Heartbreak for Munster as Racing 92 severely dent Heineken Champions Cup hopes

Colm Kinsella, Rugby Correspondent

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Colm Kinsella, Rugby Correspondent

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ckinsella@limerickleader.ie

Munster

Munster's Jack O'Donoghue directing a maul under the watchful eye of Wenceslas Lauret, of Racing 92, during the Heineken Champions Cup clash at the Paris La Defence Arena on Sunday

MUNSTER'S hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages of this season's Heineken Champions Cup were all but ended in the final 10 minutes at the Paris La Defence Arena when Racing 92 bagged three tries to run out 39-22 bonus point winners of their Round 5 fixture on Sunday.

Visitors Munster, who produced one of their best displays of the season, led the crucial Pool 4 contest 22-20 after 70 minutes.

However, Racing, boosted by their powerful replacements' bench, finally found a way through Munster's spirited defence in the closing stages, reeling off 19 unanswered points for a deserved win, even if the Top 14 side side was flattered by the margin of it.

The win saw Racing 92 book their place in their quarter-finals of the Champions Cup as pool winners.

Munster complete their programme of Pool 4 games with a home tie against Ospreys at Thomond Park on Sunday next, 1pm.

Johann van Graan's side need to claim a bonus point win there and hope an unlikely set of results go their way to have any chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. 

While disappointing to leave Paris empty-handed after a brave effort, the two-time Heineken Champions Cup winners will feel that their hopes of progressing to the knock-out stages once again were dented by their inability to beat Racing 92 in Limerick and their inability to take a losing bonus point from their defeat to Saracens at Allianz Park.

This was an extremely difficult pool, one where Munster needed to be at their clinical best to progress from.

This is the first time that Munster lost consecutive matches in the competition since 2015/16 when they lost three in a row.

After a bright start with some excellent carries and ball retention, Munster took a 3-0 lead in the third minute when JJ Hanrahan landed a straight forward penalty goal.

The visitors doubled their advantage in the 12th minute after Hanrahan kicked a second penalty goal after the French Top 14 side was penalised at scrum-time. 

Munster had been criticised for the lack of physicality which characterised large stages of their disappointing Guinness Pro14 defeat to Ulster in their previous outing. However, there was no shortage of intensity from Munster early on in the French capital.

The visitors industry and endeavour was rewarded further in the 18th minute when Hanrahan landed his third kick at goal for a 9-0 lead.

Munster's two-score advantage was short-lived however as Jean Kleyn conceded a penalty from the re-start and Racing 92 out-half Teddy Iribaren duly dissected the uprights for 9-3.

The score energised Racing and they dominated the next five minutes of gametime, utilising their powerful ball carriers to telling effect. However, Munster's defence was superb as Racing rampaged deep inside their '22, including a try-saving tackle from captain Peter O'Mahony. The passage of play ultimately ended with a relieving penalty for Munster.

However, the Racing 92 pressure was incessant now and the home side forced a five metre scrum as the scrambling Mike Haley was forced to carry the ball back over the line on the half hour mark. 

From the scrum, Racing gained a penalty advantage and from the resultant free play, the Top 14 side moved the ball right and, despite the hint of a knock-on in midfield, Teddy Thomas' try in the corner was allowed stand.

Iribaren missed the conversion, but he landed a 32nd minute penalty from close to half-way as the home side edged into the lead for the first time at 11-9.

However, the see-saw nature of the scoring continued just before half-time when Munster struck for their opening try. As Racing 92 rampaged deep inside the visitors' '22, Andrew Conway made a terrific read on a Henry Chavancy pass, intercepting the ball, before showing a clear pair of heels to the home side's defence to score.

Hanrahan added the conversion to help the two-time European Cup winners into a 16-11 interval lead.

The frantic pace of the game continued as the second half began and the home side notched the first points of the half when Iribaren kicked his second penalty of the game to leave just two points in it, 16-14.

To their credit, Munster responded gamely, with the ever-threatening Keith Earls, earned good field position with a series of excellent carries.

The pressure resulted in Munster earning a penalty as Russell infringed at the breakdown. Hanrahan kicked the resultant penalty for a 19-14 advantage.

Not for the first time in the game, Munster didn't deal with the restart effectively. Scrum-half Conor Muray was pinged for a high tackle and Iribaren's successful penalty made it a two-point game at 19-17.

Racing continued to exert the pressure and and forced another penalty, with Iribaren converted, to earn the slenderest of leads for the home side, 20-19.

A crucial spell in the game followed soon after as Conway initially forced Racing 92 deep inside their own '22 with a terrific kick-chase. The visitors earned a scrum five as Racing's powerful centre Vakatawa held Chris Farrell up over the tryline.

Munster earned a penalty advantage as Racing drifted off-side. From the resultant free play, Munster were unable to cross the whitewash. However, Hanrahan's penalty saw Munster regain the lead at 22-20 after 64 minutes.

Munster had a sniff of victory in their nostrils. However, the visitors lost their lead when Finn Russell's crossfield kick was superbly dotted down by Racing winger Thomas. The try was awarded and consultation with the TMO.

Powerful centre Vakatawa sealed the win for Racing 92 when he darted over for a third try for the home side in the 77th minute.

Argentine winger Imhoff rounded off victory for the home side when adding a fourth try with the clock in the red. 

SCORERS: Racing 92: Teddy Thomas two tries, Virimi Vakatawa, Juan Imhoff try each, Teddy Iribaren five pens, Maxime Machenaud two cons. Munster: Andrew Conway try, JJ Hanrahan five pens, con. 

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (Capt), Jack O’Donoghue, CJ Stander. Replacements: Jeremy Loughman for Kilcoyne, John Ryan for Archer (both 65 mins), Arno Botha for Kleyn (69 mins), Chris Cloete for O'Donoghue (73 mins), Kevin O'Byrne for Niall Scannell, Craig Casey for Murray, Dan Goggin for Rory Scannell, Shane Daly for Haley (78 mins). 

RACING 92: Brice Dulin; Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Henry Chavancy (Capt), Juan Imhoff, Finn Russell, Teddy Iribaren; Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat, Ben Tameifuna; Boris Palu, Dominic Bird; Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux, Antonie Claassen. Replacements: Hassane Kolingar for Ben Arous, Cedate Gomes Sa for Tameifuna (both 55 mins), Baptiste Chouzenoux for Bird (60 mins), Teddy Baubigny for Chat, Maxime Machenaud for Iribaren (both 70 mins), Fabien Sanconnie for Le Roux, Olivier Klemenczak for Chavancy (both 73 mins), Ben Volavola for Russell (78 mins).

REFEREE: Wayne Barnes (England)