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Stunning Andrew Conway try sends Munster into Champions Cup semi-final

It was an epic encounter at Thomond Park but Johann van Graan’s men had enough.

Munster 20

Toulon 19

Murray Kinsella reports from Thomond Park

A STUNNING WINNING score for a completely madcap Champions Cup game.

Andrew Conway’s sensational 76th-minute try from 45 metres out sent Munster into the European semi-finals after an absorbing, physical and often-controversial encounter with Toulon that will live in the memory for some time.

In the semi-final, Munster will play the winner of tomorrow’s Racing 92 v Clermont quarter-final. If Racing win, Munster will travel to Bordeaux, while a win for Clermont would see the southern province go to Saint-Etienne.

Andrew Conway celebrates his try with teammates Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Johann van Graan’s men got the rub of the green at times from referee Nigel Owens against Toulon, though they didn’t at others, so it was pleasing for them that such an outstanding try should seal the victory.

Toulon led 19-13 with just minutes to play out in order to secure a place in the last four, when replacement out-half Francois Trinh-Duc looked to have found touch on the right, close to the halfway line.

But Conway, who had started on the wing but moved into fullback when Simon Zebo retired early through injury, kept his balance on his tiptoes close to the touchline, somehow plucked the ball from the sky and set off.

He swerved inside the chasing Trinh-Duc at pace, evaded Raphael Lakafia and then brilliantly stepped to the inside of Malakai Fekitoa to dive over the tryline and send Thomond Park into eardrum-bursting raptures.

Munster had somehow led 10-6 at half-time following a remarkable opening 40 minutes but contrived to give back the advantage to a Toulon team that was impressive at times and wasteful at others.

Conway was among a horde of brilliant individuals for Munster, with Jack O’Donoghue – in the seven shirt due to injuries to Chris Cloete and Tommy O’Donnell – superb, while Rory Scannell and Sammy Arnold were also excellent in the midfield.

Peter O'Mahony clashes with Juandre Kruger Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Captain Peter O’Mahony was man of the match, ferocious in contact and impactful at the lineout – a constant menace to the Toulon throw. He was clearly proud afterwards, leading his players on a well-received lap of honour in front of the brilliant Limerick crowd.

That Munster did it without the injured Cloete, O’Donnell, Keith Earls, Tyler Bleyendaal, Chris Farrell and Jaco Taute spoke volumes of the character in this young squad.

Toulon had initially named Trinh-Duc to start but instead sent out young Anthony Belleau, keeping the more experienced man in reserve – seemingly the plan all along.

Belleau helped Toulon to essentially dominate the opening half but they didn’t get the scoreboard reward on a day that Munster defence coach JP Ferreira will have taken some pride from.

Conor Murray scored a brilliant intelligent try for Munster in the first-half, one that Toulon were deeply aggrieved by, while Conway’s late try was the moment of the game.

That Munster led at half-time in this quarter-final was astounding, given that Toulon had utterly dominated territory and possession at 70% and 65%, respectively.

Munster fans Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Fabien Galthié’s side could have been in front after just 47 seconds but their claims for a penalty try were denied after Owens called on TMO Jon Mason for the first, and not the last, time.

Scrum-half Eric Escande had cleverly kicked deep behind Munster down the left for Christ Ashton to chase, with Zebo called into duty to cover across at pace. The Munster fullback arguably slapped the ball away as it bounced up in the in-goal area, denying Ashton a chance to gather, but Owens and Mason ruled that the Toulon 15 had knocked-on.

Munster gave up a scrum penalty immediately but captain O’Mahony produced a five-metre lineout steal to momentarily lift the early pressure.

A minute later, Conway had to produce a try-saving tackle in Munster’s left corner as Zebo got caught tight and Josua Tuisova appeared favourite to score. Another minute later and there was a try-saver wide on the right as Arnold stopped Ashton after Zebo was caught out again.

The Munster fullback was struggling, and somehow lasted 25 minutes before being replaced by Darren Sweetnam, but Toulon did at least get some reward for their strong start with a penalty from Belleau after 10 minutes. It seemed scant reward.

Munster soon turned down a chance to level the game, instead opting for the corner and probably regretting it as they failed to convert, Toulon instead extending their lead with a quarter played when Belleau popped over a drop-goal – sharply changing from his right foot as it was being charged and slotting with his left – at the end of 20 powerful phases.

Anthony Belleau with Jack O'Donoghue Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Then, somehow, the momentum suddenly shifted. First, Arnold forced the ball loose in one of his many excellent tackles and Munster flooded through to kick ahead and chase deep into the Toulon 22.

The French side recovered but from the subsequent lineout, O’Donoghue broke through and Keatley dinked a lovely grubber behind Toulon.

Conway chased hard and though he failed to gather the ball off the ground, Tuisova instead grabbing possession, Toulon hooker Guilhem Guirado dropped the ball at the back of the ruck a metre from their tryline, and Murray burst in to grab it off the deck and dot down, claiming the try.

