Munster survive on Thomond knife edge
Published 13/12/2010 | 05:00
First blood to Munster, but much bad blood will linger as each side harbours a bucketload of regret and frustration moving towards next week's return encounter in Swansea.
Munster may travel with the most regrets but at least they do so with a win that was not always guaranteed.
They could easily have secured a bonus point. But then, the Ospreys could argue that the match was theirs for the smashing and grabbing late on, as Munster threatened to implode after surging into a 22-13 lead by the 65th minute.
With 10 minutes to go, Paul O'Connell's moment of utter recklessness, a swinging arm on Jonathan Thomas deemed a sending-off offence by touch judge David Rose, ensured Munster had to fend off the visitors with only 14 men.
Munster had scored 14 points when the Ospreys were similarly disadvantaged from the 55th minute, turning the game on its head after trailing 13-8 from Tommy Bowe's 42nd-minute interception; surely now the Ospreys would turn the screw and similarly hammer home their numerical advantage.
Regrettably for them and heroically for Munster, they failed to threaten the red line and, buttressed by stout defence from Donncha O'Callaghan and Alan Quinlan, the former champions somehow held firm.
In actual fact, Munster came closest to securing their own bonus point, when David Wallace was halted just metres from the line in the 78th minute.
Yet the Ospreys fluttered frail home hearts too, a late Damien Varley overthrow securing them the position, but not the poise, to strike for a try that could have sealed an unlikely triumph.
It was a knife-edge finish the likes of which Thomond Park is renowned; Munster can only hope that the disciplinary ramifications do not undo their own attempts to extricate something from the return.
Aside from O'Connell, set to miss the minimum of a month after at least being dealt with summarily by the officials on the day, Denis Leamy, enjoying his best 80 minutes of the season, may sweat a little today once the ERC citing officer views the closing minutes of the match.
"Look, when you're behind 13-8 with 50-odd minutes on the clock, you're looking to get the result and that was our whole focus of the day," said Munster coach Tony McGahan.
"Munster, in particular, recognise the importance of bonus points, and losing bonus points, because it's played a big part in our success over the years, so while you'd like to deny the opposition that, they were good enough to get it so you have to give respect to that."
The Ospreys, too, made their point in more ways than one and, on their own patch, will surely not betray as little ambition as they did here -- Bowe's successful intercept and his remarkably unsuccessful chase against the outstanding James Coughlan their only attacking gambits all day.
"At one point they could have got the maximum and us nothing and it would have been difficult to come back from that," admitted Ospreys assistant coach Jonathan Humphreys.
Munster played poorly in a fractious first half, despite scoring its only try -- Doug Howlett stealing a march on competition debutant Richard Fussell and taking advantage of an AWOL Barry Davies to chase down Tomas O'Leary's pin-point grubber in the 10th minute.
That sandwiched two Ospreys penalties from the boot of Dan Biggar, contrasting starkly with Ronan O'Gara's poor form from the tee; although kicking reasonably sweetly, O'Gara missed his first three kickable attempts.
His start mirrored the collective, who were frantic and frenetic, their tactical kicking awry. Even when the Ospreys didn't spoil ball, Munster made some grievous errors in attack, spurning obvious overlaps that could have haunted them later in the piece.
Still, they led on the half-time whistle 8-6. After a difficult opening in the scrums, where poor Christophe Berdos had not an iota what -- or how -- to officiate, they seemed set fair to kick on in traditional style.
Indeed, their opening 90 seconds after the half-time oranges were the most succinct and sustained all day. It was ironic, then, that this attacking phase ended in Bowe snatching Sam Tuitupou's pass to streak home for his 28th try in 53 appearances for the Welsh.
Munster were back to square one but they received a helping hand from the referee, whose surveillance of the crumbling morass that was scrum time led him to bin loose-head Paul James in the 55th minute.
Ospreys played the period with galling ineptitude, ultimately kicking away the possession that led to Munster seven-pointers for Wallace in the 59th minute and Johne Murphy five minutes later.
Such a 14-point push should have been definitive.
Leamy's surge had created the attacking dynamic whereby Munster tore into the Ospreys in the build-up to Wallace's try; Murphy's try stemmed from an egregious Biggar hoof that Munster simply waited to return to earth, before pouncing on Bowe's knock-back to create the simple overlap.
O'Gara deserves a grace note, too, for the latter touchdown. Often pilloried for his tackling, he smashed Duncan Jones in the build-up and also bravely withstood Mike Phillips in the game's absorbing death throes.
From a position where Ospreys seemed to be cruising, now Munster were in the box seat until O'Connell's senseless intervention rocked his side back on their heels when attentions should have been devoted to securing the bonus point.
"I think the pressure really is on the home sides," McGahan admitted, with an eye on next week. "You can't not get four points, and that's the basic line. Next week we need to make sure we exert pressure on the Ospreys."
Many Munster supporters will have left Thomond Park wondering whether they have made their task a little easier by extracting the maximum reward yesterday. They will discover the true extent of those fears next Saturday evening.
Munster -- P Warwick (D Hurley 71); D Howlett, K Earls (L Mafi 72), S Tuitupou, J Murphy; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley (J Hayes 68); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll (P O'Connell 60); J Coughlan (A Quinlan 60), D Wallace, D Leamy (Capt).
Ospreys -- B Davies; T Bowe, A Bishop (S Parker 74), J Hook, R Fussell; D Biggar, M Phillips; P James (D Jones 74), R Hibbard (M Davies 51), A Jones, R Jones, A Wyn Jones (capt), J Collins, M Holah, J Thomas (I Gough 74).
Ref -- C Berdos (France).