Saturday 16 December 2017

O'Gara delivers sweet deja vu for Munster

Castres 24 Munster 27

Munster's Ronan O'Gara watches his last minute winning drop-goal. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Munster's Ronan O'Gara watches his last minute winning drop-goal. Photo: Diarmuid Greene


How do you follow an epic? When you produce a lung-bursting, 41-phase winning move and deliver the White Album of heroic victories, what then can you do to follow it up?

Well the truth is you simply can't. But when Munster are in town you can still come pretty close. They can't enjoy these repeated close calls, surely, but they keep on delivering regardless.

The clock was winding down in Toulouse, just as it was in Limerick last week, the sides locked at 24-all, and Munster had possession on the half-way line. Instinctively, your eye was drawn towards Ronan O'Gara and, sure enough, the out-half was already taking a position that told his forwards what needed to be done. And with a handy breeze at their backs, they wouldn't need 41 phases to make the chance count.

Just a couple of phases, maybe four at most, before Tomas O'Leary fed O'Gara standing on the 10-metre line and O'Gara lined his kick up like a golfer on a wind-strewn links. "It was just a case of letting the wind do the work," he said casually afterwards. "I just picked a spot inside the right-hand post, trusted my technique and let the wind do the work."

For Castres it represented the cruellest of hammer blows. The commercial decision to switch the game to the home of their fiercest rivals had, apparently, dismayed their hardcore supporters and, although we assumed that would play into Munster's hands, it seemed, if anything, to copperfasten the French side's resolve for victory. They led for 66 minutes and seemed set for at least a point until O'Gara's late intervention. No wonder the Castres players slumped to the turf in shock at the final whistle.

To a degree they were authors of their own downfall. Munster were vulnerable yesterday. O'Gara and Paul O'Connell admitted as much afterwards. "We're in transition," the Munster skipper said. "A lot of guys were making their first or second Heineken Cup start. There were a lot of good things and a lot of bad things to work on. We're delighted but it was a bit too close for comfort."

O'Gara saw progress in his conviction that, a year ago, Munster might have crumbled in the same circumstances. With 11 minutes gone they trailed by as many points and had yet to get out of the blocks. In omitting several established stars, Castres were said not to have a place-kicker, but Pierre Bernard struck two huge penalties from the half-way line and used the wind to pin Munster deep inside their own half on several occasions, and the fallacy of that assumption was exposed.

Castres' first try came in the 12th minute when they attacked through the middle and when the ball reached Brice Mach on the right the hooker had a player available outside but chose to dummy Johne Murphy and touch down for the try. Fortunately for Munster, Bernard's well-struck conversion rattled back off the post. That, at least, had the effect of stinging Munster into action and, led by O'Connell, they started to win the forwards battle.

It was the forwards who created their opening try after 22 minutes. Wian du Preez smashed his way inside the Castres' 22 and further ground was made by John Ryan before Doug Howlett was released for the try in the right corner. That replay will make better viewing for Howlett than Castres' second try 13 minutes later when, after winning scrappy ball, Pierre-Gilles Lakafia was released on the left and skipped around the Kiwi's attempted tackle to restore the 11-point gap.

Still you never sensed it had reached crisis time for Munster. Not given their history. They made hard work of claiming three points near the death of the opening half, but displayed growing confidence shortly after the restart when a well-worked move between Conor Murray, O'Connell and Niall Ronan ended with Peter O'Mahony slicing through the defence to score. O'Gara converted and the gap was the bare minimum.

At that stage it was impossible to call. You sensed Munster might wear Castres down, but there wasn't enough fluency in their game to assert it with conviction. They went ahead when O'Gara capitalised on a split-second of hesitancy from Remi Tales, blocking down an attempted clearance which Denis Leamy tipped down to Will Chambers to score.

Bernard kicked Castres level shortly afterwards and the game had 10 minutes to find a definitive resolution.

And O'Gara, as is his wont, delivered it. He'd missed a simple drop-goal attempt in the first-half when the game wasn't yet on the line. But this time it was different. And it almost seemed like routine business. "It's just the way he wants it to be," said O'Connell admiringly. "He's like that. A special character. If there's no pressure on you mightn't fancy him to make it. But when there's pressure you don't expect him to miss."

He didn't, of course. For the second week in a row and Munster, and their travelling army of supporters, march on.

Castres: F Denos (R Tales 63); M Evans, P Bonnefond, P Garcia, M Andreu (P Lakafia 4); P Bernard, T Lacrampe (R Teulet 69); A Peikrishvili (M Coetzee 56), B Mach, K Wihongi; S Murray (M Rolland 73), I Tekori; J Bornman, Y Caballero ( R Capo Ortega 60), C Masoe.

Munster: J Murphy; D Howlett, D Barnes (W Chambers 43), L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Murray (T O'Leary 55); W du Preez, D Varley B Botha (D Fogarty 69); J Ryan (D O'Callaghan 49), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony, N Ronan, J Coughlan (D Leamy 65).

Referee: W Barnes (England)

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