There was deep uncertainty and the TMO review was surely record-breaking in duration but, eventually, Owens and Mason decided that Guirado had knocked the ball forward, therefore allowing Murray to scoop it off the ground and score.

Typically clever from Murray but deeply contentious, again.

Keatley converted and Munster led. Two minutes later, they extended their advantage when assistant referee Ian Davies correctly flagged Semi Radradra for a late tackle on Sweetnam after the Munster sub wing – Conway had shifted into fullback – kicked ahead.

Another TMO review, after which Keatley added three points for Munster.

Andrew Conway celebrates his try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Incredibly, there was still time for more first-half drama. Murray missed a 48-metre penalty shot, before Dave Attwood made a searing break for Toulon only for Raphael Lakafia to knock-on following a fine tackle from Conway on the charging Attwood.

And the half came to a close with Arnold tackling Juandre Kruger into touch after the Toulon lock was freed to surge up the left wing.

Owens whistled for the interval and everyone took a badly-needed deep breath.

The second half proved to be almost as breathless. Keatley missed with an early speculative drop goal effort, but Munster were now the team in control as their forwards got on top of the visiting pack.

They probably should have had a second try in the 50th minute when Sweetnam won another ball in the air to knock it down to Stander, who shifted the ball left and Scannell fired a fine long pass wide to Alex Wootton on the left, the wing bursting over to apparently score.

But Owens was unhappy with Sweetnam’s involvement and ruled it had gone forward, a call that drew frustration from Munster supporters.

Toulon opted to replace the impressive Belleau with Trinh-Duc at this point, although it was Munster’s all-Ireland international front row who initially had the greater impact as they won a huge scrum penalty that allowed Keatley to kick Munster 13-6 in front.

Jack O'Donoghue, Jean Kleyn, John Ryan and Niall Scannell celebrate a penalty from a scrum Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Toulon spurned two clear overlaps as they now found a desperate edge heading towards the closing quarter, first Ma’a Nonu failing to pass and then Radradra knocking the ball-on as he stretched out his left arm in a vain effort to dot down wide on the left.

They were warning shots and the Top 14 outfit were back on top, in truth.

Jean Kleyn came in the side of a maul to give Trinh-Duc the chance to bring the scoreline back to 13-9.

Though Trinh-Duc then missed touch with a penalty to relieve some pressure on Munster, the out-half played a central role in the stunning try that sent them back in front in the 66th minute.

His offload out of the tackle was flat – confirmed by the TMO after – and skillful, freeing Bastareaud near the halfway line. The centre strode towards the Munster 22 and passed to Ashton on his right shoulder, the Toulon fullback offering a typically brilliant support line to streak clear and score under the posts.

Trinh-Duc’s conversion and then a penalty two minutes later had Toulon 19-13 in front with 10 minutes to go.

Munster weren’t done.

James Cronin and Robin Copeland celebrate after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

John Ryan won another scrum penalty and they kicked into Toulon’s right corner, their powerful maul being held up over the tryline as they searched for the winning score.

They played off the resulting scrum but then lacked composure as they pummeled at Toulon’s tryline, forcing the ball wide to the right where Sweetnam was tackled ball-and-all by Radradra.

Toulon kicked clear and the ball looked destined for touch only for Conway to pluck it from the air, finishing close to the posts and making the conversion easy for Keatley.

The French side had a final possession in which to steal the win, but Trinh-Duc looked unwilling to drop into the pocket and a final turnover did it for Munster.

Munster scorers:

Tries: Conor Murray, Andrew Conway

Conversions: Ian Keatley [2 from 2]

Penalties: Ian Keatley [2 from 2], Conor Murray [0 from 1]

Toulon scorers:

Tries: Chris Ashton

Conversions: François Trinh-Duc [1 from 1]

Penalties: Anthony Belleau [1 from 1], François Trinh-Duc [2 from 2]

Drop goal: Anthony Belleau

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo (Darren Sweetnam ’25); Andrew Conway, Sammy Arnold, Rory Scannell, Alex Wootton; Ian Keatley (JJ Hanrahan ’78), Conor Murray (James Hart ’78); Dave Kilcoyne (James Cronin ’53), Rhys Marshall (Niall Scannell ’53), Stephen Archer (John Ryan ’53); Jean Kleyn (Gerbrandt Grobler ’77), Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (captain), Jack O’Donoghue (Robin Copeland ’59), CJ Stander

TOULON: Chris Ashton; Josua Tuisova, Mathieu Bastareaud (captain), Ma’a Nonu (Malakai Fekitoa ’59), Semi Radradra; Anthony Belleau (François Trinh-Duc ’53), Eric Escande (Alby Mathewson ’59); Florian Fresia (Xavier Chiocci ’46), Guilhem Guirado (Anthony Etrillard ’74), Marcel Van Der Merwe (Emerick Setiano ’77); Juandre Kruger (Romain Taofifenua ’46), Dave Attwood; Raphael Lakafia, Facundo Isa, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacement not used: Samu Manoa.

Referee: Nigel Owen [WRU].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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