Munster on the march as Red Army goes AWOL
Published 16/05/2011 | 07:22
To the 'brave and the faithful' nothing lasts for ever.
Over the past 12 seasons, Munster's supporters have earned a reputation as the most committed in Europe, travelling in their thousands around the continent, their copious numbers matched by a bullish sense of self-regard.
However, there was always the suspicion of a blow-in aspect to the phenomenon, with the accompanying question of off-pitch sustainability in the face of a drop-off in on-pitch achievement.
Those doubts came to fruition at Thomond Park on Saturday evening where the official attendance of more than 13,000 seemed to emanate from the Bertie Ahern school of accounting, judging by the vast array of empty berths.
The terraces at either end of the ground were devoid of supporters, giant banners proclaiming 'RED ARMY' providing unfortunate mockery of the stay-away element.
Holy Communion season and the lure of the televised antics of Ireland's coiffured assault on the ears in Dusseldorf were cited as reasons for the no-show, but this was a Magners League semi-final and a win-or-bust occasion for the province's shot at redemption at the end of a challenging season, yet the 'army' chose to lay down their weapons. A worrying portent for the brand.
To be fair, those that did attend made their presence felt, doing their best to get behind the team while finding time to regale Ireland winger Tommy Bowe with another rendition of 'Black Velvet Band' after the Ospreys No 14 spilled possession.
However, the empty seats and terraces seemed to have an unsettling effect on the home side, who contrived to give this soulless Welsh outfit (Jerry Collins' half-hearted cameo before his lucrative switch to Japan typified their issues) a sniff of a result, when the contest should have been comfortably won before half-time.
Munster struggled to turn utter dominance of possession into points, foiled by a combination of decent Ospreys tackling and their own poor finishing.
David Wallace, who had another industrious outing, was halted over the line a couple of times and opted to go himself when a simple fix-and-give would have put Keith Earls over.
With Ronan O'Gara missing kicks you would ordinarily expect him to slot -- admittedly in a tricky, swirling wind -- the visitors were allowed to maintain interest in a Grand Final berth almost despite themselves.
A try by lively full-back Richard Fussell (who denied Wallace one of his touchdowns with an excellent cover tackle) brought the Ospreys to within a converted score with three minutes left and when O'Gara kicked for position rather than the final whistle two minutes into over-time, Scott Johnson's men produced their best passage of play of the evening to threaten extra-time.
Thankfully, that did not materialise, as having to endure extended exposure to what was a poor contest would not have been an enjoyable experience, nor a confidence-inspiring one for a brittle Munster side.
Ultimately, Munster got home thanks to a two-try contribution from Dolphin's Danny Barnes, who had an encouraging evening, more than justifying Tony McGahan's decision to start him at outside centre.
Born in New Zealand and raised in Tralee, Barnes threw himself into the action with glee and, when Munster eventually managed to take advantage of their repeated drives, ran in his first try in the right-hand corner before producing a technically superb blockdown of Fussell's attempted clearance to secure his second.
"We really needed someone there today to be really solid in defence, carry the ball forward and be really enthusiastic on the kick-chase and he was duly rewarded there for his work-rate tonight, everyone is delighted for him," said McGahan.
"Danny has certainly got a few things to work on, but to come out in a semi-final, they have got a lot of international players and Lions players, so we thought he handled the game extremely well."
Asked about whether he had questioned O'Gara's decision not to aim his final kick for one of the many vacant seats in the stand, McGahan gave a wry smile.
"I did. He didn't have an answer.
"It's certainly not good for the heart-rate or for my hairline, but look, we got through a few panicky moments there at 77 minutes. The Ospreys have been one of the leading try-scorers in all the competitions they have played in and you certainly don't count them out with the quality of players they had and then at full-time, the ball is still in play for another three penalties and 20-odd phases. I'll sleep well tonight."
And so he should have, because this, ultimately, was about getting the job done and Munster can regroup for a few days before building up to the intriguing Grand Final against Leinster on Saturday week.
It is a chance to earn reward for a well-constructed league campaign against a side that is bound to exhibit the effects of their exertions in next weekend's Heineken Cup final -- whatever the result against Northampton.
Leinster are clearly the superior rugby team in terms of attacking proficiency. Offloads remain in short supply in Munster and, once again, there were far too many static runners while the backline is still searching for creative cohesion despite the potency of the individuals contained within.
The scrum was a lottery under Nigel Owens, but Munster handled the Ospreys set-piece far better than they had in previous contests, with a good low set before engagement pointing to the work done by Paul McCarthy.
Paul O'Connell oversaw a good performance out of touch and on the restarts and there was enough here to suggest that Munster, with the right degree of intensity and directness, have the tools to give Leinster a proper rattle in two weeks.
Victory then would be a good way to sign off on a tough year, but McGahan is making no assumptions on the Grand Final result or reaction to it.
"We are probably going to be facing the Heineken Cup champions here in two weeks' time. Leinster have played extremely good rugby this year and to be underdogs in a final is going to be strange," said McGahan.
"Everyone has their own opinion on whether we are successful or not. We won a Magners League two years ago and got to a Heineken Cup semi-final and that was seen in most places as a disaster, so we'll wait and see."
You would expect Thomond Park to be full for that one -- nothing is impossible.
MUNSTER -- F Jones; D Howlett, D Barnes (S Zebo 74), L Mafi, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray (P Stringer 56); M Horan (W du Preez 56), D Varley (M Sherry 56, J Hayes (S Archer 61); D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan (D Leamy 60, N Ronan 74).
OSPREYS -- R Fussell; T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook (A Beck 38), N Walker; D Biggar, R Webb (T Isaacs 54); P James, H Bennett (R Hibbard 47), A Jones (C Griffiths 71); I Gough (J Collins 47), A-W Jones (capt); R Jones (M Holah 64), J Tipuric (T Smith 71), J Thomas.
REF -- N Owens (WRU).