Saturday 18 November 2017

Northampton found out by streetwise Munster

Ronan O'Gara pins Northampton back on their heels. Photo: Getty Images
Ronan O'Gara pins Northampton back on their heels. Photo: Getty Images

Mick Cleary at Thomond Park

First football, now rugby. Europe's semi-final shindigs will go ahead without England's finest.

The Saints gave it what they had at Thomond Park but even though they led at half-time there was always a sense they lacked that touch of class, that edge of ferocity, that streetwise savvy born of years of experience. Ronan O’Gara, Alan Quinlan, Keith Earls – Munster had men of substance in key parts of the field. It will take Northampton at least a couple of years to get to this level.

Or might they never get there? That the side will grow is beyond doubt. They are a well run, splendidly backed outfit. But Saints’ director of rugby, the impressive Jim Mallinder, has grave concerns about the ability of English clubs to compete with the best that France and Ireland (and perhaps Wales) have to offer. Two French sides, two Irish in the Heineken Cup semi-finals – is this a portent of things to come?

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for English clubs,” said Mallinder. “Europe is the priority for Irish provinces. They can really go for it. Our focus is the league. That’s where we go full-on. It can be hard to get the players up. French clubs have real economic muscle with close to double our budget. We’re handicapped really. Yes, this is sad for the English game. And it is significant that there are no English semi-finalists.”

Mallinder revealed that he would have to cut an already stretched squad from 34 players to 31 for next season due to rising wage demands and the restriction of the £4m salary cap. “If you want to keep the best players you’ve got to pay the going rate,” he said.

The flip side to such a gloomy prognosis is that Northampton will flesh out their squad with academy players, thereby giving young English talent its head.

Mallinder was not trying to deflect from Munster’s glory. There was no question that his side had come up short. Northampton were defensively frail, two second-half tries, by Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett, coming from first-phase scrums. Bruce Reihana will not be happy, either, with his defence for the first of Howlett’s tries.

But Mallinder was right when identifying the enduring passion that underpins Munster campaigns in Europe.

“There’s a bond between Munster and the Heineken Cup,” said O’Gara, captain in the absence of injured lock Paul O’Connell. “There’s something about Europe that excites us. It’s been the competition that has highlighted rugby in this country. Hence the desire goes deeper. We have a cup mentality. It brings out the best in us. After that semi-final loss to Leinster last year, I had to know whether it [the desire] was still in this team. After today, I know.”

So do we all. There were many snapshot moments to illustrate such an elemental force. Northampton demolished Munster in the very first scrum. An afternoon of torment was in the offing, a game-shaping development to boot. Yet Munster not only recovered, they even dominated the scrum at times.

Small wonder, then, that O’Gara was able to show that his game management is without equal. Three times he screwed 50-metre kicks with one bounce into touch. “A masterclass,” purred Mallinder.

Munster outscored their opponents by four tries to one, full-back Paul Warwick setting an early tone with a well-crafted effort. True, Northampton did head into the interval with a 16-13 lead courtesy of a slickly-worked try by Jon Clarke on the stroke of half-time but any hopes of an upset were soon dashed, de Villiers and Howlett confirming Munster’s superiority with second-half tries.

Northampton’s captain, hooker Dylan Hartley, was spoken to by referee Nigel Owens after a skirmish with his opposite number, Jerry Flannery. The Saints must hope that there will be no citing implications as they look to continue their push for Premiership honours.

England’s focus is now domestic while Irish eyes are fixed on European horizons.

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