McGahan joy as front rows flex muscles
NOT only has this season's introduction of Treviso and Aironi to the Magners League led to a plethora of 'Italian job' headlines, it has also promoted investigation of the Italian language.
It turns out that Aironi translates as 'herons' -- the reason why the 2010-created league newcomers carry that avian-themed crest on the left breast of their jerseys. Further research reveals that herons are euphemistically known as "shitepokes" because of their tendency to "defecate when flushed".
And, while it would be unfair to suggest that their rugby representatives lost the run of themselves against Munster last Saturday night in Musgrave Park, this match undoubtedly swung the home side's way once the pressure came on just after half-time and fiery prop Salvatore Perugini was sent to the bin.
The danger of game-conceding Italian indiscipline had been flagged beforehand, given the inevitable enthusiasm that accompanied Aironi's desire to make a powerful opening-night statement, allied to the abrasiveness of their grizzled front five.
Munster were always favourites but Perugini's removal when the scores were tied at 11-11 allowed the hosts to strike ruthlessly for a brace of tries and Aironi's unlikely path to victory swiftly transformed into a cul-de-sac of bitter experience.
They can still be pleased with their combative league debut and, on this evidence, they will do damage, particularly at home.
While there was evidence of defensive frailty when Munster turned the screw, the grittiness of Aironi's pack makes them competitive, Tito Tebaldi is developing into an extremely useful scrum-half and they will take considerable encouragement from the superb backline movement that saw Julien Laharrague score a contender for try of the season.
In these circumstances, a bonus-point win was an extremely satisfying return for Munster coach Tony McGahan and backed up the encouraging signs in pre-season -- notably at scrum time.
With Paul McCarthy brought in as scrummaging guru and Niall O'Donovan also on the books helping out with the 'A' team, there is some serious Munster-hewn forward expertise available and it was good night for the set-pieces, aside from a few early lineout wobbles.
With the likes of Perugini and Fabio Ongaro, Aironi know what they are about at scrum time but Munster got on their cases, locked their own ball and secured several penalties and free-kicks on the opposition's. It was an excellent portent for the season ahead.
"We knew they would come with a very strong set piece and a very good scrum, so we needed to make sure we scrummaged for the full 80 minutes, and I thought we did that to a great extent," said McGahan, who was able to substitute his entire front row on 54 minutes with no let up in scrum intensity.
"We're by no means the finished article (in the scrum), but we're making progress each week, and that's really important. We need to make sure that we focus on our own ball first, and then continue to do decent work on their ball."
Felix Jones produced an eye-catching display from full-back, pouncing for the first try after 26 minutes with the scores tied at 6-6 through the penalty kicking of Paul Warwick and Ludovic Mercier. Laharrague's response, via a wonderful chip by Mercier and good link play by the Aironi centres, sent the sides in level and, on the resumption, the game changed when Perugini was dispatched for a tackle off the ball.
Munster went for the jugular and Niall Ronan, the pick of the forwards along with second-row Mick O'Driscoll, battered his way over for the first of his two tries, with Tony Buckley doing the same a couple of minutes later. Warwick converted one and added a drop goal, with Mercier keeping the visitors in range with a couple of penalties for 26-17.
An excellent break from Doug Howlett, who looked sharp all evening, set up the position for Ronan to squeeze over for his second and the bonus was in the bag with Aironi battling in vain for a consolation score. Considering that they have a clutch of frontline internationals to return, Munster look to be in pretty good shape.
New signings Sam Tuitupou, Johne Murphy and Wian du Preez made worthy contributions and stand-in captain Denis Leamy was a powerful presence at No 8.
There are areas for improvement but the occasional handling error and defensive oversight is to be expected early in the season and the pros far outweighed the cons, with Munster's capacity to patiently work the phases for their scores particularly impressive.
With all his fit internationals available to feature to some degree for next weekend's trip to Edinburgh, McGahan said he expects to make some changes as he seeks to build on this strong start.
"Our on-the-road form wasn't up to scratch (last season), so this year we really want to make a go at getting results on the road, starting next from weekend," said McGahan.
As for Aironi, this was a lesson in the dangers of not getting in a flap when the heat is on and they will be the better for it. Ulster will not relish taking on the herons in their own nest next weekend.
MUNSTER -- F Jones (S Deasy 74); D Howlett, S Tuitupou (D Barnes 72), J Murphy, I Dowling; P Warwick, P Stringer (D Williams 64); W du Preez (M Horan 54), D Varley (J Fogarty 54), T Buckley (J Hayes 54), M O'Driscoll (A Quinlan 61), B Holland; D Ryan, N Ronan (P O'Mahony 45-54, 72), D Leamy (capt).
AIRONI -- J Laharrague; G Rubini (G Pizzaro 64), T Quartaroli, D des Fountain, G Toniolatti; L Mercier, T Tebaldi (M Wilson 64); Alberto de Marchi (Andrea de Marchi 58), F Ongaro (R Santamaria 64), S Perugino (L Milani 69); C Del Fava, Q Geldenhuys (capt); J Erasmus (L Milani 51-53, A Birchall 71), G Krause, N Williams (capt). Yellow card: Perugini 43
REF -- G Knox (Scotland).