Munster take crucial step on path to summit
But O'Mahony admits more intensity is needed
MUNSTER 36 PERPIGNAN 8
THE halfway point has been reached intact, but in reality Munster are only at base camp. Their real work begins next week in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
All that this emphatic win buys them is a plane ticket and, while they have wrested Pool 6 back in their favour, there is a steep upward curve in store next Saturday. Losing Conor Murray to a knee injury will hamper the effort and the scrum-half is highly unlikely to make it back in time for Saturday.
Five tries on a mild December afternoon might have satisfied the 23,615 in attendance at Thomond Park, but there was a grim determination on the faces of all who entered the media room beneath the stands for questioning.
For Munster the talk was of needing to improve, for Perpignan it was all about taking their chances. Rob Penney expects the Top 14 team's performance to be "chalk and cheese".
It is four years since Paul O'Connell led the storming of the Stade Aime Giral for a bonus point pre-Christmas win, but the lock is one of just five players who remain from that famous day in 2009 and this new generation now have to go to one of France's most intimidating stadiums and beat a team needing victory to keep their challenge going.
Yesterday, the back-row and back-three set the tone for an afternoon of part exhilaration, part frustration.
Both teams left tries behind them, with Perpignan going close at vital stages as it looked like they might get a foothold in the game. Each time the Catalans passed up an opportunity, Munster pounced and made the most of theirs.
"They took their chances better than us," replacement fly-half Tommy Allan said. "We weren't up for the game too much."
They are unlikely to be as generous next week, but, while this Perpignan team are great to watch, they give opponents openings and, having opted to play into the strong wind in the first half, their Welsh captain James Hook gave Munster their first sight of the line within three minutes of the kick-off with a loose kick to Johne Murphy.
He played a neat one-two with Murray who drew Hook and allowed his wing stand Joffrey Michel up and put Sean Dougall over.
Ian Keatley converted and added a penalty to extend the lead, but there were signs of life in the visiting team and Peter O'Mahony was leading from the front with a massive defensive effort. The captain made a huge turnover on his own line and Damien Varley raced out of his '22', but ignored Murray on his shoulder to take contact.
Munster moved from coast to coast and Earls sped up the right, cut inside and, with one man to beat, his poor pass to Murray went to ground.
The chance was gone and back came the Catalans. Sofiane Guitoune countered from his own half and Fijian centre Watisoni Votu found space on the left, passed inside to hooker Romain Terrain who was hauled down by Keatley and out-half Camille Lopez had a dig but was covered by Jones.
Having escaped that close shave, a loose Keatley pass put the hosts in trouble once again as Hook kicked ahead and the pacey Guitoune hacked on only for Murphy to haul himself back and pounce on the bouncing ball.
The Reds countered once again and Earls again found space up the right before Casey Laulala was hit late by Luke Charteris as he chased his own kick on the far flank.
O'Mahony went to the corner and, although Varley's throw slipped through Donncha O'Callaghan's hands, the captain cleaned up and drove to the line. A series of pick and goes later saw Dave Kilcoyne burrow underneath Romain Terrain to score.
By that stage, Lopez had been forced off and the inexperienced Allan introduced and the visitors' heads dropped despite Keatley missing the kickable conversion. It wasn't long before he was given another chance as, Rob Kearney-style, Earls pounced on a loose ball created by James Coughlan's counter ruck and outpaced the covering defenders from 60 metres. The out-half delivered from the touchline.
Hook missed a chance to get his side off the mark with a penalty before the half-time break, but he got another chance from the tee five minutes after the break and nailed his kick.
With Murray having cried off midway through the first half, Keatley was forced off with a dead leg, replaced by JJ Hanrahan. It was Perpignan who were touching down soon after as a brilliant piece of continuity ended with Charteris' pass off the deck to the excellent Guitoune being judged marginally forward by the TMO.
Stung into action by another near miss, it was Munster who would deliver the knockout blow at the other end with 15 minutes left as Dougall did well to claim a Varley throw at the tail of the line-out and set up a maul five metres out.
Tongan prop Kisi Pulu hauled it down and headed for the sin-bin as referee Greg Garner went for the posts and Hanrahan converted the penalty try.
Earls was denied a second try by the busy TMO Sean Davey, but the fifth try was delivered late on as Coughlan touched down from the base of a scrum as it marched over the line. Michel pulled a deserved try back for Perpignan at the death, but it was far, far too late.
Most minds in Thomond Park had wandered towards the Stade Aime Giral at that point. "We have to go up a little step in intensity. They'll have their crowd behind them. French teams are extremely tough at home, so we'll have to be really on our game to get what we want out of the game next week," O'Mahony said, and it was hard to disagree.
MUNSTER – F Jones (D Hurley 62); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, J Murphy; I Keatley (JJ Hanrahan 49), C Murray (C Sheridan 18); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 60), D Varley (D Casey 72), S Archer (BJ Botha 60); D O'Callaghan (B Holland 65), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt) (CJ Stander 72), S Dougall, J Coughlan.
PERPIGNAN – J Hook (capt); J Michel, T Benvenutti (R Haughton 72), W Votu, S Guitoune; C Lopez (T Allan 30), T Ecochard (D Duvenage 57); S Taofifenua (K Pulu 47), R Terrain (M Delonca 60), P Ion; L Charteris, G Vilaceca (S Vahaamahina 53); JP Perez (D Leo 63), A Strokosch, J Puril (JB Custoja 68).
Ref – G Garner (RFU)