Sunday 17 December 2017

'Special' try vindicates style change

Penney Coach salutes Munster heroes for keeping faith in expansive game plan during epic finale

James Coughlan leaps into the air to celebrate with team-mate Damien Varley
James Coughlan leaps into the air to celebrate with team-mate Damien Varley
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

ROB PENNEY embraced his coaching staff in the seconds after JJ Hanrahan's try and then broke from the huddle for a moment's contemplation as the TMO confirmed the score.

PERPIGNAN 17 MUNSTER 18

The Munster coach -- out of contract at the end of the season -- had watched his future flash before his eyes as the combination of a defensive lapse and a poor piece of refereeing allowed Tommaso Benvenuti to put Perpignan in front with two minutes remaining to throw Pool 6 wide open.

"It almost broke me," the New Zealander said of Dublin-born referee JP Doyle's decision not to refer what looked like the winning score upstairs after two suspect passes in the build-up. Their coach might have been close to breaking but, with one last chance looming, Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony gathered the troops beneath the posts and spoke of keeping cool heads.

Munster secured a scrum in decent field position from the kick-off, but a series of dropped balls in midfield looked to have snatched the impetus away from the visitors as the clock turned red. O'Connell straightened the line and, from the ruck, Ian Keatley changed the point of attack and went down the blindside.

DELIRIUM

What followed will go down in Munster lore: Denis Hurley's brilliant off-load, Tommy O'Donnell's strength as two defenders tried to force him into touch and presence of mind to find Hanrahan and the young Kerryman's brazenness to stand Joffrey Michel up and go around him to score.

Cue delirium, a lap of honour, control of the pool and quite possibly a new deal for Penney too as the New Zealander heads for Christmas top of the Pro12 and on course for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

The endgame for the ages followed an ill-tempered slugfest. Instantly, the loose play, Keatley's missed kicks and the flirting with disaster were forgotten.

The winning try that washed the negatives away came right from the Penney playbook. The coach has been criticised for changing the way the province play, but could feel some vindication from the final throes as his side threw off the shackles and trusted their skills.

"I'm a big believer in letting guys express themselves, and when the opportunity is there you have to go and play," he said. "If you start to criticise that and start to nip that in the bud, you're never going to grow. I think we are starting to show green shoots in that area. We're nowhere near good enough yet, but the lads are working hard and you see glimpses of it.

"We wouldn't have scored that try in the last minute if the boys hadn't been trying it at other opportunities and having the faith to (go for it).

"We have been getting a hard time at times for moving the ball around, but when you get an outcome like today on the basis of two minutes of desperation and having the skill-set to finish it, for me, is great reward."

The endgame -- similar to the last moments of Ireland's defeat to New Zealand -- lightened up a cranky afternoon in the shadow of the Pyrenees.

All the grudges from Munster's five-try victory six days previously carried into the Stade Aime Giral and the game got away from Doyle as concurrent brawls erupted on either side of the field.

The referee sin-binned O'Mahony and hooker Romain Terrain, but only warned Dan Leo despite the flanker stamping on a prone Munster player and throwing a few punches. He later opted for leniency when Keith Earls went high on Nicolas Durand.

The bad blood got the far-from-full stadium involved and, despite their gripes with the referee, Munster could have few complaints about trailing 9-3 at the interval, with Tommy Allan and Keatley responsible for the scores.

It could have been worse had Perpignan not chosen to rest James Hook and Luke Charteris, with the Welsh full-back's kicking missed as Allan's inaccuracy from placed balls left eight points behind.

Munster will argue that Keatley did the same, but there was also the apparent concussion suffered by Keith Earls, as he sought to stop the try, which allowed Hanrahan on to the pitch for the fateful two minutes. Things just went Munster's way at crucial times.

One area of the game where Munster were completely dominant was the scrum and, while Hanrahan hogs the headlines, the front-row of James Cronin, Damien Varley and BJ Botha can pat themselves on the back. A penalty try in this part of the world is a real badge of honour.

Such was their dominance that Munster took the lead after a dominant push on a Perpignan feed forced the Catalans over their own line and gave the Reds a five-metre set-piece. Seven re-sets later and Doyle was running under the posts to award a penalty try and Keatley added the extras.

They had started the first half well too, with Sean Dougall crossing for a try that was disallowed by the video referee because James Downey had impeded Luke Narraway in the build-up.

The pattern followed after half-time as, after nudging their way in front, Munster were forced to spend much of the next 30 minutes on the defensive, with James Coughlan, Downey and O'Connell leading the way and Cathal Sheridan -- making his first Heineken Cup start -- executing a try-saving tackle on Watisoni Votu.

Keatley and Allan exchanged penalties and it all came down to those final minutes. Earls was caught in possession and Perpignan forced a scrum. They went left where David Marty's clearly forward pass to Michel went unchecked and the full-back drew Hurley and put Benvenuti over.

The long wait for Earls to receive treatment gave Munster breathing space. It also allowed Hanrahan his opportunity -- and boy did he take it.

"We know there are moments in a season that can turn you and, with a bit of luck, we can use this as a springboard to the next couple of Heineken Cup matches," Penney said.

"We have a nice bit of depth and a moment like this, for this group, is a little bit special. They realise it's a bit special."

PERPIGNAN -- J Michel; S Guitone, L Mafi (D Marty 68), W Votu, R Haughton (T Benvenuti 19); T Allan, N Durand; S Taofifenua, R Terrain, P Ion; S Vahaamahina, G Vilaceca; D Leo (G Guirado 23-27) (JP Perez 54), A Strokosch, L Narraway (capt) (J Puril 68).

MUNSTER -- F Jones (D Hurley 71); K Earls (JJ Hanrahan 78), C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley, C Sheridan; J Cronin (D Kilcoyne 62), D Varley, BJ Botha (S Archer 73); D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 53), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), S Dougall (T O'Donnell 62), J Coughlan.

REF -- JP Doyle (RFU)

Irish Independent

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