Munster will relish shot at halting Toulon juggernaut
The red flag is still flying but loss of Peter O'Mahony is a massive blow, says Jim Glennon
First things first. The highlight of last weekend was undoubtedly Munster's hammering of Toulouse. They absolutely blitzed the visitors from the first minute to the last.
Watching Toulouse lose their opening lineouts gave the distinct impression of a typically flakey French club on the road. One expects more of a club of Toulouse's pedigree but there was more than a hint of the traditional French travel malady on show, even allowing for the heavy New Zealand and South African influence on this current team.
Some of the tries conceded were unbelievably soft for this stage of a Heineken Cup. Casey Laulala coasted into the corner in the second half after an ill-conceived and poorly-executed quick dropout from Lionel Beauxis, while the effort, or more accurately the lack of effort, from Jean Marc Doussain in attempting to make a covering tackle on Simon Zebo on his way to scoring left a lot to be desired also.
Focussing only on Toulouse's shortcomings would be wrong however as Munster were excellent, delivering a performance of a quality which they, in their own right, have made traditional at the competition's quarter-final stage. Hosea Gear did show what the Toulousains are capable of in the second half with a long-range try which brought back memories of a similar score for New Zealand against Ireland two years ago, but it was very much an exception to Munster's dominance.
The early loss of Peter O'Mahony was a major blow and while his colleagues coped admirably in his absence, his experience, physicality and leadership will be badly missed in Marseilles. CJ Stander came off the bench in his place and was Munster's stand-out forward. Impressive against Leinster the previous week, the South African seems to be finally fulfilling his promise in his second season with the province, having spent much of his time with the 'A' team in the British & Irish Cup – a long way short of the white heat of a Heineken Cup semi-final however.
In Ravenhill, the big talking point was the early dismissal of Jared Payne. For me, the collision between Payne and Alex Goode was not a red-card offence. The seemingly endless stream of replays shown on screens prior to the delivery of the decision, in what was admittedly a terrible fall, along with the sight of Goode being removed from the pitch on a stretcher complete with oxygen mask, had an inappropriate influence on the officials' decision.
Countless commentators and former players have delivered their verdicts since and my own is that, ideally, the outcome of the act in question should not enter into the decision-making process of the officials. It seems to me that Payne was penalised for the injury rather than for the act itself.
As with the Paul O'Connell/Dave Kearney incident last season when the latter was prone on the ground and owed a duty of care by those standing, so was Goode, already airborne, similarly entitled. While the protection of the prone player is paramount, a red card is only appropriate in the event of reckless endangerment. I don't believe Payne was guilty of recklessness. The Ulster players and crowd did their level best to ensure that the balloon didn't burst with his dismissal but, combined with the injury to Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar's obvious pain in every movement, it did tilt things greatly in Saracens' favour. Gallant as their mighty effort was, the strength, intensity and, most importantly, numerical advantage of Saracens eventually told in what was a wonderful, if ultimately doomed, rearguard action.
In the south of France last Sunday, Toulon started like a train and Leinster, while losing the physical battle, hung in until half-time. Then Toulon upped the ante in terms of pace and their often scary physical strength and intensity – they have standout players throughout their squad and appear almost unstoppable.
Leinster were simply outplayed and, most importantly, physically beaten up. Matt O'Connor's contentious selections, most notably that of Jimmy Gopperth, didn't come off. Playing behind a beaten pack and attempting to generate momentum for a team struggling to retain possession at the breakdown, the outhalf sat much too deep and failed to make any impression.
Interestingly, the coach admitted that Gopperth, having had little action in recent weeks, was somewhat "underdone", intimating also that IRFU policy influenced, at least partly, his selection of Ian Madigan for recent Pro12 games. If this is the case, the regard in which O'Connor holds Madigan appears questionable and his opting for public comment on the topic is unusual if not intriguing.
With the spending power of the French clubs the burning issue of the day, his further comments – that "there are a lot of blokes globally that would come and play for Leinster but that's not the reality", and "it is for no other reason except the union say that you can't have them" – add more intrigue. The Australian knew precisely what he was buying into in terms of player recruitment when he joined the province and the timing of these remarks is interesting.
One team left in the final four of the competition isn't necessarily a bad return for Ireland, but the disappointment lingers at having lost two, along with a huge semi-final weekend in Dublin. Typically, Munster march on and will have the support of the country – the odds will be stacked against them but, as ever, they'll relish it. More of that anon too.
Sunday Indo Sport