MUNSTER’s Champions Cup hopes are hanging by a thread after they were beaten 17-6 by Leicester in Welford Road on Sunday.
They succumbed to English side for the second week running and fell to their fourth successive loss in all competitions. This was a full-blooded European game and Munster came with a whole-hearted effort. You’d have expected nothing less of course but you would have hoped for a small bit more composure when they got into scoring positions.
Anthony Foley’s men were better than they were eight days earlier in Thomond Park but once again they came away with nothing. They failed to take a losing bonus point from either game, were outscored by five tries to two over the two weeks and were beaten by double figures on both occasions. Yet they’re still not out.
One win - and with a bonus point - against Treviso in their opening outing isn’t much to shout about but they’re still in the hunt. They go to Paris for their re-arranged Round 2 game against Stade Francais on January 10 and welcome the same opposition back to Thomond Park a week later. They then finish up the pool stages away to Treviso. There will be 15 points up for grabs in those three games and Munster will need to win all three, arguably two of them with a bonus point, to have any chance. That would get them to 19 points which was enough for one of the best runners-up slots last year. This is far from a vintage Munster team and they are clearly struggling in the first season of the post-Paul O’Connell era but they’ve still something to play for.
Just like the first game in Thomond Park, Munster once again had plenty of possession and territory and although Ian Keatley did kick them into an early lead with a well-struck penalty, Leicester grabbed the initiative when Ed Slater powered over from close range on 25 minutes. Henry Burns added the conversion and a penalty and at 10-3 Leicester appeared just one score from getting out of Munster’s reach before the break.
But the sin-binning of Dom Barrow on the stroke of half time - coupled with Keatley’s resulting penalty - meant it was 10-6 as the sides headed for the dressing room with Munster to have a man extra for the first ten minutes of the second half.
And they dominated that spell - but crucially didn’t score. James Cronin did get over the line but the pass from Conor Murray was deemed forward. Keatley then dragged an eminently kickable penalty wide, his second miss of the day.
The game swung in an exhilarating spell of play with just 15 minutes to play. First Denis Hurley denied an almost certain Leicester try. Then from the resulting scrum, the outstanding Francis Saili snapped up a sloppy pass and raced the length of the field. He was caught by Telusa Veainu but offloaded to Simon Zebo who was caught by Adam Thompstone.
Leicester cleared their lines and in the next phase of play Adam Betham skipped by Mark Chisholm only to be stopped by Andrew Conway. Goneva was the supporting runner and he breezed under the posts. The conversion made it 17-6 and from there there was no way back.
Munster emptied the bench but couldn’t get the try that would have earned them a losing bonus point. It brought to an end a frustrating two weeks of Champions Cup action.
Leinster come to Thomond Park next Sunday in the Pro12 and it’s off to Belfast the week later to play Ulster. Then it’s back into three weeks of European duty.
The season’s not over yet - but there’s a lot of work to do to salvage it.
MUNSTER - Andrew Conway; Simon Zebo, Francis Saili, Denis Hurley, Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Mike Sherry, John Ryan; Mark Chisholm, Dave Foley; Robin Copeland, Dave O’Callaghan, CJ Stander. Replacements: Jack O’Donoghue for O’Callaghan, Tomas O’Leary for Murray, Dave Kilcoyne for Cronin, Rory Scannell for Keatley, Billy Holland for Chisholm, Niall Scannell for Sherry, Mario Sagario for Ryan, Gonzalez Amorisino for Hurley
LEICESTER - Telusa Veainu; Adam Thompstone, Peter Betham, Matt Smith, Vereniki Goneva; Freddie Burns, Ben Youngs; Marcos Ayerza, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Michael Fitzgerald, Graham Kitchener; Ed Slater, Brendon O’Connor, Lachlan McCaffrey