McGahan praise for dogged Reds
Injury-ravaged Munster strike late to soften defeat
THERE is a long-established Irish tradition of leaving a game early to 'beat the traffic' and it is one that has made its way over to the ex-pat community in London.
With two minutes to go in Saturday's absorbing Heineken Cup contest in Reading, a rather smug London Irish fan headed for the exit with a parting shot for anyone who cared to listen.
"Munster are in trouble after this," he declared. "It's not often they come away with nothing." True, and if he had hung around a bit longer, he would have witnessed the validation of his statement as Munster swooped for a losing bonus point with the last play of the game.
David Wallace, bristling with intent when he appeared off the bench, set up the score with a barnstorming surge that took the visitors out of their half and deep into London Irish territory and, when the ball made its way to Ronan O'Gara, the out-half's threaded kick was a thing of beauty, leaving Sam Tuitupou with the easiest of touchdowns.
It was no more than Munster deserved for, while the home side were worthy winners, it was only right that the visitors' second-half dominance received tangible reward. Afterwards, Toby Booth was not entirely convincing as he basked in the glory of victory. "I don't want the issue of Munster getting a bonus point to cloud over the fact that this was a great victory," said Booth. "If you win your games then losing bonus points become irrelevant, I'm thrilled, absolutely delighted."
A positive public stance by Booth, but privately he will reflect on the fact that this is a bonus point that could come back to haunt Irish when they travel to Limerick in January. His counterpart Tony McGahan was in no doubt as to the significance of coming away from Reading with something to hold onto.
"Any point you can gather away from home is extremely important," said the Munster coach. "History shows that you really need to be winning your home games but come away with a minimum of a losing bonus point (away from home) to get out of the pool."
McGahan's team selection caused considerable debate going into this clash but, while defeat will inevitably spawn its share of hindsight punditry, the coach's big calls were justified. Niall Ronan was having a superb game until forced off with a nasty head injury, James Coughlan put in huge work at No 8 and Johne Murphy was Munster's most dangerous attacker from full-back.
The experience and impact on the bench was also a significant factor with Wallace, Marcus Horan, John Hayes, Mick O'Driscoll and Paul Warwick making positive impacts when introduced. As did less experienced fellow replacements Mike Sherry and Duncan Williams.
The major areas to work on ahead of next weekend's visit of Toulon are discipline and line-out efficiency. A raft of penalties and a yellow card for Tuitupou allowed Irish to gain confidence and scoreboard superiority through the boot of Ryan Lamb while half-a-dozen wayward line-outs hurt the visitors at source.
We talked up Damien Varley's international credentials during the week with good reason but, while Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy are two of the best poachers in the business, the Munster hooker's wayward throwing was a contributory factor to the uncertainty out of touch.
"You need to play the referee," said McGahan on the discipline issue. "You don't wait until you go six or seven (penalties) before you cop on, so to speak. It cost us field position and it cost us on the scoreboard.
"In terms of the line-out, they've obviously had very good stats for the last number of years. But I think if you look at the ones we lost, we had two overthrows with the man up in the air virtually untouched and we had another one at the front of the line-out, untouched. Really unforced errors and inaccuracy. It took away from our ability to attack."
Munster brought an expansive approach to Reading and there were flashes of attacking potential with Murphy, Keith Earls and Doug Howlett looking very sharp on the ball. However, it was when they reverted to direct rugby after going behind 20-6 at the start of the second half, following a Topsy Ojo intercept, that Munster began to dominate.
The fact that they managed to claw their way back to a bonus point against what is, undoubtedly, a quality outfit, will provide encouragement and, only for two stupendous tackles by Delon Armitage and substitute Alex Corbisiero, the visitors would have got over for a try that could have launched a victory push with a quarter of an hour still to play.
Given the injury problems that have beset the squad and the quality of opposition, this was a decent result forged on forward doggedness and an accomplished showing by O'Gara at out-half.
However, all the hard work will be undone if Toulon are not beaten next weekend and McGahan knows exactly what is at stake at Thomond Park.
"It is a must-win game. You go down in round one and all of a sudden you're back at home and there's going to be a lot of pressure. It adds to the excitement and to the pressure, and that's why it's a great competition."
LONDON IRISH -- D Armitage; T Ojo, E Seveali'i (D Allinson 70), S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau (J Joseph 70); R Lamb, P Hodgson; C Dermody (capt), J Buckland (D Paice 56), F Rautenbach (A Corbisiero 56), N Kennedy, B Casey (M Garvey 69), K Roche, G Stowers, D Danaher (C Halu'ufia 52).
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; D Howlett, K Earls (P Warwick 69), S Tuitupou, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer (D Williams 73); W du Preez (M Horan 64), D Varley, T Buckley (J Hayes 64), D O'Callaghan, D Ryan (M O'Driscoll 56), D Leamy (capt), J Coughlan, N Ronan (D Wallace 32).
REF -- C Berdos (Fra).