Sunday 19 November 2017

O'Gara lands the knockout blow in heavyweight tussle

Munster 23 N’hampton 21

Tomás O'Leary, supported by Denis Leamy, Niall Ronan and Lifeime Mafi, runs into some serious Northampton traffic in Thomond Park yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Tomás O'Leary, supported by Denis Leamy, Niall Ronan and Lifeime Mafi, runs into some serious Northampton traffic in Thomond Park yesterday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If the endgame of this contest isn't on You Tube by the time you read this then surely it's on the way. Munster have produced probably more drama than any other side in this wonderful competition, and their long road to victory in front of a near-full house at Thomond Park last night was astonishing.

In semi-opposed training it would not be easy to go through 41 phases of rugby. To do so in the white heat of a Heineken Cup game, knowing that any slip up will bring the final whistle, and defeat, is probably unique. And if it isn't then no one around these parts can remember anything in the same class.

The scene was as follows: Munster were trailing Saints by 21-20 when referee Nigel Owens signalled the last play. Some four minutes later Munster had managed to eke out enough space for Ronan O'Gara to nail the drop goal from fully 40 metres. There is not another outhalf in the world you would have ahead of O'Gara in such circumstance. He controlled much of the phase-building in that sequence, and the value of experience in these circumstances is that you have the patience to wait and wait until the time is right. So he waited, and then delivered with precision that -- like the continuity itself -- would be hard enough to replicate on the training ground.

So Munster will go to Franklin's Gardens in January for the return leg, leading 4-1 on the head to head with Saints, and it will be interesting to see the relevance of all that when the time comes.

On the face of it Saints don't have a recovery job on their hands, for in a terrific game they played most of the rugby and should have had the game sorted in the last quarter when Vas Artemyev chased his own half-grubber into the Munster 22 and saw it sit up far enough for him to knock-on. Had he held it he was home, and seven points at that stage would have put his team more than a score clear.

Instead the gap stayed at just one, allowing Munster leverage in a game that should have been stitched up. The away team had better shape and a much better scrum, which was a valuable source of penalties for them, and for the second time in their three visits here, in as many seasons, they had the winning of the game. That they left it behind them again should wreck their heads.

This time, for much of the game, they were given a leg up by the home team.

A week ago in Lansdowne Road Tony McGahan was bemoaning his team's poor exit strategy from their own half. It looked a precisely ordered evacuation compared to what happened in the first quarter yesterday. Having got the perfect start, with a flawlessly executed maul for Damien Varley to score inside three minutes, they then set about kicking badly to give Saints time and space to create. First Conor Murray got a clearing kick wrong, and Saints countered expertly with a perfect combination between Artemyev and Chris Ashton, finishing with the wing scoring a lovely try in the corner off a Ben Foden pass.

Then Johne Murphy stepped outside his 22 to clear -- having marked the ball inside it -- and from the lineout Munster dropped the Saints' maul at the expense of three points. And then James Coughlan bogged one away to a waiting back three rather than give it to Murphy who was standing beside him. That last one didn't cost points directly but it gave Northampton more ball in more space to indulge themselves.

They did just that, with Ryan Lamb playing well both with his distribution and punting, and mauls aside it was hard to see how Munster could hurt them. Yet they produced 10 points in the last few minutes of the half to haul themselves in front. O'Gara provided the first three, and then Doug Howlett produced a terrific individual score with the last play of the half. It was one of those situations where bad ball becomes good, and he was able to run a wide arc untouched before straightening and leaving two Saints in his wake to score at the posts. It had started 40 metres down the field when Murray did brilliantly to spin out of a tackle and offload to Danny Barnes.

Munster got another great start to the second half but couldn't build on it, and fell behind to a James Downey try which featured an unintentional hand from O'Gara. The last act of the out-half was entirely premeditated however. He had enough time to think that phase after phase wasn't working, but stuck at it until his forwards had given him enough room to do his thing. Munster are off to a winning start. The next stop is in Castres on Saturday, and if it's close coming down the final straight then the locals will fear what happens next.

Munster: J Murphy; D Howlett, D Barnes (W Chambers 68), L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Murray (T O'Leary 62); W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha (J Hayes 72); D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 55), P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, J Coughlan (D Leamy 65), N Ronan.

Northampton Saints: B Foden (G Pisi 73); C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, V Artemyev; R Lamb, L Dickson (M Roberts 67); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller 70), D Hartley (capt), B Mujati (P Doran Jones 73); C Lawes (S Manoa 67), M Sorenson; C Clark (P Dowson 67), R Wilson, T Wood.

Referee: N Owens

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