Leicester Tigers 16
Ryan Bailey reports from Welford Road
TIME AND TIME again, just when the Tigers threatened to work their way back into this almighty arm-wrestle of a contest, Munster’s big players stood up and delivered.
Peter O’Mahony’s triple lineout steal, Ian Keatley’s near-faultless display from the tee and CJ Stander’s crucial try and then match-clinching turnover. Munster won the big moments in this intense, and hugely physical scrap between two familiar foes.
This was truly one of the great European victories, Munster’s composure, discipline and dogged resilience coming to the fore as they inflicted back-to-back defeats on Leicester and, in the process, took a huge step towards the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Not only did they register a first win at Welford Road in 11 years but also became the first team in 18 seasons of this pool format to complete a back-to-back double over the Tigers. Who said Leicester don’t get beaten twice? Magnificent Munster now lead Pool 4 from Racing 92 by four points.
To a man, they were again outstanding and the significance of the result and measure of the performance summed up by the joyous rendition of The Fields of Athenry which reverberated around this famous old venue, bettered only by the ovation those in red received from the travelling legion of supporters dotted around all four corners.
Leicester threw absolutely everything at Johann van Graan’s side but even after a rocky start and then a period in the second half when the Tigers appeared to be biting back following John Ryan’s sin-binning, the visitors stood firm and then found a response at the other end.
No more so than in the final 10 minutes when the game hung delicately in the balance at 16-19, and O’Mahony, named man of the match for a colossal effort, soared highest to steal yet another wayward Tom Youngs throw and Keatley held his nerve having missed a penalty from similar range moments earlier.
Fittingly, the last act would belong to Keatley and as he sent the ball sailing between the posts after Stander’s turnover, his reaction — a punch of the air — told its own story, sealing a memorable afternoon for the southern province.
The Leicester backlash arrived, but the hosts were too fired up for their own good and an indisciplined display, which saw them cough up 14 penalties and Dan Cole binned on the stroke of half-time, cost them dearly. Their race in Europe is now run.
As the Tigers lost their cool, Munster maintained their composure with Keatley orchestrating proceedings with confidence and conviction, Conor Murray again displaying his class and O’Mahony and Stander showing every bit of their worth.
And they needed to be at their best in the most raucous of atmospheres under the damp Welford Road mist.
Leicester were a completely different beast to eight days ago in the opening exchanges, and they drew first blood as early as the second minute. Rory Scannell was dragged into touch after gathering the kick-off and when the throw came in, Munster were penalised for driving too early, enabling George Ford to open the scoring.
Roles reversed, it was those in red who were guilty of committing basic errors. Keatley wasn’t going to be given an armchair ride again in the pivot, and two early knock-ons, the first of which he spilt in contact under pressure from Ben Youngs, contributed to Munster’s uneasy start. The manner in which he got on with the job is a huge testament to how well he is playing currently.
There were no such nerves shown by Kevin O’Byrne, the 26-year-old hooker on his first European start, as he found his target from an early lineout and then got the better of Tom Youngs on halfway to win a scrum penalty for his side.
Keatley launched it deep into Tigers territory and gave Munster prime attacking position five metres out. From the ensuing drives, Leicester conceded consecutive penalties, the second of which Keatley struck sweetly from a tight angle to bring the visitors level.
Parity, though, only lasted a couple of minutes and if the concession of a maul try irked Munster last week, this was another soft score to concede.
Billy Holland was the guilty party at the breakdown — holding on under pressure from Cole — and when Ford arrowed one into the Munster 22, the Tigers made hay.
Munster’s defensive line appeared to be in good order as Leicester worked it right initially, but Ford’s quick switch of attack and Graham Kitchener’s deft offload inside created the opening for Matthew Tait, whose arching run from deep exposed O’Mahony and Munster on the blindside. Ford converted, and Leicester led 10-3.
Mistakes became par for the course in increasingly greasy, and bitterly cold, conditions but, just as they did in Limerick, Munster attuned far better.
