O'Gara walks old dog Munster further up long road
Belief was key for the victors at Thomond, writes George Hook
This Munster win was a victory no more or less than a triumph of experience over a talented team that simply did not know how to win a game that they could have and will feel should have won. Northampton were capable of playing the game at a high tempo aided by a skilful offloading game with astute change of angle.
Once again, despite not playing to their highest standards, Munster just rolled with the punches and waited for the opportunity. Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain, was disconsolate after the game and when asked the simple question, "why did you not win?", he was honest enough to admit that he had no idea why his players did not deliver on their undoubted advantages.
Jonny Sexton may have been the hero of Friday night but he must have marvelled at the game management of Ronan O'Gara. The Munster out-half has his detractors, but he remains the best tactical brain in world rugby.
At the corporate lunches in Limerick yesterday, gnarled warriors of old like Mick Galwey would have been rolled to spin tales of derring-do and repeat clichés like "nobody beats Munster twice". That will have played well with the suits and ties but the Thomond Park faithful -- the most knowledgeable rugby supporters in the world -- would have been worrying about this match since Northampton's last visit to Limerick. In matches like these, the crowd get behind the team from the beginning and the stadium becomes a heaving throbbing mass of intimidating support.
When Galwey was running around in short pants dreaming of football finals in Croke Park, Northampton and Leicester were kingpins of English rugby; professionals in an amateur era. The Midlands clubs have both beaten Munster in this competition by dominating the men in red up front. Only 25 per cent of knockout games in the Heineken Cup have been won by the visiting team, but the odds dropped markedly when Paul O'Connell and Denis Leamy were missing. The loss of two of the most abrasive performers in European rugby severely weakened Munster.
The programme did have good news however; referee Nigel Owens has invariably been good to home teams and Munster in particular. Northampton had the benefit of tradition, history and the experience of January in their favour, yet they opened like a callow French team with nothing for which to play. They conceded eight points in six minutes and were on the back foot because despite all the hype of the modern game, Munster used the garryowen to discomfit their opponents.
However, all hopes of a walkover were gone 10 minutes later when Steve Myler kicked two penalties to tighten the scoreline. The pressure at the scrum and maul was forcing Munster on the defensive and Alan Quinlan added to his career total of penalties with two in front of his own posts.
Incredibly the Munster scrum was rejuvenated and three Northampton put-ins ended in disarray and enabled Munster to build up for a try by Doug Howlett orchestrated by the unbelievable awareness of Ronan O'Gara, to first move to the blindside and then deliver a sublime pass of his left hand to his wing who had half a metre of space outside Bruce Reihana.
Conventional wisdom had it that the Northampton scrum would demolish their opponents. In the first half Euan Murray scrummaged like it was a Sunday and John Hayes had an armchair ride against Soane Tongauiha. One could only assume that, despite all indications to the contrary, the English team was afraid of Munster. It took more than half an hour for them to discover that they faced a depleted force rather than supermen and once they started to run at defenders, pass with confidence and use the pace of Chris Ashton, gaps began to appear.
Incredibly Munster, despite having a two tries to none advantage, had not put their opponents away by a lack of discipline and one suspects a modicum of underestimating their opponents. They paid the price and went in at half-time three points behind. The Saints dressing-room would have been an ebullient place and the team came out and played with much more confidence.
Amazingly the Munster scrum prospered while the line-out and breakdown play suffered. The Jean de Villiers try came off a rock-solid five metre scrum, which allowed James Coughlan to set Tomas O'Leary away on a wide run to send the big South African over.
Incredibly as had happened all evening, Munster immediately gave away three points. On the hour, Murray the best offensive scrummager in the game was substituted; a telling testimony to the red set-piece.
One wondered if Paddy O'Brien the IRB refereeing czar was watching the game as Nigel Owens allowed a contest for possession at the breakdown rather than the nonsense of the decrees during the Six Nations. However Owens, who always has had a problem with seeing the offside line, continued true to form and Munster took full advantage.
There are more skilful games than rugby like soccer; there are faster games like hurling, and there are better spectacles like American football. However rugby, as Munster testifies, is about character and courage which this Irish province has in large measure.
Northampton was the better side technically, were more innovative and had the better of the place kicking duel. Better, however, is unimportant without a searing will to win and a pride in performance. The semi-final against Biarritz away will be incredibly difficult but Del Boy might be signed up for the pre-match chat rather than Mick Galwey. This is a team that epitomises the adage that is 'who dares wins'.