Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Jonny Wilkinson kicks Munster where it hurts

Munster's Simon Zebo scores the only try in their Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon, but it wasn't enough to win the game
Munster's Simon Zebo scores the only try in their Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon, but it wasn't enough to win the game

Toulon 24 Munster 16: Moral victories may be long a thing of the past for Irish rugby, but there's still something special about Munster even in defeat.

They lose as they win, with all guns blazing.

Seldom, if ever, do they fail to deliver a performance appropriate to the occasion at the very least.

And so it was at the magnificently appointed Stade Velodrome in sun soaked Marseilles yesterday.

That Toulon deserved to win over the 80-plus minutes is beyond dispute.

They controlled the game for longer periods and had in Jonny Wilkinson the game manager supreme.

He may be nearing the end of a phenomenal career, but when it comes to out and out match winners under pressure there is still no-one better than the brilliant Toulon playmaker in chief.

It would be wrong to suggest him the only difference between the sides, but certainly when it comes to maximising whatever opportunities come your way the former England World Cup winner is quite literally in a class of his own.

He missed one first-half kick from six attempts – knocking over four successful penalties as well as a trademark drop goal – that seemed to have 'done and dusted' for even the most blinkered Munster supporter come the half-time break.

Munster failed to fire in that first half and while the 'home' team were not an awful lot better they had control for most of the opening 40.

Factor in a very questionable yellow card shown to Juan Fernandez Lobbe and I think it fair to assume a right rollicking dished out by Rob Penney at the interval.

Put simply the under dogs were in a right big hole.

It would take something special to dig them out of it and while we pondered on a possible Simon Zebo intercept or maybe a Keith Earls' touch of dancing magic to spark a revival it was, most ironically, a Zebo last ditch wonder tackle on Steffon Armitage that brought this latest European comeback about.

Had Armitage made the corner unopposed and Wilkinson almost inevitably added the extras the game, as a contest at least, was all over bar the shouting.

What we got instead was typical gutsy Munster, as only Munster can in desperate times like this.

Zebo's subsequent try, brilliantly created by Conor Murray and converted by the near nerveless Ian Keatley meant with close to an hour gone there was but two points in it.

At 16-18 it was game on. The crowd sensed the shifting tide and more relevantly so too did both sets of players as for the second year running Munster had red hot Gallic favourites in a bind on French soil.

Alas they came up short and on this massive occasion I firmly believe them to be masters of their own downfall.

At 21-16, a good 10 minutes left on the clock and down to 14 men – with Earls (pictured) in the bin – the decision to go for the corner was, at best, ill advised.

Had Keatley closed the gap to just a single kick of the ball, be it penalty or drop goal, the pressure on the reigning champions would have been like nothing they had ever experienced before.

My gut feeling was of a star studded side on the verge of cracking.

There are times when you speculate to accumulate, but this most certainly was not one.

Perhaps I am old school here, but certain principles, not least planting seeds of doubt for the final phase, are as relevant to today's game as they were when Munster beat the All Blacks way back when.

In the cold light of day I suspect Damien Varley, Paul O'Connell and Keatley, the most likely decision makers, might acknowledge the error of that call.

And no I do not accept that had they scored when going to the corner we would all be singing a completely different tune.

With 14 against 15 and Earls set to return there was one definitive call needing to be made and on this 'must-win' occasion it was marked by its absence.

Let it not detract in any way from the courage of this second-half performance.

Here as ever was Munster turning rugby logic on its head and Toulon, if not quite fully rattled, wobbling to say the least.

It certainly wasn't a classic with precious little broken field running, but in terms of intensity and sheer honesty in the tackle and at the breakdown it was a semi-final of the highest calibre and in a different league to the one-sided romp witnessed at Twickenham the previous day.

In individual terms O'Connell was good, so too Varley and while Keatley displayed some real composure under pressure it was Murray and most particularly James Coughlan the stand out performers for me.

If there is any justice – and I believe in Joe Schmidt there exists the right man in the right place – then a seat should be found for the Munster No. 8 and Ireland 'A' player on that summer flight to Argentina.

In the final analysis the better team playing the more composed and better controlled rugby eventually won through, but not before the most illogical team in the tournament, the one that has made this incredible competition what it is, had emptied the big match tanks as only they can.

Match lost, cup gone but global reputation further enhanced.

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