Munster beat Racing to secure home quarter-final
Munster have a home Champions Cup quarter-final to look forward to in the spring after completing the double over Racing 92 with a 22-10 win at Thomond Park.
The Pool 1 winners, boasting the tournament’s best defence with just four tries conceded, advance as second seeds for the knockout stages – in between the top-ranked Clermont Auvergne and defending champions Saracens.
Simon Zebo’s sixth try in four games against the Paris club broke the deadlock in the 36th minute with Benjamin Dambielle’s sin-binning proving costly. The latter’s half-back partner Maxime Machenaud closed the gap to 7-3 by half-time.
Beaten 32-7 by the same opposition at home a fortnight ago, Racing produced a much-improved performance in Limerick, hanging in there with a Henry Chavancy try in response to a Tyler Bleyendaal penalty and Ronan O’Mahony’s 48th-minute try.
But Rassie Erasmus’ men were not to be denied their fifth pool victory as Andrew Conway, who made his presence felt on the right wing, played in replacement Ian Keatley for the clinching 70th-minute try – his first in Europe for the province.
Racing assistant coach Ronan O’Gara returned to his old stamping ground and while the result did not go his way, the Munster legend was given a hero’s welcome by the appreciative home fans.
Racing’s revenge mission started on a solid footing, their scrum holding steady and full-back Brice Dulin exemplifying their eagerness to play with width.
Although the visitors dictated during the opening quarter, captain Machenaud missed his first kick at the posts and a promising Munster attack was spoiled when Ronan O’Mahony was tackled and then isolated.
Munster began to find their rhythm just past the 20-minute mark, opting for a scrum from a close-in penalty with Rory Scannell and Zebo subsequently threatening from a few metres out.
TMO Alan Falzone ruled out a potential try for Conor Murray after Matthieu Voisin did just enough to thwart the leaping Munster scrum-half from a ruck, but fly-half Dambielle, who had been swatted away by man-of-the-match CJ Stander on a muscular midfield break, soon saw yellow for a blatant ruck infringement near his own line.
Racing defended doggedly until Zebo wriggled over just to the right of the posts, touching down under a pile of bodies with Bleyendaal converting. The Ireland star had to react sharply to deny Marc Andreu at the other end, before Machenaud split the posts with the last kick of the half.
When play resumed, Bleyendaal restored Munster’s seven-point advantage after being hit with a high tackle by Leone Nakarawa, and clever tactical kicking from centre Scannell kept the hosts on the front foot.
The red-clad forwards responded by upping the intensity, continually getting over the gain-line before Bleyendaal and Scannell passed to the left where winger O’Mahony scrambled his way over for a seven-pointer.
However, Racing hung in there as they profited from Munster’s sloppiness, their usually reliable defence allowing centre Chavancy to carry hard and stretch out for the try-line. Following TMO confirmation, Machenaud converted for 17-10.
Munster had more in reserve, though, as O’Mahony almost scored from a lovely dink in behind by Murray and that elusive third try finally came when Conway did really well to draw in three defenders and release Keatley for a closing unconverted effort.