McGahan joy as Munster begin to pack real punch
THREE wins from three outings, top of the Magners League -- not bad to be going on with for Munster and their coach Tony McGahan following this comprehensive win over the champions at Thomond Park on Saturday night.
Standards and goals are set high down south, with trophies the sole barometer of achievement, and last season's double semi-final disappointment in the Magners and Heineken competitions did not cut the mustard. The fact that Leinster had overtaken Munster as Ireland's premier province also demanded a clarity of thought and the need for a return to core values has been effected through key appointments and a refocus on traditional foundations.
That starts with the forwards. Although Ospreys coach Sean Holley claimed afterwards that the visitors' scrum was "far more dominant", that did not reflect the clutch of penalties that went Munster's way at that set-piece which, bar a couple of late wobbles, was commendably solid.
As well as the improvements at scrum time, the Munster pack looks mean again -- aggressive in contact and dogged at the breakdown -- as evidenced by five well-won turnovers against the Ospreys. True, the line-out did not function as it should and restarts were something of a lottery, but there was an edge and eagerness about Munster that bodes well for the season ahead and, although there is plenty of scope for improvement, this 12-point victory over the title-holders represented another stride forward.
Munster travel to Glasgow next weekend before taking on Leinster in a much-anticipated Lansdowne Road meeting and with their desire to keep improving and the confidence that stems from a run of success, they look to be in a pretty good place.
A quietly satisfied McGahan summed up the situation succinctly.
"Our first five games were always going to be extremely tough," he said. "It was really important that we made progress each week, and slowly but surely we're taking those steps. We're getting there; we've still got a bit of way to go -- in some aspects a long way to go -- but we're slowly taking steps forward. As long as we can get results that's pleasing."
While Leinster have struggled to cope with their injury list and the preclusions of Ireland's player management system, Munster's squad strength has come through in similarly trying circumstances. Injuries to Ian Dowling and Felix Jones will provide further tests but with the likes of Lifeimi Mafi and Denis Hurley coming into the equation again, Munster look equipped to cope.
They will be looking for more of a cutting edge out wide: a 3-0 lead at half-time seemed scant reward for the vast amounts of possession and territory they enjoyed in that first period. However, backline penetration should improve with more game time, while the Ospreys defence, particularly in the first half, was an impressive combination of commitment and organisation.
Stand-in captain Doug Howlett was the man who cracked it at the start of the second half, following a slick pass from Paul Warwick, and the New Zealander continued his sensational start to the season, earning the praise of his coach.
"Doug's worked extremely hard on aspects of his game; he continues to be a thorough professional. He looks sharp at the moment. His workrate puts him in a position that other wingers don't get to. When he's out there he makes other players look better," said McGahan.
That try was converted by Ronan O'Gara, who had kicked the first-half's sole score after coming on for the unfortunate Dowling after three minutes, with Warwick switching to full-back and Jones to the wing.
O'Gara kicked 17 points in total, although there were three missed penalties in there also, and was a commanding presence at 10. A couple of kicks and passes from the out-half went astray but there were plenty of accurate ones also, with a couple of crucial tackles thrown in for good measure.
It was from an O'Gara garryowen that the Ospreys snatched their first score, pouncing on the breaking ball for Shane Williams to send Tommy Bowe scorching through for an unconverted try. But Munster swiftly reasserted themselves and their dominance allowed O'Gara to tally up four more penalties before replacement Richard Fussell sneaked over for a consolation try.
Howlett deservedly got the man-of- the-match award but Alan Quinlan, on his raucously received 200th appearance for the province, could have easily got the gong -- and not for sentimental reasons -- after a livewire showing, while James Coughlan put in an industrious performance, constantly taking up the 'dirty ball' when Munster needed to reset.
Updates on Dowling (hip) and Jones (ankle) are due today, but Denis Leamy should be fit for Glasgow after his precautionary withdrawal following a rib injury sustained in training. After Connacht's successful raid last Friday, the Warriors' Firhill 'fortress' home status looks to be in danger of crumbling and they will not fancy facing the Munster juggernaut as it continues to gather momentum.
MUNSTER -- F Jones (D Barnes 74); D Howlett, J Murphy, S Tuitupou, I Dowling (R O'Gara 4); P Warwick, T O'Leary (P Stringer 79); M Horan (W du Preez 50), D Fogarty (D Varley 29), J Hayes (T Buckley 40; D O'Callaghan, D Ryan; A Quinlan (B Holland 69), N Ronan, J Coughlan (P O'Mahony 67)
OSPREYS -- L Byrne (G Owen 67); N Walker (R Fussell 67), T Bowe, A Bishop, S Williams; D Biggar, J Nutbrown (R Webb 58); P James (D Jones 60), M Davies (R Hibbard 48), C Mitchell (A Jones 48); AW Jones, I Evans (I Gough 33); J Collins, M Holah (B Lewis 67), J Thomas. Yellow card: Holah 56
REF -- N Paterson (Scotland).