Although trailing on the scoreboard, they were far more assured in possession and showed greater care for the ball, beginning with a multi-phase period of attack which was bookmarked by big carries from Dave Kilcoyne and Stander.
Increasingly indisciplined, the Tigers’ defence and lineout began to malfunction and Munster, through the boot of Keatley, took full advantage.
Chris Cloete, again outstanding, no more so than in the second half when he outsprinted most of the players on the pitch to get back and dive on the ball when Munster were scrambling, showed his explosive and dynamic ball-carrying ability by stepping inside Matt Toomua and scything through.
The South African flanker was eventually hauled down but the referee missed a no-arms tackle from Manu Tuilagi, one of countless incidents of reckless and dangerous play from a Leicester player.
Kitchener was late on Murray as the scrum-half cleared his lines, and two further penalties inside their own half — the second for side entry — resulted in Keatley bringing Munster to within a point.
And it wasn’t long before the visitors hit the front, Keatley’s fourth penalty making it 10-12 after 34 minutes. The Leicester lineout was all over the place and when Youngs missed his target and sent the ball sailing over everyone, Munster came rushing through, and the green defensive line were then all blatantly offside.
That was the ninth penalty Leicester conceded in the first period, and the tenth proved one too many for Mathieu Raynal, as he sent Cole to the bin for what his fifth infringement right on the stroke of half-time. Murray tried his luck from halfway, his long-range effort veering narrowly wide of the right upright.
Tensions were boiling, and the south terrace let their frustration be known as the officials headed in for the break, but Munster kept their cool, typified by the performance of Keatley.
He spotted the space in behind the Tigers’ defence and executed the kick — a low grubber through the hole — to perfection, and when O’Mahony plucked Youngs’ lineout of the air in trademark fashion, Munster showed a clinical edge.
Murray, no doubt the best scrum-half in the world at present, created the opening with a sharp dash and although he was stopped just short, Stander was on hand to pick-and-go and get it down under a pile of bodies. Keatley converted, for a 19-12 lead.
And so it ebbed and flowed.
Jonny May’s blistering counterattack from his own 22 lifted Leicester spirits and Ford kicked them within a score with his second penalty from in front of the posts, before reducing the deficit further when John Ryan, only on the pitch a matter of minutes, stupidly slapped the ball down in a ruck.
16-19, game on.
But Munster were never in any real danger of losing it, even when they had to play 10 minutes without Ryan and Keatley missed a kickable penalty opportunity and then skewed a drop-goal attempt wide.
Not to worry, nothing was to deny Munster; Keatley wasn’t going to miss. What a win.
Leicester scorers:Tries: Matthew Tait
Penalties: George Ford [3 from 3]
Conversions: George Ford [1 from 1]Munster scorers:Tries: CJ Stander
Penalties: Ian Keatley [6 from 7], Conor Murray [0 from 1].
Conversions: Ian Keatley [1 from 1]
LEICESTER TIGERS: 15. Mathew Tait, 14. Adam Thompstone, 13. Manu Tuilagi, 12. Matt Toomua, 11. Jonny May, 10. George Ford, 9. Ben Youngs; 1. Kyle Traynor (Logovi’i Mulipola 29’) , 2. Tom Youngs (captain) (Tatafu Polota-Nau 56’), 3. Dan Cole, 4. Mike Fitzgerald, 5. Graham Kitchener (Dom Barrow 70’), 6. Valentino Mapapalangi, 7. Mike Williams (Luke Hamilton 56’), 8. Sione Kalamafoni
MUNSTER: 15. Simon Zebo, 14. Darren Sweetnam, 13. Sam Arnold, 12. Rory Scannell, 11. Alex Wootton, 10. Ian Keatley, 9. Conor Murray; 1. Dave Kilcoyne, 2. Kevin O’Byrne (Niall Scannell 58’), 3. Stephen Archer (John Ryan 58’), 4. Jean Kleyn, 5. Billy Holland, 6. Peter O’Mahony (captain), 7. Chris Cloete (Jack O’Donoghue 67’), 8. CJ Stander.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal.
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