Monday 20 November 2017

McGahan’s marvels signal intent with shock-and-awe slaughter of mighty Toulon

Munster 45
Toulon 18

Munster's Johne Murphy dives over the line despite the efforts of Felipe Contepomi only for the 'try' to be disallowed ater a ruling by the video referee. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Munster's Johne Murphy dives over the line despite the efforts of Felipe Contepomi only for the 'try' to be disallowed ater a ruling by the video referee. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

H Farrelly

ANOTHER riotous entry on Munster's 'Hooked on Classics' album, this thumping victory over Top 14 heavyweights Toulon had all the characteristics of the province's best European days over the last 10 years.

A 'win or bust' prerogative against highly rated opponents. A cacophony of noise from a Thomond Park full house determined to play their part in proceedings.

Refereeing injustice, as Wayne Barnes and his team ignored a preposterous pass that allowed Toulon open the try-scoring while Munster waited for the whistle to sound.

A pantomime villain in Felipe Contepomi, whose slow second-half trudge to the sin-bin elicited the loudest roars of the day.

Peter Stringer firing the ball out with dizzying speed and accuracy and executing a trademark ankle tap when Toulon broke free. Ronan O'Gara kicking the ball over from all angles and exuding the control that saw him honoured as this competition's most effective operator last season.

And, an overall intensity from the men in red jerseys that totally swamped the opposition, sounding out a war cry that will be heard all over Europe.

Toulon's collection of highly paid overseas stars could not match the pride and ferocity of men driven by the responsibility that goes with representing your home province, while Munster's non-native quartet of Doug Howlett, Paul Warwick, Wian du Preez and Johne Murphy oozed commitment to the cause.

Philippe Saint-Andre knew the score from his torrid experiences here with Sale, and the Toulon supremo was wryly reflective in his analysis.

"It is our first time in the Heineken Cup," said the Toulon coach.

"The Celtic (Magners) League is not as important to Munster as the Heineken Cup but next week we play Stade Francais in front of 80,000 people and then we are away to Toulouse and Perpignan so, at the moment, the Top 14 is more important for us."

That did not reflect the impetus that Toulon brought to the first half and it was only when Munster began to batter them into submission at the start of the second that the visitors' body language began to scream "taxi for the airport".

The pre-match tension among Munster supporters was justified by a Toulon team-sheet that oozed power and quality.

None more so than their magnificent South African captain Joe van Niekerk, who showed a touch of class in every involvement, facing down the Munster waves with resolute stoicism while constantly trying to haul his side back into the contest.

"The experience of playing in the Heineken Cup for the first time against Munster was amazing, the scoreboard wasn't so amazing," said the No 8.

"Physically, Munster were really up to the challenge and you can see that they are a well-drilled side, with a lot of experience.

"We were playing probably the best side in Europe, the level of intensity was a lot more than in France."

Munster coach Tony McGahan, having done commendable work in the off-season in terms of astute player and coaching acquisitions, deserves enormous credit for fashioning a situation where Munster are top of the Magners League and of a venomous Heineken Cup pool, particularly when you consider the almost weekly setbacks he has had to deal with through both injuries and suspensions.

The selection calls paid off handsomely. Warwick sparkled in attack on his return to the No 15 jersey, Murphy continued his superb form in his fourth position of the season, while Alan Quinlan and David Wallace were to the fore in an all-consuming forward performance.

And then there was Mick O'Driscoll.

An unsung bulwark of the Munster cause over the years, it is not hard to think back to a teenage O'Driscoll catching the eye in an inter-provincial against Ulster in front of maybe 800 Musgrave Park supporters in 1998.

Twelve years on, the Corkman produced one of his finest displays in red.

He was brought in to do a job on a line-out that had creaked in the face of superb London Irish pressure the week before and O'Driscoll masterminded a slick operation that gave Munster the perfect platform to do damage.

The calls and variations were spot-on -- typified by one simple ball to Donncha O'Callaghan in the Munster 22 before Toulon even had time to form up properly -- and it allowed Damien Varley to get back to the form that has him in the mix for a meaningful role in Ireland's November Internationals.


O'Driscoll also put himself about in defence and has obviously worked on improving his ball-carrying because where before there was a risk of turnovers, the second-row now protects the ball perfectly and runs at angles that increase the chances of ground gain.

If O'Driscoll was the star-turn, Stringer was not far behind. His break and inside pop to Denis Leamy were perfectly executed, in keeping with his passing.

As he was in Reading, O'Gara is right on top of his game and when the Munster forwards are in this form, there is no better man to make it count -- his cross-field kick for Howlett's second try was a thing of precise beauty.

Tony Buckley's performance in tight and loose copper-fastened the impression that he is ready to announce himself as an international force at tight-head prop while the bench acquitted themselves well also, notably James Coughlan (unlucky to lose out after London Irish) whose verve and dynamism was rewarded when he pounced for Munster's final touchdown.

Six tries and 45 points make a compelling statement, with Toulon never really threatening to cause a Thomond Park upset -- although Jonny Wilkinson reignited them briefly courtesy of a stupendous drop goal. The downsides were the Jerry Flannery and Warwick injuries and, given what they have had to endure this season, Munster deserve some good news on that pair this week.

They have the opportunity to regroup now in the Magners League and during the November International hiatus and McGahan can explore the depth of his squad even further.

By the time December and the Ospreys back-to-backs roll around, hopefully McGahan will have something close to a full deck to choose from.

For now, the Australian can reflect on an excellent start to the season, four wins on the bounce, decent if losing showings against Leinster and London Irish, and a European win that ranks right up there with the province's finest. "It was a pretty solid performance, I thought," said McGahan afterwards.

And then some.

MUNSTER -- P Warwick (S Deasy 66); D Howlett, K Earls, J Murphy, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer (D Williams 74); W du Preez (M Horan 62), D Varley (J Flannery 55, Varley 78), T Buckley (J Hayes 68); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll (D Ryan 70); A Quinlan (J Coughlan 55), D Wallace, D Leamy (capt).

TOULON -- C Marienval; P Sackey (G Lovobalovu 35), M Kefu (J Wilkinson 46), F Auelua (O Missoup 56), R Wulf; F Contepomi, P Mignoni (L Magnaval ht); L Emmanuelli (S Taumoepeau 52), JP Genevois (M Ivaldi 52), C Hayman (D Kubriashvili 72); J Suta, K Chesney; G Smith, J El Abd, J van Niekerk (capt). Yellow cards: Smith 7, Contepomi 57.

REF -- W Barnes (England).

Irish Independent

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