Bril­liant Con­way ef­fort res­cues Reds

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

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

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