Munster put talk of their demise in the past
London Irish 14
TWELVE minutes left on the clock and Ryan Lamb's conversion of Sailosi Tagicakibau's try has pushed London Irish into a 14-7 lead.
With Munster looking like they couldn't score in Newcastle on free Bacardi Breezer night, the Exiles were justifiably bullish that they could go on to become only the second visiting side, after Leicester in 2007, to record a Heineken Cup victory at Thomond Park.
The freezing fog that had nearly caused the abandonment of the Magners League clash with Cardiff at the same venue in December was rolling in again and anything that would obscure the sad spectacle of Munster's decline was to be welcomed at that stage.
They had been pretty brutal. Plenty of effort, endeavour, possession and position but precious little execution. The fact that the first half ended scoreless was largely down to Munster's inability to finish off the opportunities they had ground out for themselves.
When they got close to the line, there was the instant reversion to the blinkered forward-drive mode Munster know best. It does produce tries, and did for Damien Varley just after half-time, but there needs to be more variety to prosper against Europe's best.
So, when London Irish got their second try, adding to their 58th-minute score from the excellent Seilala Mapusua, it looked like curtains for the home side, another nail in the coffin for the former champions -- relegated to red-button status on Sky Sports as yesterday's men. What happened next was remarkable.
After a week of brickbats, doubt and recrimination, it was as though a collective decision was taken behind the posts when Lamb was kicking his conversion, a roar of refusal which echoed the famous declaration in the 1976 Oscar-winning film, 'Network' -- "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore."
The crowd picked up on the mood and from the kick-off it felt like those January Heineken Cup occasions we had become accustomed to over the years, a wave of intensity sweeping all before it. London Irish, having coped admirably all afternoon as Munster came at them again and again, were washed away and, after 40 barren minutes in the first half, Munster scored their last three tries in just nine, from Niall Ronan, Keith Earls and Darragh Hurley.
Ronan O'Gara converted all with aplomb and Munster retired to their dressing-room with a Challenge Cup quarter-final, a spring in their step and grateful acknowledgement for their fans.
"To have the belief when we were down 14-7 and to come back the way we did in the last 15 minutes shows a lot of spirit, a lot of belief, and certainly the crowd played a major part in that," said coach Tony McGahan.
"We were playing for our lives. We wanted to repay our faith in the supporters, because they have certainly shown a lot of faith in us. We were playing at home with a tremendous record, which has been gained over a long period of time with a lot of guts, spirit and passion. We certainly weren't ready to give that up."
Munster's world has not changed on the basis of 12 remarkable minutes, but their end-game has provided McGahan with a timely fillip heading into the Six Nations hiatus.
Defeat would have been a grievous blow to morale after the week Munster have endured but now there is the opportunity to bring through some of the younger brigade in the Magners League as well as a European trophy to pursue. The Challenge Cup may be more Cathy Kelly than Cormac McCarthy, but it is a competition worth pursuing nonetheless and one that will keep Munster ticking over in terms of competitive spirit and exposure.
The problems that were highlighted in Toulon remain to be resolved, namely set-piece security and backline potency, and the conviction that McGahan needs a change of lieutenants in his management team is as strong as ever. In terms of player-acquisition, there are strong arguments in favour of the signing of a BJ Botha-type, world-class scrummaging tight-head (Peter Borlase was on the bench for the 'A' side on Friday night).
But, for all the talk of regeneration and recruitment, Saturday showed there is still plenty of punch in thirtysomethings like Paul O'Connell, David Wallace, Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter Stringer, while others such as Tomas O'Leary and Denis Hurley also held their hands up to Ireland boss Declan Kidney.
Far from flawless, then, but a stride on the road to redemption and 12 minutes that could spark a revolution.
"We need to look at younger guys. Maybe there will be a few positional changes and stuff like that. That happens with every team," said captain Denis Leamy.
"We have the quality within the squad to continue to be a big force in European rugby. You can point at different players, and age groups and stuff like that but right throughout our squad there is quality. I don't accept that it's over for us."
MUNSTER -- J Murphy (S Deasy 61); D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, Denis Hurley; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer 66); W du Preez (Darragh Hurley 70), D Varley (M Sherry 70, J Hayes (T Buckley h-t); M O'Driscoll (D O'Callaghan 61), P O'Connell; D Wallace (J Coughlan 68), N Ronan, D Leamy.
LONDON IRISH -- T Ojo; A Thompstone, E Seviali'I, S Magapusa, S Tagicakibau; D Bowden (R Lamb 61), D Allison (P Hodgson 74); A Corbisiero (D Murphy 74), J Buckland, F Rautenbach; N Kennedy (K Roche 78), M Garvey; G Stowers (R Thorpe 56), J Gibson, C Hala'ufia. Yellow cards: Rautenbach 15, Gibson 70.
REF -- P Allen (Scot)