Never mind the conditions and never mind that Munster are a team in transition, this was not supposed to happen. The two-time winners were expected to paint Paris red in their opening Heineken Cup tie; instead they left with a severe case of the blues.
“We had our opportunities, there is no doubt about that,” said their coach Rob Penney. “I thought it was a good performance but it was a very disappointing outcome.”
For most of this match Munster were comfortably the better side. They were more aggressive up front, thanks in part to a decent performance by Paul O’Connell who was making his first appearance since May, and more dynamic in the backs. The Lions captain was key in bundling Sean Dougall over the line for the opening try as Munster dominated the opening half-hour.
But they made too many mistakes, and it wasn’t just the six rookies making their first Heineken Cup starts who were to blame. Leading 10-3, O’Connell, however, then dropped the slippery ball with the line at his mercy.
“I dropped it straight down and landed on it,” said a disappointed O’Connell. “I thought the referee had given it but he went for the video. I shouldn’t have dropped it.”
A few moments later, in one of Racing’s few forays into Munster territory, another veteran, Ronan O’Gara, threw a poor pass to Doug Howlett which was hacked through and touched down by the young Racing scrum-half Maxime Machenaud.
What should have been 17-3 was suddenly 10-10 and, with O’Gara limping off with a damaged hamstring, Racing began to fancy their chances. Olly Barkley, pictured, making his first start for Racing since his move from Bath, popped over a penalty to give them an unlikely lead at the break.
Like Munster, Racing Metro are a team in transition, not least because in the week before the game it was made clear that the coach Gonzalo Quesada and his cohorts would only be there until the end of the season, to be replaced by the Castres duo of Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit. But that appears only to have strengthened their resolve.
“It has only helped the team spirit,” said their South African flanker Jacques Cronje. “We are completely behind the trainers. Let’s face it, if the players don’t back the coaches then you are in trouble.”
As the Racing forwards began to impose themselves, so more errors crept into the Munster game, scrum half Conor Murphy penalised for a needless bodycheck on Sebastien Fall gifting Barkley another three points.
With eight minutes to go, though it looked as though Munster had found themselves a get-out-of-jail-free card – a searing run from Simon Zebo carving through the French defence to score Munster’s second try. Ian Keatley’s conversion put them one point up.
That should have been that. Munster are masters at closing out tight games but they gave away two late penalties which Barkley and Mirco Bergamasco happily banged between the posts to complete a memorable afternoon for Racing.
Scorers: Racing: Try: Machenaud. Con: Barkley. Pens: Barkley (4), Bergamasco. Munster: Tries: Dougall, Zebo. Cons: O’Gara, Keatley. Pen: O’Gara.
Racing: Fall (Vakatawa 67); Jane, Bergamasco, Hernandez, Saubade; Barkley, Machenaud; Lo Cicero (Ben Arous 68), Szarzewski (Bianchin 71), Ducalcon (Sa 57), Ghezal, Van des Merwe (Le Roux 60), Battut, Cronje, Matadigo (Gerondeau 60).
Munster: Keatley; Howlett, Laulala, Downey, Zebo; O’Gara (Hurley 33), Murray; Kilcoyne (Horan 74), Varley (Sherry 56), Botha; Holland, O’Connell (O’Callaghan 64); Ryan, Dougall (Butler 74), O’Mahony.
Referee: G Garner (England).