It was never going to be a run of the mill encounter, but no one could have expected to witness such an incredible spectacle at a sold-out Thomond Park tonight.
MAORI ALL BLACKS TOUR MATCH: Friday, November 11
MUNSTER 27 MAORI ALL BLACKS 14, Thomond Park
Scorers: Munster: Tries: Niall Scannell, Penalty try, Darren Sweetnam, Ronan O’Mahony; Cons: Ian Keatley 2; Pen: Ian Keatley
Maori All Blacks: Tries: James Lowe, Ambrose Curtis; Cons: Otere Black 2
HT: Munster 17 Maori All Blacks 14
Munster met the Maori All Blacks for the first time, and there will be calls for it to be made an annual clash as both teams served up a hugely entertaining game in the Limerick rain.
With flanker Tommy O’Donnell making his captaincy bow, Munster were inspired and made light of the fact they were missing the majority of their internationals to produce one of the performances of the season.
Before the game even kicked off, the fans were in full voice as former Munster man and ex-Maori All Black captain Rua Tipoki was interviewed at pitchside.
The 25,600 capacity crowd were then treated to the special Maori All Blacks haka as the visitors paid tribute to the late Anthony Foley by laying down a number 8 All Blacks jersey on the halfway line before performing the iconic tradition and then presenting the jersey, bearing Axel’s initials, to Foley’s young sons Tony and Dan.
The colours of 23 clubs and schools from across Munster were represented on the pitch as the players donned the socks of the winners of the #MunsterRising Socks competition.
When the match did kick off in the treacherous rain, there were plenty of handling errors as both sides struggled to get to grip with the conditions, and the ball. Otere Black missed a fifth minute penalty before Munster took control as the hosts forced a series of lineouts deep in the Maori half with the first try, touched down by hooker Niall Scannell, coming from a rolling maul.
The Munster defence was suffocating the Maori defence but the tourists showed their quality when they eventually ventured into the Munster half. Danger-man winger James Lowe finished off a fine move after some nice hands in midfield on 22 minutes.
The Maori All Blacks’ tails were up and three minutes later they were away again as giant number 8 Akira Ioane managed to evade a tackle on the right wing before out-half Black sent right winger and debutant Ambrose Curtis over on the right corner.
Black was on target with the conversion once again and having enjoyed a very good first 20 minutes, Rassie Erasmus’ Munster were now trailing 14-5. They had also lost prop James Cronin to a pectoral injury.
Quick as a flash they were back in it, though, as a breathless first half became even more frantic. Munster stole a lineout and when Rory Scannell was tackled without the ball on the try-line, referee Craig Maxwell-Keys consulted with TMO Olly Hodges before awarding a penalty try. Reed Prinsep was shown a yellow card for the offence as Ian Keatley’s straight-forward conversion moved Munster within two points with 31 minutes on the clock.
There was still time for more drama in an action-packed first half as a monster hit by man-of-the-match Robin Copeland in midfield forced a turnover and Darren Sweetnam hacked clear from inside his own half and showed superb footballing skills and pace to cross, wide on the right, for magnificent try in his 10th consecutive match for the province this season. Keatley’s conversion faded left and the half-time whistle was sounded shortly afterwards with Munster leading 17-14.
There was no let-up after the interval as Andrew Conway and Ronan O’Mahony combined on the left wing to send Copeland galloping clear but he could not find O’Mahony with the return pass.
More tenacious Munster tackling forced a knock-on and then a Keatley penalty moved Erasmus’ charges 20-14 ahead after a scrum infringement by the visitors on 44 minutes.
It was then Munster’s turn to go down to 14 men as Duncan Williams was saw yellow for a high tackle, but the home defence was rock solid again and when the Maori All Blacks stuttered, the hosts had no problem moving back into opposition territory, even with a numerical disadvantage.
Keatley, who has already shown his adaptability as a full-back for the province, then slipped seamlessly into the scrum half role with the unflappable Rory Scannell moving to out-half.
Astute kicking from Scannell kept the visitors pinned inside their own half and when Williams returned, Munster were in prime position to increase their lead with eager winger O’Mahony inches from touching down after the referee again went to the TMO.
There was another close run thing soon after. A perfectly-weighted Keatley chip down the left wing was nearly grounded by the chasing O’Mahony and Conway but the covering Marty McKenzie just managed to get there first.
The respite was brief. On 68 minutes, the men in red won a turnover on the left flank and Williams showed incredible awareness and composure to execute a perfect chip over the top for the chasing O’Mahony. The winger, who had come so close minutes previously, had time to glance over his shoulder before grounding the ball expertly. Keatley landed a superb touchline conversion and Munster were now 27-14 to the good, with only 11 minutes remaining.
The Maori fought hard to get back into the game but the incredible Munster defence was rock solid as excellent number 8 Copeland forced a crucial turnover with the clock ticking down. Unlike 2008, there was to be no late heartbreak for Munster against a New Zealand side, and the province ended the match on the front foot. It was fitting that captain O’Donnell was the man to boot the ball gleefully into touch to bring proceedings to an end.
Despite the bad weather, the crowd were reluctant to leave after the final whistle and the players went for a deserved lap of honour to cap off yet another memorable occasion at Thomond Park.
In further positives for Erasmus’ side, first Munster Academy players Sean O’Connor and John Foley made their senior debuts for the province. Notably, O’Connor has now played in two wins over New Zealand opposition after featuring for the Ireland Under-20s in their victory over the Baby Blacks last summer.
MUNSTER: Andrew Conway; Darren Sweetnam, Jaco Taute, Rory Scannell, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; James Cronin, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer, John Madigan, Darren O’Shea, Tommy O’Donnell (capt), Conor Oliver, Robin Copeland.
Replacements used: Peter McCabe for Cronin (25 mins), Sean O’Connor for Madigan (50-64), Rhys Marshall for N Scannell (61), Brian Scott for Archer (72), Dan Goggin for Taute, Alex Wootton for O’Mahony, John Foley for O’Shea (all 76). Not used: Te Aihe Toma.
MAORI ALL BLACKS: Marty McKenzie; Ambrose Curtis, Matt Proctor, Tim Bateman, James Lowe; Otere Black, Billy Guyton; Kane Hames, Ash Dixon (capt), Ben May, Leighton Price, Jakob Skeen, Reed Prinsep, Shane Christie, Akira Ioane.
Replacements: Leni Apisai, Chris Eves, Marcel Renata, Whetu Douglas, Kara Pryor, Brad Webster, Ihaia West, Jason Emery.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys (England)