A depleted Munster side came within four minutes of repeating the province’s famed 1978 victory over New Zealand as a late try from Joe Rokocoko saved the All Blacks’ bacon at Thomond Park Stadium.
ZURICH CHALLENGE MATCH: Tuesday, November 18
MUNSTER 16 NEW ZEALAND 18, Thomond Park Stadium (Att: 26,500)
Scorers: Munster: Try: Barry Murphy; Con: Paul Warwick; Pens: Paul Warwick 2; Drop: Paul Warwick
New Zealand: Tries: Stephen Donald, Joe Rokocoko; Con: Stephen Donald; Pens: Stephen Donald 2
Munster bottled the emotion of the 30th anniversary of their famous 12-0 win over Graham Mourie’s touring team and on the occasion of the official opening of the redeveloped Thomond Park, they went agonisingly close to beating the Tri Nations champions.
Granted, Joe Rokocoko was the only surviving member from the New Zealand side that beat Ireland at Croke Park.
But given that Munster were missing 10 first choice players and this was their first fixture since October 24, Tony McGahan’s men put in a monumental effort to lead for most of the game.
16-10 ahead at half-time and leading 16-13 in the closing stages, Munster had the All Blacks rattled, as evidenced by Stephen Donald’s uncharacteristic return of just three successful place-kicks out of seven.
Nevertheless, Graham Henry was able to unload an experienced replacements bench and allied to some energetic carries from number 8 Liam Messam, Rokocoko’s dancing feet spared the visitors’ blushes at the death.
Henry included 13 players from the 22 that saw off Scotland and handed run-on debuts to prop Ben Franks and flanker Scott Waldrom.
Replacements Alby Mathewson and Hika Elliot became All Blacks numbers 1086 and 1087 in the second half.
The pre-match pageantry was worth the entry fee alone as An Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD and IRFU President John Lyons performed the stadium’s official opening, the air corps delivered the match ball from a helicopter to 1978 captain Donal Canniffe pitchside and Munster’s ’78 heroes were warmly greeted in the East Stand.
Even better, Munster’s New Zealand contingent of Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Jeremy Manning delighted the capacity crowd by performing a four-man haka, with their team-mates linking arms behind them, before Kiwi captain for the night, Piri Weepu, led the tourists through ‘Ka Mate’ in response.
Then the jaw-like roofs over the Thomond Park stands almost lifted off their hinges as Munster, with Paul Warwick and Niall Ronan excelling, produced a stirring first half display.
The Irish province fed off their pre-match aim of giving ‘the crowd something to bite into’, showing composure under pressure and enjoying some adrenaline-boosting attacks.
They made a shaky start when Rokocoko and Donald combined with the latter spearing through a gap, but a clever Warwick kick soon got them into the All Blacks’ 22.
With the visitors pinged for going over the top at a ruck, Warwick thumped a 47-metre penalty through the posts for an encouraging eighth minute lead.
But Denis Leamy, whose night was prematurely ended by injury, infringed off the restart, allowing Donald to draw the tourists level.
Donald looked dangerous with ball in hand but Munster’s tackling was solid and Peter Stringer drew admiration for thwarting a right wing surge from Rokocoko.
Helped by their vocal backing, Munster grew in stature and enjoyed an excellent spell midway through the half.
Two aerial attacks, with Ronan and Tipoki regaining possession, had the All Blacks on the back foot. Donald coughed up a penalty and Warwick sneaked a left-sided kick over for 6-3.
The Australian number 10 followed up with a stunning drop goal after another lively spurt of attacking play from Munster.
However, the home side were brought back to earth with the concession of a 23rd minute try.
Isaia Toeava was involved twice, after a costly Munster turnover, and Donald was able to snipe through, past two tacklers, and dart in behind the posts.
The try scorer converted for a 10-9 New Zealand advantage and Henry’s men suddenly looked to be getting a grip on the game, albeit with Donald missing a kickable penalty.
The Munster pack heaped pressure on the New Zealand scrum, six minutes before the interval, allowing Ronan to hack the ball on and Donald had to dive to foil the home side.
