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Contenders? Munster's aspirations in Europe aren't stopping now

Rassie Erasmus isn’t getting carried away, but Munster continue to impress in the Champions Cup.

Murray Kinsella reports from Glasgow

MUNSTER ALLOWED THEMSELVES a few beers last night, and we can be sure that their support did the province proud in Waxy O’Connors, the Curler’s Rest, or wherever they raised a pint to Rassie Erasmus’ men in Glasgow.

A first Champions Cup quarter-final in three seasons, that’s worth a toast for the Munster family.

Andrew Conway celebrates after the match Andrew Conway had one of his best games for Munster last night. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After all the positivity of recent weeks – yesterday’s 14-12 victory over the Warriors was Munster’s 11th win in 12 games – here was a very real milestone.

When the draw was made back in July of last year, few expected that Munster would secure top spot in Pool 1 with a round of fixtures still left to be played.

They have done so in convincing fashion and fully deserve their precious knockout fixture, with next weekend’s visit of Racing 92 to Thomond Park providing Munster with an opportunity to clinch a home tie for the quarter-finals.

Perhaps most encouragingly of all, director of rugby Rassie Erasmus was already looking forward last night in Scotstoun as he spoke to the small huddle of travelling Irish journalists.

Munster enjoyed the victory over Gregor Townsend’s side, sure, but they want more.

“Obviously, we would be stupid if we stop here and our aspirations stop here,” said Erasmus. “That would be stupid. We are proud that we’ve reached the quarter-finals and next week will be very important to see who we play.

“We will enjoy tonight and then we’ll go back to it tomorrow and see it realistically. Because I thought tactically, especially for 25 or 30 minutes after half time, we were really poor. Then at the end, we were actually really street smart. So there’s a lot of work to be done, but we will enjoy it.”

Those closing minutes after Francis Saili’s clinching try were almost heart-stopping for Munster fans, with Conor Murray’s attempted clearance kick blocked down and the Warriors swiftly hammering into their attacking game.

Simon Zebo and Francis Saili celebrate after the match Francis Saili came off the bench to score the winner. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But Jacques Nienaber’s defence once again kept the opposition at bay, as Munster showed maturity in closing out the contest. Lessons were learned at Welford Road in December, when a late penalty concession allowed Owen Williams to steal the game for Leicester.

“I think that’s the great thing, that the guys learn from situations like that,” said Erasmus. “We’ve spilled a few game this year by losing it at the end with wrong decisions.

“At the end of this game, we almost lost that lineout, which could have cost us. But before that, the pressure we kept on Finn Russell, because he was clearly in a position to get a drop goal there, and the guys really shut him down well and didn’t give a penalty away in the last few minutes.

“We certainly learned our lesson from that Leicester game.”

Erasmus was enthused by the impact of the bench late on, name-checking every one of the replacements, as the depth in Munster’s squad appears to grow each week.

He also pointed out that Townsend can pick an entire team of Scotland internationals for Glasgow, making this away win all the more satisfying for Munster.

Right now, the Irish province are a better team than the Warriors,. Three wins in a row, each of them after very different types of game. There was no sense of arrogance from Erasmus post-match last night, but Munster’s belief will only grow further.

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Beating a team as good as Glasgow three times in around three months, with two of those games away, is a big deal.

Rassie Erasmus Erasmus has led the Munster resurgence. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“When we’d beaten them twice, people didn’t really believe it; was it luck?” said Erasmus. “But if you beat them three times, you can start believing it a little bit.”

While some Glasgow fans were unhappy with the yellow card shown to Stuart Hogg just before Saili’s winning try, as well as with a handful of other calls against their team, Munster were angered by some of the borderline hits on their players after kicks.

Scrum-half Conor Murray was a target for the Warriors and assistant coach Jerry Flannery indicated to Sky Sports during the game that Munster had raised the issue with the match officials before kick-off.

Murray was frustrated to be caught on his standing leg after kicking at least twice, and Erasmus felt it was clear Glasgow were looking to put pressure on one of his key playmakers.

“They did and that’s why they’re Scottish internationals,” said the Munster director of rugby. “As we all know, they’re street smart and they get your nine on the ground from different angles after he’s kicked it.

“They’ve got little plans like that that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. It’s good, after all of that, to win the game.”

Undeterred, Murray put up several superb box kicks for Keith Earls and the superb Andrew Conway to win key aerial battles last night. One wonders if Munster would have handled even a small challenge like this as maturely last season.

But then they are a resilient bunch at present, and more so with each new experience.

Conor Murray tackled by Josh Strauss Conor Murray was on the end of some heavy Glasgow hits. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They were not at their best last night in Glasgow, with pre-existing strengths like the maul and their breakdown work regressing slightly, but they found a way to win. Glasgow threatened to steal victory in the dying minutes, but Munster found a way to halt them.

Their ongoing run of fine results and good form means many will begin to talk about Munster as possible trophy contenders in Europe, but Erasmus isn’t about to stake his side’s claim just yet. There is, nonetheless, a growing confidence within this group.

“If we just coach as best we can and the players play as well as they can, that will get us as far as possible,” said Erasmus.

“I think it would be stupid to put targets out there, because we are a fairly new team together and a fairly new management together, so it’s difficult to gauge where we can go.

“But if we don’t get a lot of injuries and we keep our form like that, I think we’ve got a chance of getting somewhere.”

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Murray Kinsella

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