It’s hard to believe that Toulouse never played in Thomond Park until today, but it’s true, and their debut was a sorry one. I thought we’d probably shade it by a point or two, but I didn’t think Munster would drive a truck over them. It was ridiculous. At no point in that game did it look as if the home team would lose, even when Toulouse rallied for six or seven desperate minutes in the second half and forced the Munster defence to spring a couple of leaks.
Right from the very start, two minutes into the game, when Peter O Mahony stole their lineout (injuring himself in the effort), it was clear that this was our field and anyone coming here expecting to win would have to win hard. When, after four minutes, Keith Earls went over for the first try, the message was clear: we’re not doing miracle matches any more.
And so it turned out.
Toulouse seemed a bit insouciant at the start, almost as if they expected this to be a formality, and while it’s easy to dispense clichés about French teams not travelling well, this crew certainly appeared to think the match was theirs by right. How mistaken could they be? For the first 30 minutes, Toulouse never made it inside the Munster 22, which in itself is an astonishing statistic.
Last week’s Rabo defeat to Leinster looks like the best possible preparation Munster could have had for a Heineken Cup quarter final against the club with the most impressive history in the competition. The backs’ running was sharp and varied, peppered with switches, offloads and dummies, sudden bursts of speed, smart, intelligent, incisive play, much of it straight from the training ground. The forwards operated the most impressive maul in Europe, creating three tries out of it. Munster owned the lineout.
Looking at today’s Munster, all I could see was a bunch of young fellows at the top of their exuberant ability, enjoying themselves. It was a all a far cry from the old dour, up-the-jumper style, though we still love it and call upon it from time to time in times of the cosh.
It’s not that I want to be one-sided about this, but the fact is that Toulouse offered little to celebrate, apart from Hosea Gear’s wonderful try, but I suppose it’s hard to show brilliance if you can’t get hold of the ball.
The half-time score of 13-9 didn’t adequately reflect the shape of the first 40 minutes, but it was impossible to escape the feeling that Munster were in charge, and that’s exactly how it turned out, when they opened the second half with an immediate try, cleverly worked from a lineout maul, with Murray breaking off and going for the line, putting Kilcoyne over for a try. It was a carbon copy of a play in the first half that didn’t quite come off and a clear sign of Rob Penney’s trust in his system and, most of all, his players.
Five minutes later, Varley and Stander pulled the same trick, and that was the end of Toulouse as a credible opposition, though Gear’s try pulled them back to shouting distance at 27-16. But the game was up. A penalty from Keatley and a try from Laulala, gifted by an incredibly ill-advised short drop-out from Toulouse put the scoreline at 35-16. There’s a rough rule of thumb at this stage of a game that says you can’t win if you have to score an average of a point a minute without reply, all the way to the final whistle, and that’s the way it was to be. Tekori’s try at 72 minutes was little consolation, when Zebo, in characteristically flamboyant style, high-stepped his way past four defenders and went over to make it 40-23.
After that, it was only a question of how much more we could could put on the board, and sure enough, with one minute left, after yet another surging passage of play, JJ Hanrahan offloaded to Paul O Connell who torpedoed over the line in a fitting and rare try from open play. It’s been five years since his last one.
A chastening experience for Toulouse, whose coach, Guy Novès, was gracious in defeat. Today Munster taught us a big lesson and we’ll have to learn from that.
Everything now hangs on the result of tomorrow’s game between Leinster and Toulon. If the French win, we face the long trip to Marseille. If the old enemy win, we’ll be heading to Lansdowne Road. As Rob Penney put it, We’d probably prefer to get on a bus than a plane
If we end up in Lansdowne Road, we’ll all be hoping to repeat that outstanding performance in the blazing sunshine of May, 2006 that sent us on to Cardiff for the first final victory against Biarritz.
On today’s evidence, we have no need to fear anyone, and the scoreline will certainly send out an unmistakeable message, but nobody is under any illusions. Leinster or Toulon. Either way, it’s a big ask.