Camped close to their posts, the All Blacks’ resistance did not last long.
Off the resulting five-metre scrum, James Coughlan broke and fed Stringer who, just as he shipped a heavy tackle from Hosea Gear, managed to offload and send Barry Murphy over on the right for a superb try.
Warwick converted and Munster weathered a late storm to take a six-point buffer into the second half, which predictably began for them amid a torrent of New Zealand pressure.
The All Blacks came out strongly and Munster required a vital tackle by Murphy on Jamie Mackintosh to avoid what looked a certain try.
After a Tipoki infringement, Donald cut the gap to 16-13 but despite an increase in errors and tiring bodies, Munster managed to keep pace with New Zealand’s supposed ‘B’ team.
French referee Romain Poite did not endear himself to the home fans with some questionable decisions and when Mackintosh and Tony Buckley introduced themselves to each other at a midfield scrum, a short dust-up ensued.
The All Blacks should really have steadied themselves with penalties after 50 and 56 minutes, but Donald missed both shots and Munster clung onto their dream.
With time ticking away, Stringer and Ian Dowling put their bodies on the line with some excellent cameos in defence.
Stringer looked back to his best, combining well with Warwick, but possession was largely New Zealand’s for the final quarter.
Once they gained territory, with Messam rampaging on, the match-winning score arrived.
After Manning had missed a drop goal, New Zealand won a penalty on halfway which Donald dinked to touch.
Lineout ball was mauled forward and with deadly precision, Mils Muliaina sent Rokocoko stepping past Howlett, the man whose All Black try-scoring record he is chasing, and the winger had enough power to beat off Stringer and make the line.
Those five points was enough to deny McGahan’s charges a famous win but judging by the acknowledgements after the final whistle, the All Blacks now realise that ’78 was no fluke.
TIME LINE: 8 minutes – Munster penalty: Paul Warwick – 3-0; 10 mins – New Zealand penalty: Stephen Donald – 3-3; 19 mins – Munster penalty: Paul Warwick – 6-3; 21 mins – Munster drop goal: Paul Warwick – 9-3; 23 mins – New Zealand try: Stephen Donald – 9-8; conversion: Stephen Donald – 9-10; 27 mins – New Zealand penalty: missed by Stephen Donald – 9-10; 36 mins – Munster try: Barry Murphy – 14-10; conversion: Paul Warwick – 16-10; Half-time – Munster 16 New Zealand 10; 47 mins – New Zealand penalty: Stephen Donald – 16-13; 50 mins – New Zealand penalty: missed by Stephen Donald – 16-13; 56 mins – New Zealand penalty: missed by Stephen Donald – 16-13; 76 mins – New Zealand try: Joe Rokocoko – 16-18; conversion: missed by Stephen Donald – 16-18; Full-time – Munster 16 New Zealand 18
MUNSTER: Doug Howlett; Barry Murphy, Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi, Ian Dowling; Paul Warwick, Peter Stringer; Federico Pucciariello, Frankie Sheahan, Timmy Ryan, Mick O’Driscoll (capt), Donnacha Ryan, James Coughlan, Niall Ronan, Denis Leamy.
Replacements used: Billy Holland for Leamy (24 mins), Tony Buckley for Ryan (half-time), Jeremy Manning for Tipoki (53), Denis Fogarty for Sheahan (63), John O’Sullivan for Ronan (79). Not used: Mark Melbourne, Mike Prendergast.
NEW ZEALAND: Cory Jane; Hosea Gear, Anthony Tuitavake, Isaia Toeava, Joe Rokocoko; Stephen Donald, Piri Weepu (capt); Jamie Mackintosh, Corey Flynn, Ben Franks, Ross Filipo, Jason Eaton, Adam Thomson, Scott Waldrom, Liam Messam.
Replacements used: Kieran Read for Thomson (51 mins), John Afoa for Franks (54), Alby Mathewson for Weepu, Hika Elliot for Flynn, Richard Kahui for Gear (all 63), Brad Thorn for Filipo (70), Mils Muliaina for Tuitavake (71).
Referee: Romain Poite (France)