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Munster well worth the wait as they book record quarter-final date in style

Despite a three-hour delay, the southern province ticked pretty much every box as they powered into the Champions Cup knockout stages.

Ryan Bailey reports from Thomond Park

IT WAS WORTH the wait, in the end.

Munster delivered everything, and more, on another one of those stirring European occasions, and like they have done so often before raised their performance to exhilarating levels.

Simon Zebo celebrates after the game with fans 21/1/2018 Simon Zebo celebrates with fans after yesterday's 48-3 win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Even allowing for the three-hour delay, it wasn’t as dramatic or tension-laden as previous final day pool games here and while Castres’ futile resistance and deplorable indiscipline was a contributing factor, Munster deserve huge credit for adapting to the circumstances.

Johann van Graan praised his players afterwards for the way they coped with the disruption and certainly none of it had an ill-effect on Munster’s focus as they stormed into a 17th quarter-final, 10 of which have been at home.

In scoring six tries, the southern province advanced through as third seeds behind Leinster and Clermont and, more significantly, have the luxury of home advantage in the last eight with three-time winners Toulon set to visit Limerick for the first time since 2011 for what promises to be a thrilling tie.

It will also be the first meeting of the two European heavyweights since the 2014 semi-final in Marseille, which Toulon won 24-16 courtesy of six penalties and a drop-goal from the boot of Jonny Wilkinson.

Munster will face a return to France if they can account for Toulon in the quarters, with either Clermont or Pool 4 rivals Racing 92 waiting in the last four for Van Graan’s side, although that is all too far down the line to think about just yet.

“I’m going to enjoy tonight first,” the head coach joked, who was clearly emotional as he spoke in his post-match press conference.

Van Graan’s first taste of Thomond Park was the narrow, hard-fought win over Racing back in October, and his side have come a long way since then although he is the first to admit there is huge room for improvement before Ma’a Nonu and co rock up.

Sunday’s victory was founded on their pack’s dominance, with two of the six tries coming from compact and powerful mauls while scrum pressure and supremacy led to Ben Whitehouse’s awarding of a penalty try.

All of the front five had big games, including James Cronin who came on after just 17 minutes for the injured Dave Kilcoyne and instantly won a scrum penalty and then a free-kick, while CJ Stander and Chris Cloete put in typically tireless and industrious shifts.

Munster dominated at the breakdown, recycling ferociously and carried hard around the fringes, while their aggressive line speed enabled them to stymie Castres’s early attempts to gain a foothold in the contest. Once the visitors fell behind, they became disinterested and with nothing to play for, meekly rolled over — this was their tenth defeat to Munster in 14 European meetings.

Overall, the French side conceded 18 penalties to Munster’s six and on two occasions found themselves defending with 14 men, after Whitehouse brandished yellow to Thomas Combezou and then Daniel Kotze for a series of infringements.

Billy Holland celebrates as Simon Zebo scores a try 21/1/2018 Munster scored six tries as they blew the French side away. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Munster made hay as they scored 21 points during those periods with Keith Earls’ diving score in the far corner setting them on their way, before improved accuracy and discipline in the second half copper-fastened victory with five further scores, including a brilliant bonus-point clinching effort from the effervescent Simon Zebo.

It was all about Keith Earls, though.

Much like last week in Paris when the in-form winger turned defence into attack, he showed brilliant awareness to keep the ball alive and then launch a clinical counter-attack which resulted in Zebo diving over the whitewash amid an eruption of noise from all four corners.

Sporting a nasty cut and black eye after a first-half collision, Earls danced in-field, skipped past two attempted tackles before offloading inside for Zebo to do the rest, who celebrated with a trademark celebration.

Earls is more understated, but his impact just as important. His running ability from broken field is a real strength and the 30-year-old looks as sharp as ever ahead of the Six Nations.

He was one of a number of players, including Ian Keatley — faultless off the tee again — and Conor Murray to receive standing ovations from the 23,116 who weren’t dissuaded by the lengthy delay and the crowd were on their feet again at full-time when Munster returned to thank them for their support.

Both Van Graan and Jean Kleyn made a point of highlighting the role the supporters had to play post-match and like all big occasions at Thomond Park, The Fields reverberated and the red flags fluttered throughout.

“I said on the first day when I came here for the Racing game, Thomond Park has got magic, the magic is what the people deliver. I am very proud to be part of this,” Van Graan said.

“I think it’s a reward for the 22,000-odd people that stayed for three hours, and to see that performance from their team. I got a bit of goose bumps before the game when the team ran around the field. It seemed a lot louder than before, and we knew this was going to be tough but once the team got momentum they got an extra few gears and I’m very happy about the home support.”

Separately, Kleyn continued along the same lines: ”I just need to say there was a massive turn out today. After a three-hour delay, people travelling from all over the place, you don’t expect the place to be packed the second time and it absolutely was.

Keith Earls celebrates after the game with his daughters Ella May and Laurie 21/1/2018 MOTM Keith Earls with his daughters Ella May and Laurie. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The vibe was there and I have to say there were times in the second half when the fans really carried us through. Whenever The Fields of Athenry starts, you just get pumped.

“I never for a million years thought that the stadium would be packed again after a three-hour delay. I didn’t see it happening. When we arrived on the bus I thought, ‘jeez, it’s gonna look like a Pro14 game in there’. I was blown away when I walked on to the field first. It was packed. So that’s probably something I’ll take with me.”

Munster will hope to take the momentum built up from the pool stages into the business end of the season, but for now Van Graan and the players not involved in the Six Nations, including Kleyn, will take a few days off and take stock before preparing for their next game, against Zebre on 10 February.

“The fact we’ve reached the quarter-finals again this season speaks of Munster’s continual quality and we historical do pretty well in this tournament,” the second row added. “I’m glad we can continue that trend.

“It’s going to be a massive challenge against Toulon but as always if the fans turn up, we’ll make sure we turn up and pull that win through.”

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Munster blow Castres away with rousing Thomond performance to progress

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Ryan Bailey

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