Earls helps set the stage for winner takes all showdown
Treviso 7 Munster 44
AS Munster strolled their way in the northern Italian sunshine yesterday it was strange to remember a moment back in mid-October when their future in Europe this season seemed in peril.
Treviso had swept in to the near-impregnable fortress that is Thomond Park and, in a brazen show of ill-respect towards their hosts, had marched into an early 10-0 lead. This after Munster had lost their opening fixture against Northampton. Was the great Irish dynasty in terminal decline?
They recovered that afternoon to kick-start their campaign and yesterday they retained the whip hand in Pool One with a merciless slaughter of a team that bared a miserly fraction of the menace and intensity it had brought to Limerick.
Now it most likely boils down to Northampton on Friday and, although Munster are already close to a quarter-final place with 20 points, Tony McGahan's team won't want to think like that. They'll imagine everything on the line. Winner takes all. Just how they have always liked it.
How this bloodless romp against shockingly meek opponents sets them up for their final pool game is hard to predict. Afterwards, Donncha O'Callaghan spoke of the "huge test of personal character" that Munster had overcome, but in the face of such toothless opposition, that seemed to be over-egging it a bit. By the 15th minute Munster had already obliterated the bookmakers' handicap. By the 72nd McGahan had emptied his bench. They simply had to play within themselves. Little more than that.
And, naturally, you wondered where the game had been decided: Munster quality or Treviso ineptitude? Given that eight of the Munster team hadn't played any kind of game for four weeks and the Siberian winter that had disrupted their preparation, they could not have seemed more vulnerable to an early onslaught. They faced a side who had put Perpignan to the sword here in October, that had put it up to Munster at Thomond and to Northampton both at home and away.
And we imagined a team that, although long out of contention, would play fiercely for their pride and to sustain the argument for the place they covet in the Magners League. In the end, Treviso would do the one thing we least suspected. They failed to show up.
"It's hard to say," McGahan said of the effect of Munster's disrupted preparation. "We'll know a lot more next week. We'll put this 80 to bed, wake up and see how we feel tomorrow. There are pros and cons. Whether you win or lose, you can twist it any way you want. The players are refreshed and we got the result we were looking for."
Before the game, Munster had hinted at a cautious, four-point winning strategy, but that's not how it transpired. Paul Warwick, growing in stature as each season passes, set the tone after 40 seconds when he took a pass from Denis Hurley inside his own 22 and attempted an audacious break upfield. It led to a missed penalty attempt from Treviso and, for a time, you wondered at the wisdom of such adventure. Only for a time though.
Munster were so daring from the off that you suspected a free-flowing game plan had always been their aim. Gaps appeared with surprising frequency and, ruthlessly, they went for them. On a couple of occasions, Treviso's pack put the Munster eight under fierce, sustained pressure but the Italians are a formidable unit up front and Munster's only concession came from a Tomas O'Leary pass that was intercepted.
If there was rustiness, it never showed. "You can do all the training you want," enthused O'Callaghan, "but nothing replaces match fitness." For sure, they could have done with a sterner test, but still it was enjoyable watching their pacey backs run all over their hapless opponents. Keith Earls made a sumptuous break to create the opening try for Hurley. Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett surged through to make the second for Earls. And so it went.
Their third try verged on the ridiculous. Deep in his own 22 Howlett fired what seemed a reckless pass to Warwick but the full-back was unphased, dashing through another gap to the halfway line from where David Wallace freed O'Callaghan to touch down under the posts. You could carp at the ease of their passage but you still know that when the going gets tough again, Munster will front up.
And the dust had barely settled when they were loading the guns for Friday night, assuming Northampton see off Perpignan in France this afternoon. "We came here looking for a win," said O'Callaghan. "To get five points was great.
"You see the amount of people who came here to watch us and how much it cost them for the trip. That's why we need to give them a home quarter-final. We need a call for people to come to Thomond Park. Everybody has to turn up. The supporters, the team, everybody."
You have little doubt they will.
Scorers -- Munster: Earls 2 tries, Hurley, O'Callaghan, Ryan try each, O'Gara 3 cons, 2 pens, Warwick try, con. Treviso: Rizzo try, Goosen con
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 (D Ryan 60), 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
Referee: C White (England)