Pragmatic Munster take control of pool but Murphy wary of ‘dangerous’ Scarlets rematch
NOT a vintage Munster display but a vintage away-day result that sees Tony McGahan's men firmly in control of Pool 1 with three wins from three ahead of next weekend's return clash in Thomond Park.
After a terrible, error-strewn start when the visitors handed the initiative to the Scarlets, Munster gradually worked their way back into the match and were full value for the victory, cleverly playing the percentages and showing admirable application and discipline in defence. However, the most remarkable aspect to this result was the way Munster won the psychological battle.
The Scarlets ran out in front of a record Parc y Scarlets crowd of 13,183 in confident mood but came nowhere near the form they showed in dismantling Northampton last time -- Munster wrecked their heads.
The visitors, aware of the Scarlets' danger in a high-tempo affair, never allowed the home side to find their rhythm, slowing the ball down at every opportunity, dominating the contact zone and taking their scoring chances.
They also worked extremely well with their former refereeing nemesis Romain Poite, getting in his ear throughout but always with a placatory tone, and it was the Scarlets who came out the wrong side of the Frenchman's whistle.
Ronan O'Gara, winning his 100th Heineken Cup cap, won his duel with Rhys Priestland conclusively. The coming man of Welsh rugby had the upper hand when Wales beat Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final, but this time, it was the old master doling out the lessons. Priestland never looked assured and missed three placed kicks that would ultimately prove the difference -- by the end he had been switched to full-back as Stephen Jones tried to engineer a comeback.
Scarlets coach Nigel Davies, frustrated by his sense of powerlessness as Munster did their thing, cut a dejected figure afterward. "We had that game within our grasp," sighed Davies. "We're frustrated, we could have won if we had been more accurate. This is Test-level intensity -- there is no margin for error and there were too many.
"They pressurise you, that's why they win matches. As well as talent, Munster have a lot of character and spirit, and that's what they showed."
In the build-up to this encounter, Munster's quarter-final win over Stade Francais in 2002 was referenced as a template to follow, and there were definite echoes here of that 16-14 win in Paris when Munster played classic, pragmatic, away-day rugby, with Anthony Horgan striking for the decisive try.
This time around it was Niall Ronan touching down and it was well worth the viewing. Munster may be lacking the pace of their injured trio of Doug Howlett, Felix Jones and Keith Earls but as Horgan suggested during the week, it is all about timing, and Munster's was perfect.
Having coughed up a soft score to Aaron Shingler, after a shocking pass from Will Chambers to Simon Zebo (who had a fine European debut) was hacked on by Liam Williams, Munster were counting their blessings as their mistakes were not sufficiently punished by Priestland, who missed two straightforward kicks before landing a 'gimme' at 8-0.
O'Gara made it 8-3 on 25 minutes and a couple of minutes later, Munster pounced. Fielding a high kick in his own half, O'Gara found Denis Hurley steaming up on his outside and the full-back ran powerfully into Welsh territory before exquisitely off-loading to Johne Murphy out of the back of his hand. Murphy's role was crucial. Rather than cut down space (which happens all too often at this level), the winger executed the perfect 'fix-and-give' allowing Ronan to do his best Howlett impression and cross in the corner.
"Niall's Sevens experience came through there," said Murphy. "He's been playing fantastically well this season and he showed how to finish off a try. Denis had a great carry and then a sweet offload out the back and that really did make it. It was a two-on-one and I was hoping that Sean (Lamont) would hit on me and he did. Niall did the rest."
If that was the icing, the forward display was the sponge. In another echo of 2002, Paul O'Connell had an immense game, with James Coughlan not far behind him and the experienced substitutes, led by Denis Leamy, having a big impact. This time last year, Munster's Heineken Cup campaign was crippled by their scrummaging capitulation away to the Ospreys. That was when finding a tight-head became a priority and BJ Botha was recruited, at no little cost, from Ulster.
On this evidence, the South African is worth every cent as after some inconclusive early engagements, he provided the front foot security that filtered confidence through the team before he was helped off with cramp and the job done.
"We've got a scrum which we didn't have last year with reference to that game (against the Ospreys). It certainly gives you a platform to mount a challenge," said McGahan.
"I thought our front-row was excellent," agreed O'Connell. "They put Scarlets under a lot of pressure, we got a lot of yardage from our scrum and we got points as well which is massive."
Munster were 11-8 ahead at half-time; the remaining scoring was confined to two O'Gara penalties versus one each from Priestland and Jones (after another Priestland miss). Egged on by Jones, Scarlets came hard in the last quarter but Munster held out while crucially not falling foul of Poite.
"The Scarlets put us under a lot of pressure and our defence wasn't just good, we were very disciplined as well," said O'Connell. "It would have been very easy to give away three points and put ourselves under pressure but we'll take a lot of heart from that."
And so to Thomond. Given their injury issues, Munster have done extremely well to dog out three wins in exacting circumstances, and history points to a routine victory in Limerick to continue their progress to the quarter-finals. Therein lies the danger: the Scarlets will arrive with a sense of adventure borne out of desperation ("We can't be negative going to Munster, we have to have a crack at them," said Davies) and are likely to have George North back in tow -- their main strike weapon a late withdrawal on Saturday with a dead leg.
For Munster, Peter O'Mahony, after a typically combative opening 40, was forced off after taking a blow to the jaw, with updates due today, and the key for them now is to retain the same feral intensity that has characterised their first three outings.
"Paulie (O'Connell) spoke after the game and said we have to have a meeting on Tuesday, just the players because next week is a dangerous one," added Murphy. "We have beaten them here and have the security of a home tie but we cannot let that get in our heads next weekend. We have to go out and perform. We are three from three, maybe not the prettiest, but we like to keep our fans entertained in the last couple of minutes."
Munster's performances do not yet suggest a side that will go on to claim the title, but they speak volumes for a squad who knows exactly what it takes to win any given game. One could yet lead to the other.
SCARLETS -- D Newton (S Jones 57); L Williams (V Iongi 76), S Williams, J Davies, S Lamont; R Priestland, G Davies (T Knoyle); I Thomas (K Owens 62) M Rees (P John 62), R Thomas (D Manu 75); S Timani (K Murphy 62), D Welch; A Shingler (J Edwards 45), R McCusker, B Morgan.
MUNSTER -- D Hurley; J Murphy, W Chambers (D Barnes 55), L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray (T O'Leary 60); W du Preez (M Horan 75), D Varley, BJ Botha (J Hayes 76); D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 55), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (D Leamy 40), N Ronan, J Coughlan.
REF -- R Poite (France)