Friday 24 November 2017

Centurion O'Gara leads the way

Munster get over the line once more, but remain a team in transition, says Brendan Fanning

Munster's Ronan O'Gara kicks a penalty during yesterday's 17-14 Heineken Cup win over Scarlets in Parc Y Scarlets. It was O'Gara's 100th game in the competition. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Munster's Ronan O'Gara kicks a penalty during yesterday's 17-14 Heineken Cup win over Scarlets in Parc Y Scarlets. It was O'Gara's 100th game in the competition. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Having played more get out jail cards than are normally issued in the pool stages of the Heineken cup, Munster went to West Wales looking for the sort of performance that would not just give them control of Pool 1, but provide them with a confidence boost about their game in general.

Last week scrumhalf Conor Murray was asked if it had been a good thing that they lost against a half-strength but feisty Ospreys side -- the question wasn't phrased quite like that -- on the basis that they got it out of their system. Offered the chance to ascribe the setback to a sort of bug that had to be flushed out, so better they do it in the Pro 12 than the Heineken, Murray gratefully toed the line and agreed. It was another get out of jail card, if you like. It's unlikely that the scrumhalf felt a week ago that his team had been cleansed by the experience.

So this was about re-establishing themselves. The game in Swansea a week ago had been madcap and without structure, and the looser it became the more uncomfortable Munster looked. And what did we get in Llanelli? Another version of the same movie, albeit with a whole lot more entertainment. And the Munster fans got some reassurance about their set-piece, which was top of their wish-list.

The best illustration of it was in the 75th minute, after Scarlets had racked up 17 phases in and around the Munster 22. First, the home team seemed unsure about what they were after in this sequence. Second, it was fitting that it came to an end via replacement Stephen Jones.

There was a time when Jones and Ronan O'Gara were unfriendly rivals. Nowadays they are good pals, and certainly no longer rivals for while Jones has got older and less effective -- to the point where you'd almost want him to stop altogether -- O'Gara's value continues to increase.

He was stepping into record territory yesterday with his 100th appearance. First he saw off Rhys Priestland from the goal-kicking battle, and then he saw Jones dither when he needed to take control.

Thirdly, that dithering led to the scrum that would decide the game. Already Munster were 100 per cent on their eight lineouts -- a huge statistic for them -- but the quality of the set-scrum that saw off Scarlets was outstanding. And it was capped with a penalty, which O'Gara knocked into touch, allowing Munster to control virtually all of the remaining four and half minutes.

It was a great way for them to finish, but when Tony McGahan reruns the video he will be looking for heads in the opening 10 minutes, at the end of which they were eight points down. For most, that period will be lost in the quality of the recovery, and the fact that they are three from three having entered the competition with more modest expectations, but the coach knows they are still a long way off where they need to be to challenge for the title.

Look at what Toulouse brought to the table against Harlequins on Friday night for a measure of what is required there. It is too much to expect a team in transition -- and that's what Munster are -- to make that journey without losing quality, but it's natural to demand very high standards.

This win restored some of them, and provided a leg up to clear the pool stage. It remains to be seen how far they can take it from there.

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