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Creaking set-piece will worry McGahan

I t would have been unnatural if, during the third quarter in Thomond Park on Friday night, you didn't entertain the thought of Northampton going where their midland rivals Leicester went three years ago, and beat Munster at home.

But there is a reason why one half of that English combination has collected silverware like a combine harvester hoovers up grain, and the other watches from the next field. The Tigers are mentally tough. The Saints are only learning the craft.

Imagine then if the opposition was from Welford Road instead of Franklin's Gardens when Paul O'Connell was getting his marching orders, five metres from his own line. The animated response from Ronan O'Gara gave you an idea of the alarm in the Munster team at what might happen next. And the look of delight on Dylan Hartley's face told you the other side of the story. By that point in the contest, Saints had already taken one ball against the head. That had led to O'Connell complaining to referee Romain Poite about the scrummaging of Saints tighthead Euan Murray, who was causing havoc.

So with an ever-improving set-piece the Saints were ready to go to work against a pack that had just lost a man (well, Doug Howlett filled in on the flank). And then they blew it. Through the first three scrums they couldn't make it pay, and on the fourth they lost control to the extent that the ball ended up in Munster's back row. Yes, these things happen, but not to teams that are versed in doing damage to wounded opponents.

It got worse for them. Never mind the shanked penalties from Bruce Reihana and Shane Geraghty, or the outhalf's restart on the full, there were two other examples of how far Saints are off the pace at this stage of the competition. First Chris Ashton, and then Bruce Reihana, a former All Black who has played nearly 200 games for the club, kicked the ball away within 30 metres of the Munster line, when a team who believed more in what they were doing would have kept it in hand.

They also, with O'Connell off the field, took ball off the top of the lineout when the last thing Munster wanted was to be forced into defending a maul. All of this will have convinced Tony McGahan that his team would hang on.

Saints came to Thomond Park with a running outhalf and an inside centre who specialises in taking the ball up. Then Geraghty kicked the ball to death and James Downey was asked to chase wayward kicks. Downey would have been as well off at home.

And Munster's response to all this? It was one of their uglier performances, rendered unattractive mostly by their problems at the set scrum and out of touch where the quality of their possession was poor.

"Yeah, we're obviously disappointed with aspects of the game but you don't always get those perfect games, where everything goes right just because it's Thomond Park," man of the match Alan Quinlan said. "That was mentioned beforehand -- that it was going to be a game where we'd have to roll our sleeves up. A few occasions we did good things but credit to them . . .

"When we look back to round one and the position we were in after losing to Northampton, it's probably a week or two after losing to Leinster at the RDS so we were on a poor run. Credit to everyone in our group and the coaches that we now top our group and have a home quarter-final. We're not going to get carried away. It's a goal achieved."

Yes, uniquely, the 12th of those goals in a row. When they review the video, however, McGahan and Laurie Fisher will fret over the set-piece, and despite Wian du Preez having his hands full with Euan Murray, the South African, who goes home today, will be missed. When Marcus Horan replaced him on Friday, he had an even worse experience.

After the game it was notable that Paul O'Connell complained about the lack of communication accompanying the referee's decisions. In a nutshell, he didn't much fancy being talked at. You suspect there were two elements to this: O'Connell wouldn't be human if his success as a Lions captain -- he didn't lead them to a series win but he made a success of the job in extremely different circumstances -- didn't imbue him with an extra sense of stature when it comes to trying to influence referees; and Mr Poite's English was no more than passable.

Well perhaps three elements: the third was that the referee felt he had to impose himself with O'Connell. Unfortunately, this extended to giving him another little lecture when the Munster captain came back on the field. When you've served your time in the bin the issue has been dealt with and there is no need to re-open it.

You imagine O'Connell would be happier if he had less cause to engage with referees in the first place, but such were the problems Munster were having in getting any rhythm against Saints that it turned into a mini-series.

Munster have only four games before they play their home quarter-final, and it's likely to be the fourth of those -- against Leinster in Limerick -- when the front-liners are all back in red. It doesn't seem like enough game time to get the wrong things right, but that's hardly a new experience for them. It's a level of experience the Saints would sin for.

Sunday Independent