From a long way out, it was clear that Munster would be going on the road in the knockout stages regardless of what happened here and this performance indicated they’ll take some beating when they travel to South Africa.
On a freezing afternoon in Toulouse, they went toe to toe with one of the leading contenders for the Heineken Champions Cup and came up just short.
They will now face the Sharks in Durban for their last-16 tie. To go any further, they’ll need to learn to win these tight games against the best teams but considering where they’ve come from this season, this was an encouraging day at the office.
When they sit down to analyse the game, they’ll lament two missed conversions from Joey Carbery, who was hooked on 50 minutes despite playing well, while a yellow card for his replacement Ben Healy with 12 minutes to go didn’t help.
Their bench couldn’t match the starters’ scrum dominance, while their breakdown work in the face of huge pressure let them down.
Still, they will know that not many teams would have come so close given what Toulouse threw at them in the opening quarter when it looked like they would win handsomely.
Munster needed to be on point, but too often, their basics let them down at the key moments and the hosts were in a mood to make them pay.
They were behind within two minutes when Peter O’Mahony coughed up a cheap penalty and when they got a visit to the Toulouse ’22 soon after their lineout malfunctioned.
Toulouse’s physicality was off the charts and they extended their lead on the back of another O’Mahony concession, spending three minutes in the visitors’ ’22 with hard carry followed by hard carry before Pita Ahki moved it wide to Juan Cruz Mallia, who brushed Shane Daly aside to score.
Melvyn Jaminet missed the conversion, but it didn’t look like it would matter as a succession of Toulouse tacklers manhandled Munster carriers and the Irish province looked a little lost.
They spurned another visit to the ’22 as Craig Casey’s pass went behind Joey Carbery before Jaminet made it 11-0 after Niall Scannell went offside.
Julian Marchand was dominating the breakdown, coming up with a pair of breakdown steals to deny Munster oxygen when they got into Toulouse territory, but as the half went on, the visitors were growing into it.
With Malakai Fekitoa on for the injured Mike Haley and Jack Crowley operating at full-back, their attack began to function off a dominant scrum and when Toulouse went offside, Gavin Coombes tapped the penalty and carried hard. This time, Munster made their presence felt and John Hodnett took John Ryan’s pass and burrowed under Richie Arnold to score.
Carbery missed the conversion but narrowed the gap to three points with a penalty from in front after Ryan won a scrum penalty and Munster launched their best attack of the day to force their hosts offside.
They had to do some defending before the break, but Ryan – playing his last game in Europe for his home province before moving to the Chiefs in New Zealand – won a breakdown penalty off Emmanuel Meafou.
So, it was 11-8 at the break and an early foray into Toulouse territory after the resumption was snuffed out by the brilliant Marchand on the deck again.
Down the other end, Calvin Nash made a big defensive play that just about put Jaminet off with a final pass that could have led to a Dimitri Delibes try if it had gone to hand.
Instead, Munster pounced with one of their all-time great tries.
It started with the impressive Fekitoa, who offloaded to Coombes, who, in turn, found Shane Daly and he flicked it inside to Casey. The scrum-half almost beat Mallia, who grounded him with an ankle tap, but he got to his feet and surged to the 5m line.
Kleyn followed up with a hard carry that forced a penalty, so Carbery went to the air and, while his under-pressure kick was behind Hodnett, the flanker gathered and played Nash in; he had Tadhg Beirne on his shoulder and the second-row powered through Marchand to score.
It was an exceptional score, but Carbery’s couldn’t add the extras.
Coombes produced a brilliant intercept to keep Toulouse’s fightback at bay, but the red waves kept coming and Jaminet nudged his side back in front after Hodnett went off his feet at a ruck under his own posts.
Munster didn’t miss a beat. Healy was on for Carbery and put up a beautiful restart for Nash to claim brilliantly. Beirne almost got over and although they couldn’t exploit a big overlap on the left, they were playing with advantage and the Scotland-bound out-half made it 16-14.
Again, they defended well to repel the next Toulouse attack as the frustration grew in the stands.
A mix-up at maul time handed Jaminet a chance to nudge his side in front and the France full-back made no mistake.
Munster lost Healy to a yellow card for leading with the elbow into Pierre-Louis Barassi and when their second-string front-row crumbled under big pressure from their hosts, Jaminet moved his side into a four-point lead.
Try as they might, Munster couldn’t get their hands on the ball in the end-game and, rather than chase a win, were desperately defending at the death and, while they denied their hosts a third try, it was of little value as their sixth place finish was rubber-stamped.
Now, they will be heading for South Africa for the last 16.
MUNSTER – M Haley (M Fekitoa 27); C Nash, A Frisch, J Crowley, S Daly; J Carbery (B Healy 50), C Casey (C Murray 62); D Kilcoyne (J Wycherley 60), N Scannell (D Barron 60), J Ryan (R Salanoa 61); J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O’Mahony (capt), J Hodnett (A Kendellen 64), G Coombes.
TOULOUSE – M Jaminet; J Cruz Mallia, PL Barassi, P Ahki (A Capuozzo 69), D Delibes; R Ntamack, A Dupont (capt); C Baille (R Neti 50), J Marchand (G Cramont 75), D Aldegheri (D Ainu’u 64); Richie Arnold (J Brennan 70), E Meafou; A Jelonch, J Willis, A Roumat (T Flament 50).
Ref: K Dickson (England)