Perfect 10 O'Gara sets the standard
MUNSTER unleashed their special brand of Thomond Park terrorism on the invading horde from Saracens and won this battle. The question now is can they win the war in a week's time?
On the evidence of this game, the task they will face at Vicarage Road next Sunday afternoon will be even tougher. Surely Owen Farrell will have a better return than 43pc from the boot but after 80 increasingly dramatic minutes of rugby, it seems churlish in the extreme not to emphasise the positives.
This was a reassuring exhibition of traditional values that produced a precious win over lauded opponents in the throbbing atmosphere created by an expectant full house at Thomond Park.
It was magnificently stirring stuff. Chances were scarce and open rugby in short supply, but it didn't matter to the essential appeal of the contest. This was a front up, head-on battle, a match full of fury, skill – the handling of Peter O'Mahony, for instance, was sublime – and epic entertainment.
The Irish side reverted to type, in the midst of a daring programme of reform under new coach Rob Penney. From Ronan O'Gara's kick-off to start the match it was evident that Munster were in belligerent form.
The ball bounced, Chris Ashton gathered and suddenly he was engulfed in a relenting wave of red as Donncha O'Callaghan, Simon Zebo, Mike Sherry, Dave Kilcoyne and even Keith Earls piled in on top of the England international and drove him backwards. Had Conor Murray's attempted pass to O'Gara not gone astray who knows what would have resulted?
No one does must-win matches better than Munster. Theirs is a history littered with tales of their triumphing against the odds and in the most unlikely of circumstances. Saturday's win, albeit by an ominously narrow margin, is perfectly in keeping with their legend for it keeps alive hope of advancement from a difficult pool.
That it came against such a difficult backdrop – defeat would almost certainly have brought their campaign to an end – and, given the circumstances dictated by their necessary transition, was laudable.
Saracens, as evidenced by the seeming nonchalance of their coach Mark McCall after the game, believe that they will ultimately triumph; that the effort it took to produce that furious performance on Saturday will have so drained Munster, they will be unable to replicate it next Sunday.
Perhaps there is merit in that belief. For certain, the manner of Munster's win will have cost them.
Man of the Match James Coughlan looked positively drained 40 minutes after the final whistle – and with good reason after such a magnificent individual performance – but there is also cause to believe Munster can improve.
Their discipline, for one, is something they must sharpen up on, as Coughlan attested: "There's no doubt the majority of those penalties we conceded were penalties, so we have to cut that out." But they, as did Saracens, also left points behind them.
"We could have been two tries up inside 10 to 15 minutes," said coach Penney, and he wasn't wrong. But for a stray pass, Munster might have been able to penetrate the Saracens line inside the opening 60 seconds and Murray almost put Zebo in on six minutes. It was frantic at times but all the more memorable as a result.
What Saracens will take comfort from is that they will surely be more relaxed in front of their own supporters next weekend and won't be as intimidated as they clearly were on Saturday night. Farrell, for example, looked unnerved when faced with the partisan crowd just before kick-off.
The Thomond factor was clearly a dynamic in Munster's favour.
At Vicarage Road, it will be Munster who will feel the heat. How they respond will tell a lot and go a long way to determining the outcome. Munster will, though, take with them the knowledge that for 60 minutes they were the only side playing attacking rugby.
It wasn't pretty, but it didn't need to be. They battered into Saracens with scant regard for their own well-being, O'Gara's break-kick-chase and tackle on Neil de Kock when he pounced on an overzealous Saracens line-out throw after 16 minutes epitomised Munster's spirit on the night – while Doug Howlett epitomised bravery in defence.
Saracens were clearly overwhelmed in the opening exchanges, but what will give them huge encouragement is how Munster were not able to finish them off. And Munster also left gaps – especially in the numbers they committed to the breakdown – that on another night Saracens might have exploited.
But it matters not that you stagger over the line, only that you cross it and Munster did that. The home side had no margin for error in the game after their opening-round loss to Racing Metro – "Having lost to Racing we need to win every game, it's that simple," Coughlan said afterwards – and they are still in a desperate battle for survival.
Saracens' achievement in escaping Limerick with a precious losing bonus point cannot be underestimated, especially given the difficulty Munster encountered in putting the winning points on the board.
In this regard the value of having Ronan O'Gara in the team was, yet again, spectacularly illustrated. He successfully converted five out of five penalties to account for all of Munster's points.
He was outstanding, absolutely overshadowing both Charlie Hodgson and Farrell – when the slayer of New Zealand moved to pivot – and it is all the more extraordinary that he did so despite being a real doubt all week because of a back injury.
He, along with the magnificent Coughlan, O'Mahony, Dave O'Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan were Munster's heroes on the night. They provided the inspiration.
They will need to do it all again in a week's time, but when they review the match and see just how many points they left behind them, they will travel to Watford invigorated by their own sustained performance and eager for the challenge. The battle was won, now for the war.
Munster – F Jones (C Laulala 67); D Howlett (capt), K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo (I Keatley 75); R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 67), M Sherry (D Varley 67), BJ Botha; Donncha O'Callaghan, D Ryan; Dave O'Callaghan (P Butler 63), J Coughlan, P O'Mahony.
Saracens – A Goode; C Ashton, O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson (D Strettle 58), N de Kock (R Wigglesworth 51); R Gill (M Vunipola 51), S Brits (J Smit 60), M Stevens, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis 60), K Brown, E Joubert, W Fraser (A Saull 66).
Ref – P Gauzerre (France).