URC final: Graham Rowntree praises battle-hardened Munster for sticking to their guns

Departing duo Ben Healy and Malakai Fekitoa picked out for particular praise for performances in Cape Town

United Rugby Championship final: Munster 19 Stormers 14

They have removed a rather large monkey from their backs, and no longer can their trophyless drought be used as a stick to beat them. Munster are a champion team again, United Rugby Championship 2022-23 winners no less, and what’s more did it true to their avowed new principles.

Bravery comes in many forms, and Munster would again put their bodies on the line to deny the Stormers from two more lineout drives. But as in their match-winning drive against Leinster, which started in a blur of offloading on their own line and culminated in Jack Crowley’s drop goal, here too Munster stuck to the game that had inevitably suffered teething problems when losing five of their first seven games.

Six and a half minutes remaining and trailing 14-12 in a game where they’d been the better team, Ben Healy chased his own kick, forcing Manie Libbok to dummy past him. That gave Gavin Coombes the time to somehow summon the energy to close down Libbok’s kick, the ball breaking for Craig Casey.

For the next 78 seconds Munster kept probing, passing close to the line, working off the ball, sidestepping and offloading, looking for space in the middle or the edges through nine phases, before Mike Haley floated a long pass to Shane Daly, who quickly shifted the ball back inside for John Hodnett to finish.


“Bravery is sticking in the game, isn’t it?” said Munster head coach Graham Rowntree. “When it gets tight, when it’s getting sticky toward the end of the game, and again the scoreline is close, that’s bravery and the skills that we showed there in getting John over the line.

“But all that comes from being battle-hardened and being used to doing that in big games over the last couple of months. That’s really stood to us, where we’ve been in the last six weeks.”

In truth, if Munster hadn’t won, there would have been regrets and a postmortem, not least into the match officiating in the 13-5 penalty count against Munster and Gavin Coombes having a try incorrectly disallowed.

“We were pretty good in the first half in terms of keeping ball. We were making them work, in particular their tight five. I was disappointed not to go into half time 19-7 up. Gavin Coombes’s try that was disallowed was a perfectly good try,” said Rowntree.

“We knew we had to keep the ball against them, which is a challenge on the pitch like that. We had to deal with their power game. We did our homework. They are a great team led by a great coach. They are champions, playing at their home in front of 55 000 fans.

“It was going to take a big game from us. It was question of sticking in the game. Things didn’t all go our own way, there were some big decisions went against us, big momentum swings.

“We were doing well, then getting hit back again and having to recover. We’ve learned under pressure away from home to recover. I keep saying we are battle-hardened. We haven’t been able to rotate the squad, but that has made us fit and match-hardened.”

In truth, while their inclination is to play with a swagger and a confidence, the Stormers betrayed clear signs of over-confidence. In any event, their head coach John Dobson couldn’t have been more generous in defeat.

“Munster were absolutely supreme in that first-half. They put our defence under pressure more than I’ve seen the whole season. As Steven [Kitshoff] said they had two disallowed tries in the first half so it could have been more.

“I thought in the second half we were really good. We corrected a lot of where we went wrong in the first half, like our work around the contestable kicks and some of our work in defence. I thought we had enough opportunities in the second half at 14-12 up to get two scores ahead, which I think they may have struggled to come back from, but we just made some poor choices in the 74th minute.

“But we showed fight to stay in the fight in the first half, and they showed the same fight in the second half. I just thought in the first-half they were simply magnificent and deserved to win the game.

“It’s frustrating, because I think we could have crossed the line. That’s the truth. But I don’t think we would have deserved to necessarily.”

Heroes abounded, but the departing Healy and Malakai Fekitoa, whose form has gone through the roof since confirmation of his departure and culminated in an unrelenting performance here, were given special mention in the victorious dressingroom.

“We singled them out tonight in the dressingroom afterwards to thank them for their contribution,” revealed Rowntree. “Malakai, in particular, his form in the last three months has been exceptional, and Ben as well.

“Ben said to me, the day he told me he was leaving: ‘I want to win something with this club before I go.’ And he’s done it. And I’m immensely proud of him.”

There had been some emotional post-match scenes, such as embraces and words between some of the survivors from 2011, but by far the funniest was the post-match presentation of the man of the match award, which O’Mahony presented to John Hodnett.

“Yeah, look,” says Hodnett. ‘F**k, it’s some win in fairness.”

O’Mahony immediately does a double take, his eyes widening in disbelief as he has his own ‘FFS’ moment. The Munster dog of war bows his head and brings his left hand on to his forehead to cover his face. It’s absolutely priceless.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 6 mins: Libbok try, con 7-0; 10: Barron try 7-5; 29: Crowley try, Crowley con 7-12; (half-time 7-12); 50: Fourie try, Libbok con 14-12; 75: Hodnett try, Crowley con 14-19.

STORMERS: Damian Willemse; Angelo Davids, Ruhan Nel, Dan du Plessis, Leolin Zas; Manie Libbok, Herschel Jantjies; Steven Kitshoff (capt), Joseph Dweba, Frans Malherbe; Ruben van Heerden, Marvin Orie; Deon Fourie, Hacjivah Dayimani, Evan Roos.

Replacements: Ben-Jason Dixon for Dayimani (50 mins), Willie Engelbrecht for Fourie (57), JJ Kotze for Dweba, Neethling Fouche for Malherbe (both 62), Paul de Wet for Jantjies (66), Ali Vermaak for Kitshoff (72), Marcel Theunissen for van Heerden, Clayton Blommetjies for Zas (both 78).

Sinbinned: Roos (19 mins).

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Malakai Fekitoa, Shane Daly; Jack Crowley, Conor Murray; Jeremy Loughman, Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), John Hodnett, Gavin Coombes.

Replacements: RG Snyman for O’Mahony (34 mins), Niall Scannell for Barron, Josh Wycherley for Loughman, Roman Salanoa for Archer (all 62), Ben Healy for Frisch, Craig Casey for Murray (both 63), Alex Kendellen for Kleyn (69), Keith Earls for Nash (70).

Sinbinned: Haley (48 mins), Crowley (79).

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Ita).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times