McGahan salutes 'special' O'Gara
Veteran delivers at death as new-look Reds stick to old script
TRUST the Heineken Cup. After a month of demoralisation and drabness following Ireland's World Cup exit -- a month that issued fresh injury clouds to hover over Brian O'Driscoll and Keith Earls and a couple of joyless inter-provincial derbies -- up steps the Heineken Cup to provide Irish rugby with the lift it craved.
It began with Connacht on Friday night, standing up in the face of widespread dismissal to make English Premiership acolytes reassess.
Then came Leinster, forcing a draw in Montpellier through a combination of guile, grit and the nerve of Jonathan Sexton.
Next up was Ravenhill, the scene for a dose of typical Ulster indomitability that ripped the guts out of Clermont.
And, finally, a glorious conclusion in Limerick, where Munster reached deep into their rugby souls to produce one of the most dramatic finishes in the competition's history and win a game they could have lost several times over against Northampton.
No one inside or outside the Munster camp disputes the fact that this is a side in transition. No Quinlan, Wallace or Foley for the first time since the competition began, the unusual situation of only two players in the starting XV (Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell) with more than 50 Heineken Cup appearances, and a clutch of established warriors (John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, Denis Leamy, Tomas O'Leary) on the bench -- it felt like Munster, with three 22-year-olds making their tournament debuts, were beginning a new chapter.
New chapter, same compelling narrative. No other side in the competition's history has demonstrated Munster's capacity for triumph against the odds, their consistent, logic-defying ability to see off superior forces through strength of will and refusal to accept defeat.
This was a brave selection by coach Tony McGahan, whose progressive attitude to bringing through talent deserves to be repeatedly lauded, and it was fully vindicated as the new guard of Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Danny Barnes proved worthy inheritors of a proud legacy.
And the men who had made way responded brilliantly also. O'Callaghan's energy was crucial in the final quarter, while O'Leary orchestrated the endgame beautifully, directing traffic and hitting the right men at the right time.
And, special mention must be given to Leamy. Based on his form since the World Cup, Leamy was unfortunate not to make the starting XV but his contribution off the bench was remarkable. With Northampton a point up and the last play of the game signalled, the home side produced an extraordinary four minutes of discipline and determination, with 13 players having the ball during 41 phases to set up a drop goal attempt.
Ten times, Leamy showed for the ball, offering himself as a target for the Northampton hit-men as he helped to eke out those critical inches. It was selfless, tireless and faultless and, fittingly, it was Leamy who sent out the final pass.
No prizes for guessing who took it. In years to come, people will talk about Dan Carter and Jonny Wilkinson as being the best out-halves of this generation and, when gurus sit down to pick the greatest Irish team of all-time it could well be Jackie Kyle or Ollie Campbell in the 10 jersey. However, there is no player, past or present, in any position, from any country, that can compare with O'Gara when it comes to mental fortitude and the skill to produce in do-or-die situations.
If Wales had access to O'Gara last month they would have made the World Cup final and, given the incredible pressure, the swirling breeze that caused difficulties throughout and the near 40-metre distance from the posts, it was a ridiculously good drop goal -- but one that had a sense of inevitability given who was taking it.
"The plaudits... where do you stop? He's a special person," said McGahan. "It was an amazing kick at the end of 80 minutes in what was a fast-paced game. We've seen other 10s push themselves out of that position but he put his hand up and said he wanted to do it and it was one of the sweetest strikes we've seen for a long time.
"You really want a strong mental conviction and a strong mental toughness to do that and he's been been like that throughout his whole career."
McGahan's appreciation was echoed by captain Paul O'Connell.
"If Ronan could orchestrate every game to end like that, he'd do it. It's a lovely feeling to have a guy around for that long and still be as hungry as he is, to be that willing to fight," he said.
O'Connell had played his part in what was a terrific contest but will know Munster cannot survive at this level on willpower alone and have much to improve on ahead of next weekend's trip to Castres. Some slack kicking and chasing invited Northampton to run back, while the defence for Chris Ashton's try would have been improved by moving out on the wide man and trusting the inside cover.
The scrum too was a concern. Northampton have a beastly scrummaging unit and, and even with BJ Botha's presence in the munster front-row, the Saints had the upper hand here until Soane Tonga'uiha, Brian Mujati and Courtney Lawes were strangely substituted.
Northampton also looked far more threatening in attack, with Ben Foden causing consternation every time he ran onto the ball and Ryan Lamb justifying his selection ahead of Steve Myler with some skilful touches.
It meant that, like many others before them, Northampton retreated from Thomond Park bewildered and bemused, wondering how in the hell they managed to lose a game where they had dominated the set-pieces and played the vast majority of the attacking rugby. Coach Jim Mallinder explained it by pointing the finger at referee Nigel Owens.
"I just think he got quite a lot wrong," said Mallinder. "It is difficult and it is an intimidating place to play and the crowd do a real good job and sometimes you don't always get the rub of the green."
Given his candidacy for the England job, this was not the best stance for Mallinder (who also claimed Munster were 'sealing off' -- something both sides were guilty of -- during their 41-phase endgame) to adopt. However, he did acknowledge that Northampton fluffed the opportunity to kill off the game when Vasily Artemyev fumbled with the line waiting to be crossed.
It was unfortunate for the former UCD winger, who had earlier knocked on the second-half restart setting up an easy three points for O'Gara.
Munster can reflect on a productive maul that led to an early try from the industrious Damien Varley and a fantastic passage of play in the build-up to a wonderful try by Doug Howlett (Munster's most potent attacker), that included an excellent surge by Murray and off-load to Barnes.
More of that will be needed for Munster to progress to the business end of the competition while, if they can overcome this psychological setback, Northampton look well equipped.
In front of a magnificent crowd who made a mockery of speculation that Thomond Park may not be the intimidating cauldron it once was, this was a seminal victory to rank alongside the 'Miracle Match' and other landmark Munster achievements.
A crucial one also, for defeat would have placed huge pressure on McGahan's men heading to France with a pool exit hanging over their heads.
Now, they can travel with a tremendous injection of self-belief and a clutch of younger players strengthened by passing their first major test.
"It is up to us to keep the momentum going," said McGahan. "We'll be playing a massive forward pack again and they are not just going to roll over, it will be much of the same again."
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; D Howlett, D Barnes (W Chambers 66), L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Murray (T O'Leary 61); W du Preez, D Varley, B J Botha (J Hayes 70), D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 54), P O'Connell (capt), P O'Mahony, N Ronan, J Coughlan (D Leamy 65).
NORTHAMPTON -- B Foden (G Pisi 73); C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, V Artemyev; R Lamb, L Dickson (M Roberts 65); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 68), D Hartley (capt), B Mujati (P Doran-Jones 70), C Lawes (S Manoa 65), M Sorensen; C Clark (P Dowson 65), T Wood, R Wilson.
REF -- N Owens (Wales).