Monday 11 December 2017

Defeat leaves Munster with no room for error

Ospreys 19 Munster 15

JOHN O'BRIEN

TWO heavyweight teams smacking with a sense of injustice at how Round One unfolded at Thomond six days' previously. Munster, smarting over the dismissal and subsequent banning of their talisman, Paul O'Connell, dredging up reserves of bitterness as only they can.

The Ospreys crying blue murder over the legitimacy of Munster's scrummaging. In the crisp, piercing air of the Liberty Stadium yesterday, one elemental force had to give.

The suspicion was that, in ratcheting up the heat to such a degree, the Welsh side had opted to play a game at which Munster are past masters. Yet they had a five-year unbeaten record at the Liberty from which to draw strength and most of the answers to the fire Munster breathed at them. However, the manner in which Munster clung to a losing bonus point in a hectic finale will have left a bitter taste in their mouths.

The Ospreys, of course, had the greater imperative. That went without saying. Defeat entailed a grave setback for Munster, but a grizzly end for the Ospreys.

So it seemed odd that from the off, when they needed most to make a statement, they were jittery and ineffective. Ronan O'Gara had Munster in front early on and they settled into the kind of rhythm you expect from a side for which this competition has long ceased to hold any terrors.

With a quarter of the game gone, they fashioned a move that lifted the match out of the ordinary. The power of Sam Tuitupou breaking the Ospreys line made it possible. But it was the pick-ups from Denis Leamy initially and Tomas O'Leary -- we'd have purred if they were All Blacks -- that graced it. Tony Buckley held the ball long enough to finish it under the posts and Munster, for a time anyway, had stolen a march.

It was as well for Buckley that he made a telling contribution because, in the scrum, he was being crucified by Paul James. Munster were all at sea in the set-pieces.

Early on, when they had a penalty near the Ospreys line, Denis Leamy made the foolhardy call of sacrificing the three points for a scrum and it backfired badly, the play breaking up with an Ospreys penalty and a series of mini-scuffles and finger-wagging between Leamy and Alun Wyn Jones.

For all the edginess, however, the game never threatened to turn nasty or mean-spirited. And given the solidity of their set-pieces, it was no surprise that the Ospreys dominated possession, but the ferocity and scale of Munster's tackling was astonishing.

Yet with such a solid platform behind them, you could sense the Ospreys gaining in swagger. Three minutes after Buckley's intervention, they had replied in kind with a try by scrum-half Mike Phillips and, by the interval, Dan Biggar had kicked them into a merited three-point lead.

The game had the strange quality of seeming open and stomach-churningly tense at the same time. For a time, you had the feeling that it was setting up perfectly for Munster. They spent what seemed like an eternity camped on the Ospreys line at the beginning of the second half, looking for the lead that they could defend with all their guile and know-how.

Yet twice they hovered over the Ospreys line and came away with nothing. The question now was whether they had anything left to give.

With the stakes so high individual errors began to be magnified. Leamy stupidly left a hand in a ruck and gave Biggar the chance to kick Ospreys six points clear and thoughts of denying Munster a vital bonus point started to foment in their minds. But an individual piece of Munster brilliance denounced that thought. A chip through from Doug Howlett, a chase and grab from Keith Earls. Just a point between them now.

Yet that try encapsulated, too, why Munster fell short of the victory line. They were capable yesterday of producing sporadic moments of brilliance but not the sustained periods of dominance their pack once guaranteed them and, without that force in front of him, O'Gara can't be the player he likes to be on the big days. The bare truth yesterday was that they were vulnerable, and fortunate to escape with the lifeline of a losing bonus point.

The Ospreys tried valiantly to deny them. A long punt towards the end put Munster in all kinds of trouble on their own line and a combination of Earls and Paul Warwick couldn't clear the danger. An Ospreys scrum, another Herculean effort from Adam Jones, increased the pressure on Munster. Lifeimi Mafi saw yellow and the Welsh side swooped menacingly towards the Munster try line.

And so it ended in a tangle of bodies, twisted and contorted into various shapes, but crucially short of the Munster line. The final images were the most lasting: Leamy and Damien Varley leading the counter-surge away from danger, O'Gara screaming defiance into all the Ospreys' faces around him.

Another losing performance turned into mini-triumph. It is their new, perfected signature trick.

Scorers -- Ospreys: Phillips try, Biggar con, 4 pens. Munster: Buckley, Earls try each, O'Gara con, pen

Ospreys: B Davies (Bishop 77), N Walker, T Bowe, J Hook, R Fussell; D Biggar, M Phillips, James (D Jones 65), R Hibbard, A Jones; R Jones (I Gough 65), A-W Jones; J Collins, M Holah, J Thomas

Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou (L Mafi 66), J Murphy; R O'Gara, T O'Leary (P Stringer 55); W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley (J Hayes 53); D O'Callaghan (D Ryan 70), M O'Driscoll; J Coughlan (A Quinlan 55), Wallace, Leamy

Referee: R Poite (Fra)

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