French foes are scintillating, yet suspect

FOUR days on and the sense of excitement and anticipation that filled the masses at Thomond Park is every bit as palpable.

Everybody is talking about last weekend and not only the Munster game. Leinster set the tone Friday night by somehow hanging on to a slim one-point lead to come out on top against a marvellous but vulnerable Clermont Auvergne side.

Leinster were lucky to survive Brock James’s brain freeze in the final minutes but that misses the point somewhat. Leinster are a champion side for a reason.

On Friday, their strike rate off minimal possession was clinical and the manner in which they turned a ten-point deficit after 17 minutes into a ten-point lead by the 37th minute says everything about their character, the quality of their game-breakers and, most important of all, their resilience.

A bit like Munster on Saturday, when the need was greatest their star performers stepped forward, none with more explosive impact than Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip. That is why both are perennial contenders for any composite World XV when those extraneous debates take place.

Leinster now have an even more difficult assignment on their hands as they prepare to head to France, but there were enough shafts of light in the way Toulouse played against Stade Français to suggest that Michael Cheika’s men have the armoury to stifle the tournament specialists. There will be plenty of time to articulate those over the course of the next two weeks.

The most fascinating aspect of the quarter-finals was the positive approach adopted by all eight teams with the quality of attacking rugby underlined by the fact that the four contests produced 19 tries.

Two of those efforts will feature on YouTube for a long time. Munster were offered a frightening reminder of the scorching pace that launched USA’s Takudzwa Ngwenya on the world stage when he left South Africa’s flying machine Bryan Habana in his wake at the 2007 World Cup. He will become even more familiar to Irish audiences over the next eighteen months as he will be in Eddie O’Sullivan’s squad when America face Ireland in the next RWC.

Having suitably embarrassed the IRB player of the year for 2007 in France three years ago, his effort last Saturday from inside his own 22 left the 2008 recipient of that award, Welsh wizard Shane Williams, floundering. I am sure Ian Dowling will have noted same.

The off-loading style and ability to play out of the tackle that characterises Toulouse’s approach the game was underscored majestically in the brilliant try from Argentinean second row Patricio Albacete. Just look at the final offload from Cedric Heymans. You’ll have to slow down the action to capture it — majestic.

That is the quality of opposition that awaits Leinster and Munster in the semi-finals but then again, what do you expect at this stage of the tournament? However, I’m sure there are several qualities in the play of both Irish provinces that will have the video analysts of Toulouse and Biarritz burning the midnight oil over the next fortnight.

NOT for the first time, Munster demonstrated against Northampton that there is simply no substitute for experience when it comes to the knockout stages of Europe.

Questions were entitled to be asked regarding their inconsistency all year but the key factor that continues to shine through is that in the do-or-die contests, Munster’s ability to produce whatever is required remains intact.

The simple truth is that yes, especially up front, Munster are an ageing force and cannot deliver the level of consistency that has been their hallmark for so long.

It is also true, however, that when the big guns in the pack galvanise themselves for the fight on the days that define their destiny, they still have the capacity to deliver — just ask the man mountains that occupy jersey’s No 1-8 for Perpignan and Northampton.

In the build-up to last Saturday’s match the impressive Saints winger Chris Ashton spoke about how they knew what to expect in the opening ten minutes of the pool game last January and that it was vital to catch the first garryowen that came their way. He smiled when recounting how Roger Wilson dropped it on that occasion. It was with a sense of déjà vu therefore that we witnessed Jon Clarke drop the opening kick of the game only for a teammate to play it from an offside position thus offering up three points to a grateful Ronan O’Gara after a mere 25 seconds of play. That is the thing about Thomond — you may appreciate in advance what is about to happen yet so many teams are rendered powerless in their efforts to deal with it.

Munster now face an anxious two weeks as they regroup and set about dealing with a worrying injury list, especially to key backs in Doug Howlett and Keith Earls. Ian Dowling is also suffering while Denis Hurley is striving to recover in time from his hamstring injury. For Leinster Jonny Sexton is in serious trouble, and his chances of being fit appear minimal.

Munster’s opponents Biarritz are the dark horses of the knock-out stage and are hitting form at the right time, with many of their stars just recovered from injury problems. Their game against the Ospreys went right down to the last play of the game and in many respects, I’m happier Munster are travelling to San Sebastian and not Cardiff — and that has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the surroundings.

After what happened in last year’s quarter-final when the Welsh outfit were humiliated by 43-9, they would surely have a manic obsession with beating Munster, just like Leinster had in last year’s semi-final.

The Ospreys also have the added advantage of playing them regularly in the Magners League and an intimate knowledge of the key figures on the Munster side after spending seven weeks together on last summer’s Lions tour.

Biarritz, of course, will be driven with an obsession to reverse the result of the 2006 final when Munster finally landed the Heineken cup after years of turmoil and disappointment by 23-19.

Interestingly, given the high turnover of players on the French circuit, Biarritz had six starting survivors from that final side in half backs Dimitri Yachvili and Julien Peyrelongue, along with drop goal hero Damien Traille while up front Benoit August, Jerome Thion and Imanol Harinordoquy are also still on board.

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