Donal Lenihan: Relying on Racing, Munster’s knockout hopes surely forlorn

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Donal Lenihan: Relying on Racing, Munster’s knockout hopes surely forlorn
Donal Lenihan: Relying on Racing, Munster’s knockout hopes surely forlorn

Already qualified, Leinster booked a lucrative home quarter-final in the Heineken Champions Cup with another four-try bonus-point win over a Lyon side who were competitive for 55 minutes before being firmly put to the sword.

The only remaining goal for Leinster now from the pool stage is to secure top seeding.

Ulster’s defeat away to Clermont Auvergne means they will have to wait until next weekend before officially booking their passage to the last eight. A win in over Bath in Belfast on Saturday should confirm that. Sadly Connacht’s race is run after their home defeat to Toulouse which left Munster clinging on to their qualification hopes entering the final head-to-head between Irish provinces and Top 14 opposition over a testing weekend of Champions Cup action for the Irish sides.

Given results elsewhere, Munster knew in advance of kick-off in Paris that even if they failed to secure the minimum return of a losing bonus point, they might still qualify on 16 points qualify with a bonus-point win over Ospreys next Sunday if Racing 92 beat Saracens in London.

That is exactly what faces Munster now despite this shattering defeat. While a win over Ospreys is well within their compass, the fact that holders Saracens can still advance as a best runner up will suit them just fine.

Munster’s ultimate fate is now in Racing’s hands along with the outcome of other games involving Glasgow, Northampton and Gloucester. That said, it appears extremely unlikely they will qualify on 16 points.

Donal Lenihan: Relying on Racing, Munster’s knockout hopes surely forlorn

The losing bonus point left behind in Saracens could really come back to haunt them.

The disappointing nature of Munster’s performances over the festive period heaped much pressure on the squad heading to Paris and clearly concentrated the minds of all concerned, knowing that in order to retain complete control on their own destiny, they had to win this one.

That was hardly ideal when facing a side with a proven attacking pedigree in such a diverse setting for a rugby game. Munster’s recent Champions Cup record in France is poor in comparison to the standards set in the noughties, with just one win and a draw from their last seven visits.

If the recent defeats to Leinster and Ulster served to highlight the lack of real depth in the squad, at least the return to arms of the majority of the frontline troops, refreshed after the compulsory two week break imposed by the IRFU, offered hope that Munster had the capacity to make life difficult for their French hosts.

That said, the team and management could have done without the body blow of losing Joey Carbery to yet another injury after just completing his first 80 minute shift in Munster colours in almost a year.

The Munster No 10 jersey appears jinxed this season with Carbery, JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal all spending too much time on the sideline. In the circumstances, the fact that Hanrahan passed his fitness test on Saturday offered the squad a huge boost.

Picture: Sportsfile
Picture: Sportsfile

With Munster’s character and hunger for the fight being called into question after the tame surrender to Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast last weekend, those traditional virtues were never going to be in short supply this time out.

The big question, however, was whether Munster could match those key ingredients with the technical accuracy and razor-sharp execution required to overturn a quality Racing outfit whose midfield and back three are designed to deliver on one of the fastest tracks rugby has on offer.

Racing’s selection up front sought to repeat the template that delivered a 34-30 pool win in the corresponding fixture two seasons ago. In opting for Ben Tameifuna and Boris Palu to start at tight head and second row respectively, Racing coach Laurent Travers went for sheer power and size in an attempt to suck the legs out of the Munster front five before introducing spring-heeled alternatives in Cedate Gomes Sa and Hassaine Kolingar off the bench in the final quarter.

Tameifuna returned to Paris from the World Cup at a massive 160kg (25st). Travers refused to pick him until he shed 20kg (3st). While Dave Kilcoyne was relieved to be facing the more slimmed-down version, he was still giving away over five stone in that heavyweight scrummaging contest.

Undaunted, Munster’s front five — with Kilcoyne excelling in his personal duel with the big Tongan— refused to be shifted and laid down an early marker with a free kick and a penalty off successive scrums to take control of that key phase. To succeed in France your scrum has to survive the early scrutiny.

Picture: Sportsfile
Picture: Sportsfile

Munster’s did more than that and laid a platform for the forwards to carry. With Kilcoyne, Billy Holland, Jean Kleyn, CJ Stander, Niall Scannell and the superb Jack O Donoghue all carrying with intent, Munster forced Racing into the concession of a number of penalties all of which Hanrahan, who played really well, converted to give Munster the perfect start and a 9-0 lead after only 17 minutes.

Discipline is everything when playing away from home and a cheap penalty needlessly conceded by Kleyn from the restart opened the door for Racing to register their first points. It also kickstarted their attacking play with the mercurial Finn Russell pulling the strings.

His game has come on in leaps and bounds since decamping to Paris. The variety he brings, whether from the boot or with his magnificent hands, kept the Munster defence on red alert for long periods. His combination with the electric Virimi Vakatawa created all kinds of defensive challenges for Munster with the inevitable opening try from Teddy Thomas arriving on cue.

However, it was the try Russell created with a sumptuous cross field kick which Thomas controlled with one hand to just about dot down before the dead ball line that swung this contest decidedly in Racing’s direction.

The opportunistic intercept try, delivered by a razor-sharp Anthony Conway just on the stroke of half-time, suggested that this might just be Munster’s day with a worthy five-point lead at the break. In effect Conway’s timely intervention created a 14-point swing as Racing appeared sure to score at the other end.

Picture: Sportsfile
Picture: Sportsfile

With 16 minutes left, Munster still controlled the scoreboard, despite struggling to control possession. It was inevitable, however, that the dam would eventually burst and that second try from Thomas broke Munster’s brave hearts.

To lose by a margin of 17 points was soul destroying given that, in some aspects Munster delivered their best performance of the season. Racing eventually wore Munster down, 39 missed tackles — the majority coming in the final quarter — an indication of that.

That unrelenting pressure also took a toll on Munster’s discipline, conceding six penalties in the second half, compared to just two in a very productive opening 40 minutes.

For all kinds of reasons, a Racing win next weekend might not only facilitate Munster’s passage to the knockout phase but would also be welcomed by all the quarter-finalists, given that it would eliminate the holders.

If they advance in one of the best pool runners up slots, nobody would fancy meeting them.

Source: Sports