Saturday 24 March 2018

Munster revival a tonic for Ireland

McGahan's battlers deliver timely boost to Kidney's cause
Munster 24
Leinster 23

Ronan O'Gara watches his last-gasp winning penalty sail between the past.
Ronan O'Gara watches his last-gasp winning penalty sail between the past.
Brian O'Driscoll and Richardt Strauss after the game
O'Gara receives treatment for an eye injury

Hugh Farrelly

In many respects, this was the best result for Irish rugby.

Losing for a sixth time in succession to their greatest rivals, in their famed Limerick citadel, would have been a grievous psychological blow for Munster.

Triumphing as they did, with another 'Can I kick it? Yes you can' Ronan O'Gara special, has lifted everyone in the province and stymied the prognosticators of doom who saw Munster's Heineken Cup exit in January as the beginning of an inevitable decline for Europe's top-ranked team.

That is good news for Ireland coach Declan Kidney, whose World Cup assault in five months' time will lean heavily on Munster's influence -- as have the nation's successes over the past decade.

As for Leinster, they should not be overly perturbed by narrowly losing a gripping contest that throbbed on and off the pitch for 80-plus minutes.

Defeat will hurt and frustrate but also serve as perfect preparation for the Munster-esque challenge of Leicester in next weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final at Lansdowne Road.

We'll come back to Joe Schmidt's side in a bit, but we must first pay tribute to the home side's resolve in fighting back from a 20-9 half-time deficit, emphasising the positive response of coach Tony McGahan and his players to their Toulon torment in January.

Munster went into the game with a 12-point lead at the head of the Magners League table and, in terms of keeping to their objective of securing a home semi-final, victory was not essential.

However, the ramifications of another defeat to Leinster, not least the blow to morale ahead of their Challenge Cup assignment in Brive, meant that Munster needed the win more -- and it showed.

Their intensity was immense and they were at their most effective when reverting to the traditional Munster game plan of forward drives and ferocity in the close exchanges with O'Gara in his customary role of commander-in-chief.

Their backline sorties may have been more rudimentary than revolutionary, never threatening the type of invention Leinster displayed when working a glorious move off scrum possession for the game's solitary try after 21 minutes.

Isaac Boss and Gordon D'Arcy interlinked beautifully to set full-back Isa Nacewa haring through into Munster territory and his beautiful kick was pounced upon predatorially by Shane Horgan, who marked his 200th game for Leinster with a memorable score.

Munster's set-pieces were excellent and, with Anthony Foley coming in as forwards coach and Paul McCarthy's scrummaging work starting to pay off (judging by Tony Buckley's improved body positioning and focus in a solid showing against Cian Healy), there is evidence that the backroom plans are starting to come together.

However, backline potency is still an area to look at. Munster failed to score a try in this fixture yet again (bringing their Leinster drought close to 500 minutes) and the ball tended to be shovelled across the line rather than be worked into space.

They still came close to forcing their way over the try-line via the direct charge route and sheer willpower, but a backline spark is needed if they are to challenge for top European honours again and, at risk of repetition, someone like Cork Constitution's Brian Walsh could do a job here.

His clubmate O'Gara scooped the man-of-the-match award after another accomplished display in a season full of them, but it would have been good to see Munster No 8 James Coughlan rewarded for his Herculean efforts.

Over the past number of seasons, McGahan has brought Coughlan on splendidly from bit-part squad player to starter to the point where he is now the fulcrum of their back-row, and the AIL graduate held up his hand in a big way on Saturday night, continually seeking out possession and injecting urgency.


Young Conor Murray had a very encouraging evening also, and Munster now have four quality scrum-halves on their books with Murray, Tomas O'Leary, Peter Stringer and the talented Duncan William, a player whose search for a consistent run of games has now become more challenging.

The unleashing of experience in the form of Stringer, John Hayes, Denis Leamy and Mick O'Driscoll (in the unfortunate case of Paul O'Connell's injury) was a critical factor in Munster's end-game and, on the back of this performance, their squad looks too strong for Brive.

Leinster will reflect on how they lost a match they appeared to be winning without too much trouble. They fell on the wrong side of referee Andrew Small, particularly in the second half, and the same penalty count of 16 would be disastrous against the Tigers.

With O'Gara making them count from the tee, it was the difference between victory and defeat, and, while the penalties were symptomatic of the possession and pressure game of the home side, the marginal calls seemed to go against the visitors.

"We knew they (penalties) were likely to come," said Schmidt. "It is a great pressure environment here and not just players but officials feel it as well.

"What you deserve and what you get are not necessarily the same thing, but I congratulate Munster in taking advantage of the pressure they applied and putting the points on the board."

While Munster's fury in the tackle prevented further tries, Leinster's organisation on the back foot was excellent also and even though it felt as though there was another level in Schmidt's side, they were only barely beaten, which bodes well for next weekend.

Their back-row leaders, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien, were good without being exceptional and you would expect a bigger impact in Lansdowne, especially if O'Brien is freed up somewhat by a switch to blindside.

The reintegration of their Six Nations contingent will be more assured next weekend also and it is safe to assume greater implementation of the off-loading game that took them to the quarter-final in the first place.

McGahan can reflect on a job well done; not just on Saturday but in his overall masterminding of affairs since January (no wonder the Brumbies have him on their short-list, even if that role is likely to go elsewhere).

"They had tremendous belief," said McGahan of his players. "In what they are playing for and in who they represent. It (winning) was vital for ourselves, for the players, for the management, for Munster rugby, for the supporters. For everyone."

A big week looms for Irish rugby and Kidney. On the evidence of this memorable occasion, you would back Leinster to bounce back and Munster to kick on while the appetite is whetted for another inter-provincial set-to in the league knockout stages.

Not a bad return for a night out in Limerick.

MUNSTER -- F Jones (P Warwick 76); D Howlett, J Murphy (S Tuitupou 62), L Mafi, K Earls; R O'Gara (P Warwick 41-45 blood), C Murray (P Stringer 66); W du Preez (M Horan 66), D Varley (M Sherry 76), T Buckley (J Hayes 66), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt, M O'Driscoll 46), D Ryan (D Leamy 53), D Wallace, J Coughlan.

LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan (F McFadden 66), B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss (E Reddan 58); C Healy (H van der Merwe 56), R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin (R Ruddock 62), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

REF -- A Small (Eng).

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