Peter Bills: Munster lay down a marker
Published 18/01/2010 | 05:00
In the world of the gangsters, they understand this type of message.
You have a big meeting, a major match-up just around the corner. So in the preliminary skirmish, you throw your weight around. The little men take due note; don't mess with these guys.
For Treviso versus Munster, read Italy versus Ireland. This was a classic case of laying the groundwork, setting out the parameters. And with the Italian national coach Nick Mallett sitting in the stand at the Stadio di Rugby Monigo, the message couldn't have been delivered to a more important audience.
What Munster did to Italy's strongest club side on Saturday in the northern Italian sunshine was a brutally efficient softening-up job.
Treviso boasted the scalp of the French champions Perpignan already this season; why, they'd gone within four points of upsetting Northampton.
But any promise those performances might have suggested evaporated like your breath on the icy cold afternoon. The men of Munster had landed all the killer blows within the first 11 minutes, by which stage they'd scored three brilliant tries and were ahead 17-0. As a statement of intent, this was a message dipped not in ink, but blood -- Italian blood.
A blur of Keith Earls' dancing feet, Denis Hurley's thundering footsteps and Doug Howlett's flowing locks left Treviso mortally wounded.
As Treviso's Italian international full-back Luke McLean said later, "You start to wonder, you doubt. All you're thinking about is stopping any more tries, never mind scoring yourselves. And after about 55 minutes, when you've given so much, you're just holding on, waiting for the end."
It was a brutal concession of the reality of this revealing, intriguing afternoon in a provincial town 25 minutes down the railway line from Venice. Foreign location it might have been but it wasn't Munster who looked lost, trying to find themselves in foreign climes.
After that early scoring blitz, Munster then found themselves 30-7 to the good after 34 minutes -- the only serious discussion point thereafter was the efficacy of the job as a whole and the guiding force behind it.
The perfectionist, coach Tony McGahan, picked holes in the display, claiming: "In the second half, it was very slow ball, very dour stuff and we struggled to assert our authority.
"Unfortunately, we fell away after half-time. In the end, you would like a nice, very structured sort of game but that wasn't apparent in the game today."
Sure, they said all the right things. Donncha O'Callaghan followed McGahan into the media room to deliver a similar message. Job still to do, can't get carried away, lads -- some pleasing things but lack of a structure bit disturbing, lots still to work on... you can add your own individual phrases here, as you wish.
The truth? I'd say Munster demonstrated their ruthless professionalism. They started as they meant to continue and went straight for the jugular. Irish forwards coach Gert Smal had taken his place in the stand and explained what he was looking for in succinct terms.
"You want to see some flow, some continuity and signs that the players are in good form as the Six Nations approaches."
Some flow? Munster offered the kind of flow the Adriatic regularly gives Venice. It overflowed with movement, it was awash with intent. The passing was crisply efficient, one beautifully spun pass into midfield by Tomas O'Leary a connoisseur's item. Venice has some marvellous sights but in a sporting context this was as good as it gets.
McGahan couldn't frankly admit his men had done the job inside 11 minutes. But they had. It was certainly finished after half an hour with Paul Warwick's try, his team's fourth for a bonus point.
And thereafter, they eased off, content to soak up Treviso's best efforts, if that isn't the quintessential oxymoron.
Even McGahan had to admit: "I'm delighted to get the result and five points. Others have come here before and struggled."
True, but they lacked Munster's sinuous threat and heart all over the field. As McGahan added: "The first half had some good pace and intent. We tried to play some rugby and there were some good counter-attacking opportunities."
McGahan wrapped David Wallace in cotton wool at the interval, safe in the knowledge that the job was done. Other crucial members of the side, like Ronan O'Gara and Tomas O'Leary, quietly departed early too, like very important persons leaving an average party. They had more important things to focus on, such as the visit of Northampton to Thomond Park on Friday night.
"We are a side with very high standards and that means we want to do very well," said McGahan. "Friday? We will be in an excellent state of mind for that one."
It was a message delivered clearly and concisely, with a smile on his face. And it could have been a line out of 'The Godfather'...
But for all that, it wasn't the perfect performance. Good enough to submerge Treviso, for sure, but still too uneven and erratic. The middle segment of the match became a ugly scrap, an unconvincing period that was laced liberally with errors.
O'Callaghan revealed the reason. "We were a bit rusty. We definitely fell off the pace a bit there and have to improve on that. But overall we're delighted because it keeps everything in our hands. We need a home quarter final and this result means that is still possible."
It's far from clear that Munster need to be at Thomond for their last-eight tie to progress in this tournament. No side will fancy meeting them, either home or away. That old familiar swagger, that deep well of conviction from which they draw was again more than apparent. But they offer more now than when they were last champions.
Earls' electric pace is one reason, Jean de Villiers' growing authority and the continuing hunger of Doug Howlett are other factors. Bolt on the insatiable pride in the hearts of men like Paul O'Connell, Wallace, John Hayes, O'Callaghan and Alan Quinlan and then slot in a half-back pairing of O'Leary and O'Gara and Munster become only more impressive.
Pity poor Italy. They have to meet this lot, strengthened by a few blokes like Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, in a few weeks' time.
Intimidated Italians? You bet.
Munster -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, J De Villiers, D Hurley (I Dowling 65); R O'Gara (L Mafi 64), T O'Leary (P Stringer 60); W Du Preez (J Brugnaut 72) , D Fogarty (D Varley 64), J Hayes (T Buckley 72), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Wallace (J Coughlan h/t).
Treviso -- L McLean, A Vilk, A Sgarbi, G Garcia, B De Jager, M Goosen (T Botes 47), S Picone, M Rizzo (A Allori 54), L Ghiraldini (D Vidal), I-F Rouyet (P Di Santo 54), A Pavanello (E Pavanello 74), C Van Zyl, B Vermaak, A Zanni, D Kingi.
Ref -- C White (England)