The two finalists in Saturday’s eagerly anticipated Vodacom United Rugby Championship final in Cape Town have at least one thing in common - both the DHL Stormers and Munster might not have got this far if they’d gone further in Europe.
Stormers coach John Dobson has readily conceded that his team would have struggled to prepare for their home URC quarterfinal had they won their Heineken Champions Cup quarterfinal at Sandy Park against Exeter Chiefs. The travel would have been just too much for his men had they had to go to LaRochelle for an HCC semifinal the week in between the last URC league game and the quarterfinal.
In Munster’s case, their exit from the HCC at the round of 16 phase at the hands of the Cell C Sharks in Durban meant their coach Graham Rowntree had two weeks to absorb the lessons he and his men were handed at HollywoodBets Kings Park. The Sharks defeat had followed on from a chastening home defeat to the Glasgow Warriors in the URC, so his men were going through a bit of a blip after a disastrous start to Rowntree’s first season in charge.
But Munster returned believing they knew how to turn the tables on their South African opponents, and so it proved as a quick start and then digging deep later in the game saw them to a 26-24 win over the Stormers that was the URC champion team’s first defeat at home since December 2021.
What happened when this year’s Grand Finalists last met… ??@TheStormers ?? @MunsterRugby@Vodacom #URC | #UnitedWeRise | #STOvMUN | #Throwback pic.twitter.com/TKt3MKB5BW— Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial_RSA) May 18, 2023
A week later they went back to Durban needing to win to finish fifth and secure a slightly easier passage to the final. When they were down 22-3 shortly after halftime, it looked like they were heading for a repeat of their previous visit to Durban, where they lost 50-35. But in what was a 35-minute microcosm of how their whole 2022/2023 campaign has turned out, Munster came back to dominate and level the scores. They were unlucky not to score the win that they were pressing hard for at the final whistle.
SOUTH AFRICAN RESULTS WERE A MINI TURNING POINT
Those two results in South Africa not only meant Munster ended the league phase of the season with considerable momentum, they also meant they should be able to return to Cape Town for the final feeling confident. But until arguably the mini turning point of a gutsy 17-6 away win over Northampton Saints in the Champions Cup in December, a game where the hosts hammered away against a defensive effort that was nothing short of Herculean, it looked like former England prop Rowntree was heading for a disastrous first season in charge.
Munster started the competition back in September last year by losing to Cardiff away, and they followed up by suffering a similar fate against another Welsh team, the Dragons. As the Dragons had been on the bottom rung of the previous season’s log, just above Zebre, that was a calamitous result that would have introduced question marks over Rowntree’s suitability for the job he took when former Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan left to become coach of English club Bath.
Talking of Zebre, they were the first team that Munster won against, but a 21-5 victory at home against the struggling Italian team was hardly enough to kill off the negativity that was descending. Sure enough, the concerns returned in full force when in the next match Munster lost by nine points to Connacht. Played four, won just one. Hardly championship material.
THEY WERE DOWN AND OUT AT CHRISTMAS
And while there was something of a turning point when Munster comprehensively outplayed the Bulls 31-17, the start of a sequence of matches against South African teams that ended played four, won three and drawn one, they were quickly back into the trough after that. Indeed, when the team from Limerick and Cork lost by an agonisingly close one point margin at home to mighty Leinster on Boxing Day, just the top eight or top seven position that would have represented qualification for the URC play-offs and next season’s edition of the HCC looked a forlorn hope.
But there had been unmistakeable signs that the wheel might be turning. Apart from the competitive performance against Leinster, they had thrashed Edinburgh away and also came within one point of beating Ulster, while their two Champions Cup games in December were also encouraging - a narrow loss away to Toulouse and the aforementioned gutsy win over the Saints.
After the Leinster defeat Munster started the new year with a win over Ulster in the return derby that was a bizarre converse of the first round game between them - the final score was 15-14 both times, just it was the away team that won both times.
Munster began to gather momentum as they got into the wintry first month of 2023, taking care of their Champions Cup round of 16 qualification by comfortably beating Northampton in their return game and losing by just four to powerful Toulouse, the eventual semifinalists.
GLASGOW RESULT POSED QUESTIONS
On the URC front they followed up the start of their ascension up the table represented by the narrow derby win over Ulster by thrashing the Emirates Lions by 30 points, they comfortably beat Benetton in Treviso before humiliating the Ospreys. They were on the way to doing the same to another Welsh team, the Scarlets, before a fightback saw them eventually get home by just seven.
That second half at home to the Scarlets was to prove the start of the mini-blip that was arrested by the momentous away win over the Stormers, with Rowntree being asked piercing questions about his team’s defence following a 38-26 defeat at home at Thomond Park in a game where Glasgow Warriors just ran through them in the first half.
Those defensive frailties were further exposed when the Sharks knocked them out of the Champions Cup. But then came the regroup and the two positive results in South Africa that saw them take enough momentum into the playoffs to win both games away.
SOMETIMES YOU MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK
They were helped by a first half red card in the quarterfinal in Glasgow but when people talk about stars aligning there is an assumption that you are to some extent making your own luck.
Which is what they did the following week in beating Leinster with a late drop-goal, a rare achievement against their arch-rivals, and thus turning a season that was for a long time just a battle for survival into a tilt at their first serious silverware since they won the Magners League in 2010/2011.
That last trophy was 12 long years ago and as their former South African born stalwart and British and Irish Lions and Ireland representative CJ Stander put it this week, that will make them desperate. They’ve travelled a bumpy road that they made look considerably easier through their steady acceleration the nearer they got to the summit of the mountain they’ve been climbing so only a fool will write off their chances of completing a fairytale comeback from the depths they found themselves wallowing in last November into December.
THEY ARE INDEED THE FORM TEAM
And if they can do it in Cape Town, which has been such a fortress for the top South African team, it will be well deserved as Jean de Villiers, who played for both of the final protagonists in his stellar career, was right when he referred to them as the form team in the competition.
Since the Boxing Day defeat to Leinster, Munster have played 10 URC games, including the two playoff games, and lost just once. That’s quite a record to take into the decider and it is why even though the Stormers enjoyed a 13 point advantage over them in finishing third to their fifth during the league season, they will be worthy champions if they are in front at the final whistle on Saturday.
MUNSTER'S 2022/2023 SEASON
ROAD TO THE URC FINAL:
ROAD TO THE URC FINAL:
Cardiff Rugby 20 Munster 13
Dragons 23 Munster 17
Munster 21 Zebre 5
Connacht 20 Munster 11
Munster 31 Vodacom Bulls 17
Leinster 27 Munster 13
Munster 14 Ulster 15
Munster 24 Connacht 17
Edinburgh 17 Munster 38
Munster 19 Leinster 20
Ulster 14 Munster 15
Munster 33 Emirates Lions 3.
Benetton 30 Munster 40
Munster 58 Ospreys 3
Munster 49 Scarlets 42
Munster 26 Glasgow Warriors 38
DHL Stormers 24 Munster 26
Cell C Sharks 22 Munster 22
URC quarterfinal: Glasgow Warriors 5 Munster 14
URC semifinal: Leinster 15 Munster 16
CHAMPIONS CUP 2022/2023
Munster 13 Toulouse 18
Northampton 6 Munster 17
Munster 27 Northampton 13
Toulouse 20 Munster 16
Round of 16
Cell C Sharks 50 Munster 35
Played in the season: 25 Won 14 Lost 10 Drawn 1