Munster kicked off their defence of the Heineken Cup with a 19-17 win over Montauban at the new Thomond Park on Friday, but they will be far from happy with the display, and even more disgruntled that they rarely looked like managing the bonus point they wanted.
On the one side, the champions of Europe. On the other, a team far from home, with many first-choice players missing, playing in their first-ever Heineken Cup match in front of a partizan 23,000 crowd. The Heineken Cup's number one seeds against a team that qualified for the Heineken Cup on points difference, and only because Toulouse beat London Irish in last year's semi-final to clinch France seven qualification places. A massacre, right? No? A heavy defeat at least?
Neither. Munster squeaked past Montauban in the end, and that's about all they can say. Montauban came, read the script, and then introduced their own lines, turning a plotted tragedy into a tense thriller which was four mintues short of a fairy-tale ending. Montauban were 300-1 for the trophy at the start of this match, but I'll wager good money they are 299-1 or less after it.
The most pertinent aspect of the result was that in the final reckoning, had Petre Mitu landed his three missed kicks, Montauban would have been taking the wildest of party buses back to Haute Garonne. Montauban silenced Munster's fans so thoroughly that 'Fields of Athenry' did not break out once during the match beyond a few nervous solos and one trembly effort near the end. How often does that happen?
Were Munster awful? Were Montauban that good? A bit of both really. Munster stumbled and fumbled through the game, and Montauban played with absolute coolness. Munster are a team renowned for their basics, but the French came and taught a lesson in ice-cool execution of a no-frills gameplan.
The crowd was not on its game right from the off in fact. Perhaps there was just something in the air. Munster set their stall out to attack at most junctures, but the runners on Peter Stringer's zippy distribution were so flat that it gave them no room to manoeuvre, no time to control the slippery ball in hand, and Montauban's back row every chance to rush up and snaffle the rich pickings on offer.
Only Lifiemi Mafi had the quick feet to work himself out of the tight holes, but his efforts in keeping the ball alive were often stymied by covering defenders and an alarming lack of support. Keith Earls made one searing break off a Mafi offload, but there were five Montauban defenders to the tackle first.
Munster's supporting ruckers were forced to dive in a little too vigorously to regain the iffy ball, and Wayne Barnes penalised them heavily for going off their feet. The crowd hated it, but Mr. Barnes was both consistent and judicious with the advantage - he had an excellent game.
Man of the match Mitu gave Montauban the lead with a penalty after five minutes when a team-mate had been tackled off the ball.
His side held that lead for another half an hour, as Munster constantly forced passes that weren't there in an attempt to open some champagne for their new stadium.
By 20 minutes, the champions had made five handling errors where Montauban had made none, and one moment in particular epitomised the strange headlessness of the Munster play, when Ronan O'Gara kicked a ball dead behind his own goal-line in an effort to keep it in play. It turned what would have been a Munster line-out into a Montauban 5m scrum, and the home side was lucky to escape.
The Irish did start to get a few movements together, with Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan driving excellently and Mafi and Keith Earls a constant threat outside. They equalised after 33 minutes when Marc Raynaud was penalised for going off his feet, and then Barry Murphy's try, a side-to-side passing movement after nine drive phases, gave Munster a 10-3 half-time lead.
That should have precipitated an improvement if nothing else, but it didn't. The second half continued as the first. Mitu missed one shot at goal, and then landed one from 45m to make it 10-6.
O'Gara pulled it back to 13-6 four minutes later, but then four minutes after that, another crazy moment - Mafi holding back Viard after Warwick had made a clean break - enabled Mitu to make it 13-9.
Still Munster persisted in spreading it injudiciously and passing too flat, and it produced a try for the visitors. Justin Melck was lined up from 5m away by Viard, and the ball spilled in the tackle for Sylvain Jonnet to hack ahead and score. Mitu missed the conversion, but at 13-14 with 20 minutes to go, the notion of Montauban conquering Thomond Park became more than just fanciful.
O'Gara gave his side back the lead when Yannick Caballero body-checked Stringer, and both sides resorted to territory, with O'Gara and Johan dalla Riva exchanging some wonderful kicks.
Five minutes to go, and another Munsterman off his feet. Mitu landed the penalty, and it was 16-17. Could it be true?
Experience told. O'Connell led the charge at the restart, Montauban were for once found wanting in support and went in at the side, and an immediate penalty reply from O'Gara to make it 19-17. Munster closed out the final three minutes well enough, nearly scoring a try that would have negated Montauban's bonus point, but that will fool nobody. A response will be needed against Sale next week, and if none is forthcoming, Munster are in trouble.
Pens: O'Gara 4
Pens: Mitu 4
Munster: 15 Keith Earls, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Rua Tipoki, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Ian Dowling, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Peter Stringer, 8 Justin Melck, 7 David Wallace, 6 Alan Quinlan, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Jerry Flannery, 1 Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Frederico Pucciariello, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 John O'Sullivan, 20 Mike Prendergast, 21 Paul Warwick, 22 Barry Murphy.
Montauban: 15 Johan Dalla Riva, 14 Sylvain Jonnet, 13 Jean-Philippe Viard, 12 Rida Jahouer, 11 Jean Emmanuel Cassin, 10 Régis Lespinas, 9 Petre Mitu, 8 Matthew Clarkin, 7 Marc Raynaud (c) 6 Yannick Caballero, 5 Rowan Frost, 4 Scott Murray, 3 Nick Adams, 2 Brice Mach, 1 Bogdan Balan.
Replacements: 16 Camille Traversa, 17 Laurent del Boulbes, 18 Silviu Florea, 19 Karim Ghezal, 20 Antoine Battut, 21 Fabien Fortassin, 22 Julien Laharrague.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assessor: Chris White (England) , Robin Goodliffe (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)