Brilliant Conway effort rescues Reds
Munster 20 Toulon 19
WITH the clock in the red and the home support on their feet, Toulon were doing their damnedest to keep their Champions Cup hopes alive. Phase after phase, knowing a successful penalty would be enough, but just when they were getting into shooting range they were penalised for holding on at the tackle. Chris Ashton didn’t look too happy about it, but he was in a tiny minority at a packed Thomond Park. Munster are back in the semifinal of the Champions Cup where they will face — away from home — the winners of today’s tie between Clermont and Racing.
Given the injury toll they suffered in Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, to shake off the challenge of a team like Toulon is a massive achievement for them. With 68 minutes on the clock they looked doomed, having surrendered a lead they had won back in the first half. Four minutes later they were back in business courtesy of a brilliant individual try by Andrew Conway, a player whose fitness was in doubt all week.
Francois Trinh-Duc will feel ill when he watches the replay of it. With five minutes to play you couldn’t have back his team at any price. They were nine points ahead and had just survived a very close call when a Munster maul got over the line only to be held up. As Toulon exited, under no great pressure, they need Trinh-Duc to welly it into Row Z. Instead he left it short. And Conway pulled off a trick that featured catching the ball, staying in play, and then working his way over 45 metres through the Toulon defence. Ian Keatley’s conversion put Munster a point ahead. And they stayed that way.
“It was incredibly gutsy, up there with one of the best I’ve captained,” man of the match Peter O’Mahony said afterwards. “Andrew could have let the ball go out of play and let the forwards deal with it, but it was individually brilliant for him. Our backs were outstanding. Mathieu Bastareaud and Ma’a Nonu didn’t get any go-forward ball all day.”
Well they got a fair bit actually, enough to win the game. And when they reflect on Semi Radradra losing the ball on the line, under minimal pressure, in the second half they’ll add that to the things they should have done. They could lob in also a penalty-try claim when Simon Zebo batted a ball into touch in-goal and away from Chris Ashton in the opening minutes. Zebo got clattered for his trouble and hobbled off — nothing too serious seemingly — on 25 minutes.
The hard part to fathom was that Toulon had hauled their own way back into the game when they had looked out of it. So, a blistering start where they only took six points through Anthony Belleau, followed by Munster reeling them in to a point where the home team were 13-6 clear on 56 minutes; then Toulon get the upper hand again with a lovely Ashton try; and then they open the door to Conway.
Through it all referee Nigel Owens had the TMO on speed dial. Four times in the first half alone he went upstairs — the half took 56 minutes to complete and injury was not a factor — with the longest interlude going to the decision over Conor Murray’s opportunistic touchdown to cancel Toulon’s bright start. It was hard to fathom.
A late tackle by Radradra on Darren Sweetnam allowed Ian Keatley give Munster a 10-6 half-time lead, and when the outhalf tacked on that scrum penalty for 13-6 you expected Toulon to fold. They had seemed to lose interest in the long wait over Murray’s try, but to their credit — with Duane Vermeulen and Facundo Isa taking the fight to Munster — they got back on top. That will make losing all the harder to bear.
As for Munster, it’s another entry in their European folklore. Not in the class of Ronan O’Gara’s finish to a 41-phase drive against Saints in this competition seven years ago, but fairly special all the same. And given the big players out of the picture through injury, a significant achievement.
“When a lot of people believe it’s incredible what human beings can do,” coach Johann van Graan said afterwards. “It’s incredible what we did today. I could mention every guy who took the field. They really put their bodies on the line. Munster magic came through today. There were a lot of ebbs and swings in that game but we fought our way back into it. I think gratitude is the main word. It’s an honour to coach this team. If you’ve got 23 guys who believe and a management team who believe and a club who believes then things can come true.” Scorers — Munster: Murray, Conway try each; Keatley 2 pens, 2 cons. Toulon: Ashton try; Trinh-Duc 2 pens, con, Belleau pen, dp gl.
Munster: S Zebo (D Sweetnam 25); A Conway, S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, C Murray (J Hart 77); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 53), R Marshall (N Scannell 53), S Archer (J Ryan 53), J Kleyn (G Grobler 77), B Holland, P O’Mahony, CJ Stander, J O’Donoghue (R Copeland 59).
Toulon: C Ashton; J Tuisova, M Bastareaud, M Nonu (M Fekitoa 59), S Radradra; A Belleau (F Trinh-Duc 52), E Escande (A Mathewson 59); F Fresia (X Chiocci 46; F Fresia 74)), G Guirado (A Etrillard 74), M van der Merwe (E Setiano 76), J Kruger (R Taofifenua 46), D Attwood, R Lakafia, D Vermuelen, F Isa. Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Josua Tuisova is tackled by Alex Wootton and Sam Arnold during the Champions Cup quarter-final in Thomond Park. Photo: Brendan Moran