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Some salvation at last

Strange days, indeed. The nation on the verge of ruin, grand old institutions crumbling to pieces before our eyes. Banks of empty seats for a Heineken Cup game at Thomond Park, a Munster team with only the tasteless carrot of a Challenge Cup spot to fight for.

In truth they were playing for something much more fundamental: pride. They had the wounds of Toulon to salve. The chance to feel good about themselves once more. For all the changes Munster made from last week, the emphasis remained on their long-serving veterans and it was easy to see Tony McGahan's thinking.

Proud old warriors still seething after their setback in France, desperate to get back on the bike as quickly as they could.

Prove a point to themselves as well as others. In the end, they won by double scores, but the questions lingered. Their path to victory was strewn with unsightly debris. It was astonishing that they achieved such a margin of victory and with a bonus point to boot. At half-time, when the game was scoreless, that outcome didn't seem very likely.

Indeed, for a time London Irish looked the likelier winners, though the lead they snatched midway through the second-half lasted a mere four minutes. They could be happy with their afternoon's work, though. The 14-point gap cruelly mocked them.

If you wanted a handle on how poor Munster were in the opening half, try this. When Fran Rautenbach, the London Irish tight-head prop, was sin-binned after 15 minutes for stamping needlessly on David Wallace, it sent a ripple of expectation around the crowd. Surely the home team would crank up a gear now and seize the initiative that, if anything, had been with the away team. Ten minutes with a man down at Thomond Park is never for the faint-hearted.

Yet the fruit of Munster's endeavours during that spell was wastefully thin. It wasn't that they failed to make their superior numbers count, but how strangely difficult they found it to make inroads into London Irish territory.

In that time London Irish managed two shots at goal, a penalty from Dan Bowden that fell dismally short and a drop-goal the outhalf would have fancied himself to make. At least they created opportunities, though. More than you could say for Munster. It was hard to remember a time when they have looked so subdued before their own.

The usual problems were there. Damien Varley had a day to forget with his line-out throwing. The scrum was mashed on too many occasions.

And the sloppiness that undermined so much during the tournament was there in spades: a knock-on from Wallace at a critical moment, a horribly sliced kick from Ronan O'Gara when trying to make precious forward ground. They made brutally hard work of raising anything more than a gallop.

As the half wore on Munster were awarded a penalty on the Irish 10-metre line. You figured they would be grateful for three points. But O'Gara and Denis Leamy had a look and, in typically daring fashion, decided they would go to the corner instead.

The throw came their way but the ball was spilled with the line beckoning and the danger cleared. Almost instantly the scenario repeated itself. O'Gara went for the corner again.

The crowd loved it, but Munster's desperation was evident. They harried and hustled for several minutes, certain Varley had scored on one occasion only for the TMO to rule the touch-down inconclusive.

Then as the clock entered the red zone, they worked an overlap on the right and Keith Earls went over in the corner. The crowd gasped in disbelief until they realised the final pass from Doug Howlett had been ruled forward. Nil-nil was the sorry outcome.

The second-half brought what we'd no right to expect: a contest. Varley finally broke the deadlock six minutes in, but Munster's lead lasted just 12 minutes before Seilala Magapusa charged down Tomás O'Leary's attempted clearance to level the scores.

Magapusa then fashioned the move of the match, finished sumptuously by Sailosi Tagicakibau, and the Exiles had their noses in front with 24 minutes remaining.

Their confidence looked sky high at that point, but they were undone when Jamie Gibson shipped a yellow card and, this time, Munster were in no mood to let their advantage slip.

Finally, they pushed up a gear and levelled the scores with a Neil Ronan try. They swept to victory with scores from Earls and Darragh Hurley and Thomond Park roared its approval, some small measure of salvation achieved from the wreckage of six days' before.

Scorers -- Munster: R O'Gara 4 cons; D Varley, N Ronan, K Earls, Darragh Hurley try each. London Irish: S Magapusa, S Tagickabau try each, D Bowden, R Lamb, con each.

Munster: J Murphy (S Deasy 61); D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, Denis Hurley; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer 66); W du Preez (Darragh Hurley 70), D Varley (M Sherry 70, J Hayes (T Buckley h-t); M O'Driscoll (D O'Callaghan 61), P O'Connell; D Wallace (J Coughlan 68), N Ronan, D Leamy.

London Irish: T Ojo; A Thompstone, E Seviali'I, S Magapusa, S Tagicakibau; D Bowden (R Lamb 61), D Allison (P Hodgson 74); A Corbisiero (D Murphy 74), J Buckland, F Rautenbach; N Kennedy (K Roche 78), M Garvey; G Stowers (R Thorpe 56), J Gibson, C Hala'ufia.

Referee: P Allen (Scotland)

Sunday Indo Sport