Thursday 14 December 2017

Munster unfazed by scrum pummelling

Paul O'Connell has full faith in BJ Botha despite the problems the prop experienced against Northampton Saints
Paul O'Connell has full faith in BJ Botha despite the problems the prop experienced against Northampton Saints
David Kelly

David Kelly

Munster captain Paul O'Connell reckoned he had never encountered anything like last Saturday's extraordinary occasion in Milton Keynes.

The concession of two penalty tries represented a crushing blow to the Munster front-row's manhood but ultimately it embodied nothing but a pyrrhic victory for the Northampton Saints.

Some Munster supporters may fret that the damage wrought upon their eight by the Saints might fatally undermine their renewed ambition to win a hat-trick of Heinken Cup titles. A familiar source of calm professional opinion counsels against panic.

"I wouldn't be worried at all," said former Ireland prop and scrummaging expert Emmett Byrne. "Northampton are an exception in the way that they scrummage and Munster won't face another side like that in the competition.

"That's not to say they won't have tough tests. But BJ Botha, for example, won't struggle as much against another loose-head as he did on Saturday."

O'Connell and his Munster colleagues will probably have exchanged tales with their Leinster friends last night -- for Saturday was a case of history repeating itself.

Who can forget last season's Heineken Cup final in Cardiff, when Northampton compiled 22 points and a seemingly unassailable half-time lead, all predicated upon their ferocious scrum?

Jonny Sexton's 'Istanbul' invocation was a crucial half-time intervention in the Leinster dressing-room on that occasion. But of equal importance was Ireland scrum guru Greg Feek's video review of the opening half's scrums.

He spotted that Soane Tonga'uiha was countering Mike Ross' dubious binding by driving up and through the Irishman's outsider shoulder, before boring left and splitting the front-rows.

Leinster decided to attack the strength in the second half and, as Northampton withdrew their flankers from the push in order to spy on the opposition backline, the Irish scrum made hay.

By the hour mark, Leinster had scored a try from first-phase and a glorious 10-metre push earned them the penalty that pushed them ahead for the first time in the game.

On Saturday, Munster were able to withstand the pressure after Northampton's second penalty try and, as the Saints' front-row visibly tired, Munster profited in open play, with even Jim Mallinder admitting that having only a scrum wasn't enough to win the game.

"Games go like that sometimes," said O'Connell. "Our line-out wasn't spectacular either but if the attitude is right you can overcome things.

"I have been part of teams before where all the little things about line-outs and scrums don't come off but you just counter-attack well when the ball is kicked to you. You make use of it, you make use of every possession. That's what our backs did and it really worked out well for us."

It hadn't helped Munster's earlier woes that referee Romain Poite always benefits the team moving forward -- whether illegally or not -- and Saints always take advantage by marching and then standing up, as if to embellish their superiority.

O'Connell took issue with this at the very first scrum but Poite ignored him; the Frenchman also refereed last year's final and benefited Northampton to the same degree.

"They are an excellent scrumagging side but I don't think the margin between our scrums was as big as it was today," admitted O'Connell afterwards. "We were able to take their punches and come back and throw a few of our own."

The hefty investment in BJ Botha has paid dividends for Munster this season -- as testified by anyone glancing at Tony Buckley visibly struggling for Sale against Brive in the Amlin Cup last week, despite more refereeing eccentricities emanating from Peter Allan.

Munster won't be complacent; Ulster and prospective semi-final opponents Edinburgh or Toulouse are no scrummaging mugs and coach Tony McGahan conceded that, for all the improvements from last year, the work is never done.

"It is a concern. We were facing an extremely strong scrum on Saturday but we've had some decent hit out this year with regards our scrum. Progress has certainly been made, and that's something we'll continue to go forward with," McGahan commented.

Meanwhile, Ulster captain Johann Muller has declared that his side can "take" Munster's scalp in the April quarter-final clash.

"I don't think they have played particularly well in the pool stages," he said.

"Then again they have not been beaten, but that is Munster. I think we could take them."

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