Munster turn the heat up on Blues
Worthy win bodes well for Heineken Cup clash
ON a bitterly cold night in Limerick, we got something of a Munster 'hooley' at Thomond Park -- part barn dance, part Christmas party, part homecoming ball and everything ending up as a bit of a blur.
Put it all together and there was plenty of justification for those who made the journey to Thomond Park on a weekend of widespread sporting cancellations. This hard-earned victory over a quality Cardiff side saw Munster open up a four-point gap at the head of the Magners League and it was a result which helped to warm a decent-sized home crowd in sub-zero temperatures.
Approximately 100 bales of hay were used to ensure this match went ahead and all the leftover straw gave the pitch a farmyard feel while Bothár's successful bid to break the world record for simultaneous Santa hat-wearing added a touch of festive colour to the occasion.
We also had the icon's return. With 54 minutes on the clock, noise levels began to swell as Paul O'Connell appeared on the touchline and began removing his tracksuit.
These supporters had been waiting since January 22 to see Munster's captain back in the red jersey and, after all the speculation and concern surrounding his protracted recovery, the second-row's entry was always going to be joyously acclaimed.
Cardiff were pushing hard for a score at the time and O'Connell's first action was to claim tricky line-out ball close to the Munster line. A few minutes later, he was forced to scramble back as Dan Park's clever kick to the right-hand corner threatened to produce a score for Cardiff second-row Mike Paterson with Munster full-back Johne Murphy scooting across to save the day. Then, O'Connell rose magnificently to claim Ronan O'Gara's '22' drop-out -- an area where Ireland struggled in his absence last month -- and followed it up with a knee-pumping surge into the Cardiff defensive line.
Then the mist descended. Not of the red variety, for though this was a full-blooded affair containing a friendly Alan Quinlan-Gethin Jenkins skirmish and a handful of other harmless slaps, there was no real nastiness involved. This mist had more in common with Victorian London, with the last 10 minutes likened to the 'Eton wall game' in that no-one had a glimmer what was going on. It emphasised the wisdom in bringing forward the kick-off to 5.0.
So bad was the visibility that, even with the clock winding down, referee Alain Rolland was forced to consider calling time on proceedings but the players were able to muddle through, with O'Gara knocking over a late penalty -- so we were told -- to wrap up the win. Munster deserved their four points but, equally, the Blues merited their losing bonus for they put it up to their hosts, coming close to touchdowns on more than one occasion.
But Munster held firm (Mick O'Driscoll doing particularly well to deny Tom Shanklin with his knee) and it meant the Blues had to rely on Australia's travelling salesman Parks to produce points. The 'Scottish' out-half obliged with three penalties as well as using his boot repeatedly to test the Munster back three. O'Gara responded with three of his own and the conversion of Quinlan's 47th-minute try, which put Munster into the lead for the first time, having trailed 6-3 at the break.
Munster dominated the first half but both sides, exhibiting rustiness after the November international disruption, were hampered by a high error count and the second-half was better-quality.
And, although coach Tony McGahan was dissatisfied with his side's level of execution ahead of Sunday's return to Heineken Cup action against the Ospreys at the same venue, aspects of this performance were impressive.
Starting with the scrum. After a couple of inconsistent seasons at set-piece time, Munster identified their tight play as an area that needed concerted attention and Paul McCarthy's work with the scrum has paid dividends this season. It was an encouraging sight for Ireland coach Declan Kidney also to see Tony Buckley back up his strong showing against Argentina with another powerful performance at tight-head.
His opponent Jenkins may not be known for his destructive scrummaging but the Cardiff loose-head is a Lions Test prop and a quality, all-round operator - Buckley had the upper hand all evening.
With Wian du Preez going strongly on the other side, Dave Ryan and John Hayes doing well off the bench and Peter Borlase in the mix also, the front row has become an area of considerable strength for Munster. That includes hooking, where Damien Varley turned in another muscular display, his strong surges consistently hurting Cardiff and bringing him within inches of a try.
Even with Jerry Flannery and Denis Fogarty injured, Munster are well served at hooker through Varley and the increasingly impressive Mike Sherry.
It was Munster's superiority in the scrum which afforded Denis Leamy the platform to set off on the charge which led to their most impressive passage of phase play culminating in Quinlan's try.
Munster's defence also deserves mention. McGahan pointed to missed first-up tackles afterwards, and the Blues midfield of Shanklin and the excellent Casey Laulala kept asking questions, but keeping the Blues tryless (even when Buckley was sin-binned) highlighted good organisation in their defensive ranks, incorporating efficient use of the sweep and scramble.
Another positive is the amount of selection headaches now confronting McGahan as players come back following injury and suspension. O'Gara is a certainty at out-half but both Peter Stringer and Tomas O'Leary made their cases for inclusion at scrum-half against the Ospreys, while there is an array of options in the outside backs.
Doug Howlett should come back on to the right wing, where Lifeimi Mafi did not get many opportunities to impress against Cardiff and Paul Warwick will be hoping for a return to the full-back jersey worn by Murphy on Saturday.
Murphy has arguably been Munster's most consistent performer this season and certainly their most versatile. The Kildare man blossomed at inside-centre next to Keith Earls in Munster's last Heineken Cup outing against Toulon, while he could also be relocated to the left wing, with Denis Hurley switching to full-back. Earls also has the capacity to play all three positions and Sam Tuitupou, who was his customary hard-running self against the Blues, has a strong case for inclusion also.
Up front, there will be calls for O'Connell to be propelled straight back into the side but a bench role is the likelier option, while Donnacha Ryan is also available after suspension. Quinlan and Leamy put in good shifts against Cardiff but James Coughlan will push hard for a place in the back-row, where David Wallace will also be seeking a return to the starting team.
It promises to be an intriguing selection and when you consider how well the likes Ian Nagle, Peter O'Mahony, Scott Deasy and Conor Murray have taken their opportunities, it adds up to a pretty healthy picture for McGahan.
Underpinning their preparations will be the sense of surety that has defined Munster this season. This victory was far from flawless but there was never any sense that the home side would leave the win behind them.
The Ospreys know what awaits.
MUNSTER -- J Murphy; L Mafi (P Warwick 63), K Earls, S Tuitupou, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer (T O'Leary 49); W du Preez (D Ryan 76), D Varley (M Sherry 71), T Buckley (J Hayes 62); M O'Driscoll, D O'Callaghan (P O'Connell 55); A Quinlan, N Ronan (J Hayes 33-42, D Wallace 49), D Leamy.
CARDIFF BLUES -- C Czekaj; R Mustoe, C Laulala, T Shanklin, G Evans; D Parks, R Rees (T Slater 69); G Jenkins, G Williams (R Williams 16-22), T Filise (S Hobbs 78); M Paterson, P Tito; M Molitika, S Warburton (B White 33) X Rush.
REF -- A Rolland (IRFU).