Beaten at their own game
Munster's scrum badly exposed as resilient Osprey's stay in hunt
WHEN Munster imploded against Biarritz in last season's Heineken Cup semi-final, Marcus Horan denied that their scrum was a debilitating issue.
Few of the dubious Munster supporters believed him then; fewer still will assent this morning after this astonishing reversal in this sport's wonderfully primal set-piece.
Statistically, the scrum was the difference between the sides, as two of Dan Biggar's five successful kicks originated from scrum penalties and swung the encounter his side's way on the scoreboard. Physically, it wrought significant damage on the hapless Tony Buckley, who spent much of the afternoon popping up in the front-row as if a phantom menace had rammed a compass into his buttocks, and Wian Du Preez, Horan's expensive successor.
Psychologically, though, the scrum wreckage was perhaps most significant. Trailing 13-10 early in the second half, Munster laid lengthy siege to the Ospreys' line but were thrice denied. Then twice they were repelled at the scrum until, finally, Ospreys cleared downfield, forcing Munster captain Denis Leamy to unnecessarily concede what his coach pointedly attacked as an "unwarranted" penalty.
"It had a big effect on the game," mused Leamy. From 13-10 to 16-10, Ospreys had meted out the treatment that Munster have so traditionally doled out themselves; it may yet be a turning point in their campaign to reach the knock-out stages for a 13th successive time.
"It was a huge momentum swing," confirmed Tony McGahan. "We usually do score those opportunities but we weren't clinical enough. It was great defence from them and then we gave away a penalty that was unwarranted from our point of view.
"They kicked it and suddenly it was 16-10 and we were chasing a try from there if we wanted to come back. I still thought, though, that we had enough possession and field position to come through with enough points at the end."
That they remained in the match demonstrated their attacking vigour once they secured enough ball. Sadly the laws of diminishing returns militated against them, the laws of scrummaging proving a superior force.
"They did get on top there," conceded McGahan. "There's no doubt about that. It's about attitude and I felt they got the hit really early. They were really smart about the way they went about their things and they were certainly in control from the first scrum and right the way through.
"We had a couple of bad days last year too and I'm not going to hide away from that. We certainly made progress in the scrum since then. We don't have the best one around, obviously, but we don't have the worst one either.
"We're still working really, really hard on it because it's such a big part of the game. It's the platform you play off physically, but also mentally. If you're going backwards in scrums or you're not getting any ball to come out, it certainly has an affect on your game. There's not too many teams who can play without a good scrum and we certainly came up short."
Should they do so next time against Toulon, the home of Carl Hayman, one of the world's foremost scrummagers, they will be done for.
And the Ospreys' late panic when camped on the Munster line may also undo their hopes, too. Twice they tapped penalties when the laws allowed time for a completed scrum to complete the match.
It would have been a double shot at denying Munster a bonus point as Lifeimi Mafi was in the sin bin and Ospreys had vast tracts of land to work with either side of the posts had they decided not to test Roman Poite's patience of the faltering Munster scrum.
Head coach Scott Johnson claimed he had no regrets about the last play, preferring to focus on his side's renewed resilience, buttressed by the outstanding Adam Jones who, at 29, is now primed to name his price at any Top 14 club.
"The scrum set the tone," said a "happy but not delighted" Johnson. "But sometimes when you have such set-piece dominance the flow of the game seems to cease a little bit because there's a lot of resets.
"Sometimes you can have a lot of chances from scrum dominance but you don't convert, so I thought Dan Biggar did really well from that end. On top of that, there was a 10-minute period when they had all that play on the line and they demonstrated tremendous resilience there. It was an area of the game that probably let us down last week. We were a little high in contact.
"They displayed great character against a side who, when they're that far out, usually takes some points from you. I was delighted with that part of the game. It's a bigger turnaround than perhaps the scoreboard suggests because they've thrown everything at you and you've resisted and then taken some points from them."
That third quarter crystallised the encounter. Before it, Ospreys had edged a first half in which Munster had stretched to 10-3 by the 23rd minute, a try formed of Sam Tuitupou's barrelling run through the middle, deft hands from Leamy and Tomas O'Leary and Buckley's one good moment.
Mike Phillips' response to missing Tuitupou was to respond within seven minutes himself after Munster failed with another of their kick receipts, another worry for their forwards' brains trust.
We expected Munster to turn the screw in quarter three and they did, but mostly without reward as their forwards wilted, O'Leary failing to navigate when Munster laid lengthy siege. Peter Stringer's arrival offered an immediate injection of pace, sparking the move that led to Dougie Howlett's super chip and Keith Earls' instinctive finish.
Alan Quinlan and the outstanding Mick O'Driscoll stole late line-outs to ease the pressure on their scrum and, had Johne Murphy nabbed Barry Davies instead of escorting him from a corner of his 22, Munster's fate may have been different but the scrum gods had other ideas.
"The dominant scrum was rewarded," Ospreys captain Alan Wyn Jones said. It seemed somehow fitting that one of the sport's enduring dictums should prevail.
For Munster, a repeat of this embarrassing scrummaging effort in Toulon will see their Heineken Cup hopes go south.
OSPREYS -- B Davies (A Bishop, 77); N Walker, T Bowe, J Hook, R Fussell; D Biggar, M Phillips; P James (D Jones, 65), R Hibbard, A Jones; R Jones (I Gough, 65), AW Jones (capt); J Collins, M Holah, J Thomas.
MUNSTER -- P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou (L Mafi, 66), J Murphy; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer, 55); W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley (J Hayes, 53); D O'Callaghan (D Ryan, 70), M O'Driscoll; J Coughlan (A Quinlan, 55), D Wallace, D Leamy
REF -- R Poite (France).