Wednesday 17 January 2018

Reds show their warrior spirit and look to Europe

But McGahan left with many Toulon posers after O'Gara seals narrow victory for Munster

Munster's Keith Earls is tackled by Glasgow duo Johnnie Beattie and Max Evans on Saturday night. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Munster's Keith Earls is tackled by Glasgow duo Johnnie Beattie and Max Evans on Saturday night. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

Hugh Farrelly

THERE are certain occupations that are defined by pressure -- bomb disposal expert and Taoiseach are two that come to mind, but head coach has to be right up there.

Sitting in front of Glasgow's Sean Lineen in Musgrave Park last Saturday night was an instructive experience. Over the course of 80-plus Magners League minutes, the former Grand Slam-winning centre clung on to the rail of a Big Dipper ride of vacillating emotions.

There was first-half satisfaction as the Warriors built up a 10-3 lead, through a Ruaridh Jackson penalty and conversion of Colin Gregor's try against a Ronan O'Gara kick, and refused to buckle when down to 14 following Richie Gray's sin-binning.

That was replaced by trepidation as Munster roared back into the contest after half-time, scoring 16 unanswered points in 20 minutes through the boot of O'Gara and determination of David Wallace. Then, it was savage exultation as Lineen's men crossed for a second try through DTH van der Merwe following the best attacking passage of the match, before ending up with frustration and resignation as another contentious refereeing decision allowed O'Gara to nail the winning score from the left-hand touchline for a six-from-six return.

If Lineen was feeling the pressure, he should spare a thought for his Munster counterpart Tony McGahan. Glasgow are out of the Heineken Cup and next weekend's meeting with Wasps, essentially, means nothing to them -- Munster's trip to Toulon means everything.

Comparing that challenge to this Magners League encounter is not quite London Olympics versus Mosney Community Games, but it's in the same ball-park. However, as a confidence and system-building exercise, this was a worthwhile assignment.Glasgow are a lot better than their 10th position suggests, with a nuggety front-five, excellent back-row and decent pace out wide.

So, while far from the complete performance, Munster engineering a victory when up against it will steel resolve, while leaving plenty of issues to address in a mammoth week.

Blow-hard

As a rule, one does not like to go after referees, but, like irritating pan-pipe music, James Jones was all over the shop. He gave a performance reminiscent of Jim Fleming in the 1999 World Cup semi-final when the Scot whistled the French off the park in the first half, became aware of a few home truths at half-time, and re-emerged to help blow the All Blacks out of the competition.

Saturday's penalty count was 10-2 in Glasgow's favour in the first half, but, in the second, Jones' whistle blew behind Munster. While many penalties were justified, the scrum officiating -- particularly the engagement -- was a farce, while Munster benefitted from a misread on Bernard Stortoni for his tackle of Keith Earls at the death, allowing O'Gara's winning kick.

despite Jones' erratic display, the penalty count will exercise Munster minds this week. However, England's Dave Pearson, who takes charge of the Toulon game, is a level above Jones and was on the whistle when Munster stunned Perpignan in France last season. A good omen.

Rules of engagement

The issue that has dominated much of the analysis since the Ospreys defeat. Tony Buckley was at tight-head on that occasion, but the virus which ruled him out of Saturday's clash is serious enough to have merited hospital treatment and renders him doubtful for Toulon.

John Hayes left the action early after taking a knee to the back, but should be ok and, despite Jones' meddling, looked secure at scrum-time. His replacement Peter Borlase, who may come into the European squad reckoning depending on Buckley's availability, has not been convincing. On a positive note, Darragh Hurley went well at loose-head and the solidity of Wian du Preez should come back into the equation. Nonetheless, the scrum will continue to dominate thoughts this week.

Johne be good

Johne Murphy has been Munster's most effective outside back this season and, wearing the 11 jersey, but playing on the right wing, the Kildare man looked sharp again against Glasgow. It seems prudent to get him on the ball as much as possible next weekend, which points to a switch into midfield where he was so effective against Toulon in October, rotating between centre and full-back.

Keith Earls and Lifeimi Mafi ran with pace and purpose, but, while the Glasgow defence was a tough nut to crack, there was an absence of the off-loading game that could unhinge Toulon and Munster's try came in familiar, bump-and-grind, forward fashion.

Doug Howlett (minor calf strain) and Sam Tuitupou (ill) are expected to come back into the equation and Denis Hurley was strong on the left, so McGahan has options -- it is a question of how best to use them. If the plan is to spread Toulon wide then Murphy in midfield is the way to go. If it is to lock it down and grind it out, one of the Tongan boys could take centre stage.

District 9

Who to start at scrum-half? If the intention is to withstand the early Toulon onslaught, hang in and frustrate before opening up in the second half, then using Tomas O'Leary's muscular defence from the start before springing Peter Stringer would be the way to go. But if the plan is to blitz Toulon by moving ball early on, then Stringer's quick release will be needed from the off. Both men had decent outings against Glasgow and both have the experience and tools for the job -- a fascinating selection quandary.



Leader's question time

Mick O'Driscoll has been a consistent presence in the second-row and was again on Saturday, but there is a strong case for starting Paul O'Connell, despite his lack of match time. Either way, the Munster captain has a significant role to play, while there was enough evidence here to suggest that the other team leaders are ready to step up to the plate. Donncha O'Callaghan, David Wallace and Denis Leamy were forceful presences and O'Gara limbered up nicely with a controlling display, his 17 points the impulse for another league victory.

Top gear

As O'Callaghan pointed out afterwards, Munster may be cruising at the top of the Magners League, but it is the European competition that brings them to battle-speed. And, it was encouraging for the Munster management and their fans to see the team crank up their performance when it was most needed. There was the 20 minutes after half-time when there was a deficit to erase and lead to establish before Jackson's late drop goal saw Munster produce their most intense period to seal victory.

Heavy mental

Victory over Glasgow, however it was achieved, was essential heading to the Stade Felix Mayol and it is not the worst situation for Munster to know that Toulon will pore over this video and not be overly perturbed. One thing is certain, if Munster fail to win next weekend, it will not be down to any mental slackness -- any complacency from Toulon will be ruthlessly received. The pressure is on, it's a question of who cracks first.

MUNSTER -- P Warwick; J Murphy, K Earls, L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer (T O'Leary 62); D Hurley, D Varley, J Hayes (P Borlase 44), D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, J Coughlan (D Ryan 62), D Wallace (N Ronan 67), D Leamy. Yellow card: Earls 40

GLASGOW -- B Stortoni; A Dunbar (D McCall 56), M Evans, P Murchie (P Horne 8-15, 51), DTH van der Merwe; R Jackson, C Gregor; R Grant (J Welsh 52), D Hall (P MacArthur 59), M Low (K Tkachuk 67), R Gray, A Kellock, R Harley, J Barclay, J Beattie (R Wilson 67). Yellow card: Gray 10, Stortoni 75

REF -- J Jones (Wales).

Irish Independent

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