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Brilliant win over Bulls suggests Munster fans need to raise their game at Thomond

A long-term successor to Conor Murray and Jamison Gibson-Park may be emerging in Connacht

Well then, they’ve gone and done it again. Munster have been accumulating some mightily big away victories in the last year or so but their win against the Bulls in the high veldt of Loftus Versfeld last Saturday may just be the pick of them.

In April last year Munster headed into their penultimate URC regular season game away to the Stormers on foot of a chastening Round 16 Champions Cup defeat by the Sharks and in danger of missing out on the play-offs and qualification for the Champions Cup.

The Stormers hadn’t lost at home at the DHL Stadium since a defeat against the Lions in December 2021, a sequence of 21 wins, whereupon Munster beat them 26-24 helped, admittedly, by Manie Libbok having one of his placekicking off-days.

Munster then tore up the form book in drawing against the Sharks and after another week’s respite went to Glasgow in the quarter-finals. Their 14-5 win ended the Warriors’ unbeaten run of 16 games at Scotstoun dating back to a defeat by La Rochelle in January 2022.

Their dramatic 16-15 semi-final win over Leinster a week later ended their rival’s sequence of 25 wins in succession in front of crowds at the Aviva. They beat the Stormers again to seal their first trophy in a dozen seasons.

However, last Saturday’s victory on a warm and humid evening in Pretoria against the Bulls might even surpass any of those landmark wins, or even the victory in Toulon last January, particularly if judged on true Munster grit and guts.

Jake White’s side had been unbeaten in 21 games against overseas opposition since joining the URC and had handsomely beaten both Saracens and Bordeaux-Bègles in Loftus Versfeld while averaging a whopping 45 points in their eight home wins this season.

Furthermore, White had understandably targeted the URC over the Champions Cup (one wonders will that ever catch on), restoring his Springboks and frontliners who had been excused duty from their Champions Cup quarter-final loss in Northampton.

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Despite their list of big away scalps, hardly anyone gave Munster a prayer. Certainly, none of the RTÉ panel dared to even countenance a Munster win beforehand.

An unrelentingly high injury list had exposed Munster’s depth this season as they struggled to see out games and this was potentially even more of an issue in the high veldt. In this regard, after a virus swept through the squad in the week of their Champions Cup exit, the ensuing week’s respite was probably a blessing in disguise.

What’s more, Graham Rowntree and the Munster Brains Trust had come up with a leftfield selection, seeking to counter the draining effects of altitude by loading a 6-2 bench with Oli Jager, Tom Ahern, John Hodnett and Gavin Coombes.

The key was being in the game with 25-30 minutes remaining and this Munster managed to do by executing a relatively careful game plan. To preserve energy in the legs of their forwards, Conor Murray and Jack Crowley kept the ball in front of them or kicked it off the pitch, rather than look for the high ball-in-play time they have cultivated under this coaching ticket, while rarely have Munster players taken so many injury timeouts. Lurk-Lee Arendse was seriously up for it but so too was Calvin Nash, who put down a marker for the summer in a compelling duel.

Granted, Munster had one moment of fortune when Craig Casey was hit high by Johan Goosen in the 54th minute. This ruled out a fourth try for the Bulls by Canan Moodie, which would have put the home side 27-17 ahead. Goosen was sent off and Casey departed for the remainder of the game.

Murray’s left knee had been heavily strapped since his standing leg was hit hard and late by David Kriel after the scrumhalf’s clearance kick in the 17th minute, but he returned to telling effect. After Hodnett finished strongly from Crowley’s cross kick, Murray looped around Joey Carbery to beat the Bulls’ ‘8′, Elrigh Louw, on the outside.

Munster have now given themselves a fine chance of securing a home quarter-final for the first time since squeezing past Benetton in 2019. They’ve only had one knock-out game at Thomond Park since then, the second leg Round of 16 tie against Exeter two seasons ago.

Their remaining games are against the Lions next Saturday, Connacht (home), Edinburgh (away) and Ulster (home), and, as with last season, a couple of rest weeks in between could be helpful. But have Munster morphed into a team that now rises to the occasion more on the road than at home? Maybe the Thomond Park faithful also need to appreciate better this team’s need for support and up their game too?

From where Murray left off with his match-winning try, cut to the best young Irish scrumhalf since the Munsterman emerged in 2011. The curious thing is how long it has taken for 22-year-old Matthew Devine to make his full Connacht debut since he scored four tries in four starts during the Ireland Under-20s 2022 Six Nations. No rush, perhaps.

In the same week as his first senior contract, from next season on, was announced, Devine had given glimpses of his ability with an eye-catching cameo against Benetton in Treviso. Then came his opening two-try salvo in the first 24 minutes of his senior debut against Zebre, a quick tap and 10-metre dart (something of a speciality) and that 40-metre razor sharp finish for his second.

The cat’s out of the bag now. Devine still looks like he could be beefed up a little more. He’ll be more of a marked man. It won’t always be like last Saturday in the Dexcom Stadium. But hopefully he will be relatively lucky with injuries. If he is, he should have a fine career, and not the least promising aspect of his graph so far is that Murray is 35 and Jamison Gibson-Park is 32.

His timing looks good too.

gerry.thornley@irishtimes.com

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