention – and Keatley was giving another easy chance in front of the posts.

 His team-mates looked away in preparation for a restart and a 9-6 lead; Keatley, it seemed, did too, pulling his kick dreadfully wide. In short, it was a howler.

 From the next attack, Poite did go to the TMO as Michael Fitzgerald took the luckless Conway out again as he chased a Garryowen; it was an obvious yellow card but Poite had somehow dodged this call and went back for a James Cronin shove.

 It would be a critical call.

 Leicester mauled fully 30 yards to the line and, with a penalty coming, the ball was spread wide and Vereniki Goneva, always elusive but especially when the hapless Ian Keatley is waving you through, pounced for the visitors’ first try, 6-11, with seven minutes to the break.

 Munster’s confidence was shot; damage limitation was required yet they couldn’t avoid self-harm.

 Moments later, Conway’s needless attempted grubber allowed Matt Smith to gallop clear from the 10-metre line; his gallop slowed to a trot but Williams almost found Goneva with a cross-kick.

 Suddenly pushed, literally, into a corner, a desperately static lineout, reflecting the home’s side catharsis, was over-thrown by Scannell and Fitzgerald, who may not even have been on the field, gleefully dotted down in the 37th minute.

 Williams had hit the post with his first conversion attempt but didn’t err with his second; an 18-6 lead was huge, even with the wind, but Keatley’s poor restart reflected his, and the team’s poor confidence.

 Munster needed a good start; Keatley gave it to them, needling a wonderful ball to the same corner where they had conceded their second try.

 From the lineout, similarly uncertain, Donnacha Ryan put supreme pressure no the throw which, although Leicester retained possession, they could not secure it, James Cronin pouncing on what may or may not have been a loose ball as Leicester players stood aghast as if watching their house burn down.

 Keatley missed the conversion but when Goneva spilled a long Simon Zebo kick into touch, Leicester were now imploding; Ayerza was binned as Leicester’s penalty concession soared into double figures.

 Keatley, trying to avoid a hat-trick of missed place-kicks, settled his and Munster nerves and, astonishingly, within six minutes, they were just 18-14 down and a man up.

 The half-time tea had certainly been strong; Munster welcomed their millionth fan this evening amongst the 22,261 crowd; it seemed as if the entire million of them were now here.

 Both teams mixed the sublime and ridiculous; they were surfing a wave of the mediocre in the sin-bin period. Composure was required but Munster cracked first.

 After Keith Earls was snaffled by Seremi Bai following the latter’s chip and chase, Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs was then allowed a half-acre of space to run into after Robin Copeland marked an encouraging first European start with another horrendous missed tackle.

 His third try for Leicester had, one could argue, have stemmed from a missed kick to touch from Keatley when his side had been awarded yet another penalty. A scrum penalty concession dampened the locals’ mood still further.

 It was now less a question of whether Munster could stage another comeback, but could Leicester steal an unlikely third maximum points haul in succession as Ayerza returned to restore his side to their full complement.

 Munster kept at it though and they were rewarded when some slick handling and, for once, patient phased play, worked a try in the corner for replacement Mike Sherry with 14 minutes on the clock.

 Keatley, however, missed another kick; had he nailed them all, his side would have led.

 Instead, as Munster faltered at the restart, a compendium of errors, topped by Copeland’s horrid pass, allowed replacement out-half Tom Bell a shot at the posts.

 Keatley, slowly disappearing from view, was eventually replaced, to the ironic cheers of the crowd. His side’s European hopes have too.

 Munster - A Conway; K Earls, F Saili, D Hurley (L Gonzalez Amorosino 60), S Zebo; I Keatley (N Scannell 73), C Murray (T O’Leary 69); J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 54), N Scannell (M Sherry 52), BJ Botha (J Ryan 39), D Foley (M Chisholm 54), D Ryan, R Copeland, D O'Callaghan (J O’Donoghue 69), CJ Stander.

 Leicester Tigers - T Veainu; A Thompstone (G Camacho 78), M Smith, S Bai, V Goneva; O Williams (T Bell 58), B Youngs (S Harrison 67); M Ayerza (M Aguero 78), T Youngs (H Thacker 79), D Cole (F Balmain 78), G Kitchener, M Fitzgerald (D Barrow 70), E Slater capt, B O'Connor, L McCaffrey.

 Ref - Romain Poite (France)

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