O'Gara lets his sublime play do all the talking
Published 12/04/2010 | 05:00
The Munster dressing-room, 5.20, Saturday. Ronan O'Gara scans the room. He is looking for something, last seen in the moments before his team-mates exited the Stade Aimé Giral in December.
Suddenly, he spots it. He smiles to himself. Everything will be alright. He could leave without his gumshield or his favourite sock, even without Paul O'Connell by his side. On this day, though, he could never walk on to that turf without 'it'.
"I saw it in the fellas' faces in Perpignan and I saw it again today," O'Gara reports.
"It" was a look in the eye of every squad member which signposted that Munster meant business. Heineken Cup business. The knock-out stages. Thomond Park.
For all the surmising that this was a team under pressure, creaking, lacking spark, lacking leadership, this was still the Heineken Cup and nobody knows the competition's wonderfully unpredictable topography better than the men in red.
It acts almost as an intangible catharsis for this side and, against one of the more accomplished quarter-final visitors to this ground, Munster clearly demonstrated the advantages of grizzled experience over dewy-eyed insouciance.
Whether it was Alan Quinlan's wonderful version of legalised aggression, O'Gara's sumptuous second-half piloting, the backs' incisiveness, or the scrum's mental and physical durability, Munster delivered in the key areas.
Mostly, they delivered in the top two inches. And this competition is all about inches.
"It's a different competition," agrees O'Gara. "I think that's the key point. There has been some bond between Munster and the European Cup and that just gets stronger every year, deeper. This is our competition that we thrive in and that we love and if you look at the record Munster have consistently produced, that is a fact and it is not up for dispute.
"We are in a semi-final and we're knocking on the door. I don't know if we're good enough to win it, at least we are progressing and that's what pleases me so much.
"Today was good because Paulie was a big loss. He is an inspirational leader and you'd be a small bit worried about how the pack would go. But sport is ruthless. It doesn't wait for anybody and Paul is aware of that. You could see today in fellahs' eyes that the blood was up and they were up for it."
Earlier in the week, the stand-in Munster captain had delivered another of his occasionally amusing verbal grenades, this time pointedly informing Declan Kidney that he could have done better than Jonathan Sexton in the Triple Crown defeat to Scotland, before tossing a barb at the "Dublin media".
His ability to shoot from the lip remains an attractively honest part of his character; more importantly, he knows how to walk the walk.
"He does," concurs Munster coach Tony McGahan, himself vindicated after a superb day of tactical direction. Little wonder his first expressed emotion was one of relief.
"Ronan's been around for a long time and he's been a fabulous player for a long time," he adds. "He's earned his place and he's earned what he's done through performance on the field, and we're delighted that when he comes back he's in tremendous form. I thought today you saw him at his best and I think that's what great players do."
O'Gara laconically deflected the grenade tossed towards the English press last week.
"I didn't have a rant this week," he answers pleadingly. "But if you read the whole article, I think it was very balanced.
"It's easy to pick things out and make a headline story out of it and it was the same this week. I suppose all I ask for is honesty and I don't think that is happening at the moment in certain areas. I think it would be better if the information was accurate and facts, rather than opinions."
It's a fair point, especially when placed in the context of a performance that countered a lot of apocalyptic pronouncements concerning this Munster side. Instead, they are now challenging for a home Magners League play-off spot as well as their trip to the San Sebastian sun. Not bad for a side at the end of the road.
"It's certainly been one of those seasons where we've been up and down in a number of performances," conceded McGahan. "But we've created a wonderful opportunity at this stage and there's still so much to play for in both competitions.
"So we need to make sure that we make the most of it. The ins and outs of players and injuries that we've had this year have really curtailed it, but when we get a good run of training and a consistency of selection we think that we'll be there or thereabouts each weekend. We'd like to be playing like that every week but it's just not possible in such a long season."
Doug Howlett, with two expertly taken tries, and Jean de Villiers were operating at their optimum; the Springbok's influence was immense.
If there was one quibble, the switch of Keith Earls to the wing following Ian Dowling's injury seemed quirky, especially as Lifeimi Mafi had an error-riddled introduction; the mayor of Moyross had demonstrated his class with his hip-swinging shimmy in creating Paul Warwick's dazzling opener to counter Northampton's wedge defence.
"Earlsy is a big player for us at 13," confirmed O'Gara. "He's electric and that challenges the defence and that is something that is a big positive for us. I suppose it was the first time we got some good dry ball and we tried to play a bit of rugby.
"That's what you get with Earlsy at 13 and I think Keith just has an X Factor that a lot of people now appreciate. There were forwards up the wide channels too, which is impressive. But all this happens because of the pack and to do that without Paulie is a good thing."
It will be a boon to both the squad and indeed the missing captain that Munster could complete this task without him; they can now dismiss the shibboleths that they cannot function without him, a theory that besmirches Mick O'Driscoll's fine performances of late.
And hats off to the scrum, source for two tries, now reassured by the reintegration of Paul McCarthy into the fold; it was noticeable how Munster applied pressure on all sides -- and through the middle -- whenever it was required. It was a quite impressive destruction of a renowned opposition eight.
"I thought the scrum showed a great improvement from the two previous encounters with Northampton," agreed McGahan, "so that was a pleasing aspect and we needed to make sure we got at least parity there.
"I thought all the forwards were tremendous, they've been under scrutiny all season, well documented. With Paul gone, the forwards needed to step up to the mark and I thought they did that, and Mick O'Driscoll was again excellent as he has been all season."
Northampton's Jim Mallinder would only concede that the scrum was a "good contest", a measure of how stunned his side were at the second-half transformation of events.
James Coughlan, making his debut, lit the touchpaper to the incendiary affair with a rollicking opening; the unheralded Billy Holland book-ended the piece with three crunching tackles in the final five minutes.
In between times, it was predominantly Cup rugby executed superbly. Quarter-finals require both tries and control -- Munster delivered both.
"This is a new stadium but it keeps all the old values," adds O'Gara. "I think there are a lot of so called old players on the Munster team and we are very grateful of the support we get here.
"I think people will go home happy tonight." Especially knowing that there are many more tomorrows to come.
Munster -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J de Villiers, I Dowling (L Mafi 42); R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer 78); M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes (T Buckley 69); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll (B Holland 77); A Quinlan (N Ronan 62), D Wallace, J Coughlan (N Williams 62).
Northampton -- B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, B Reihana; S Myler (S Geraghty 65), L Dickson; S Tongauhia, D Hartley, E Murray (B Mujati 65); C Lawes, J Kruger; P Dowson (M Easter 72), N Best, R Wilson.
Ref -- N Owens (Wales).