DONAL LENIHAN: Like old times aboard flight FR 1548

Despite the gale-force winds that lashed the Irish coast and wreaked havoc for the aviation industry, flight FR 1548 from Perpignan to Shannon last Saturday night was a great place to be.

With players and supporters united once again on the team charter, the scenes were reminiscent of the fledgling days when Munster were making their mark on the European stage for the first time.

Every player boarding the aircraft was welcomed with thunderous applause while an endless chorus of Stand up and Fight and the Fields of Athenry filled the air until the stewardess issued the safety instructions. For those of us who have been on this beat for a while, it was nothing we hadn’t witnessed before. For many of the new generation of Munster players, the likes of Sean Dougall, James Cronin and JJ Hanrahan experiencing it for the first time, it must have felt like Christmas had arrived that bit early.

Yet had Hanrahan not produced that amazing sidestep which left the Perpignan defence floundering en route to his amazing injury-time try, that journey home would have been torturous. This Munster side seem to frustrate and fascinate in equal measure. As a result, you’re never really sure what to expect.

Coming into these back-to-back contests, Rob Penney targeted an improvement in Munster’s ball control in contact and in the decision-making of the ball carrier and the support runners. Due to the error count and stop-start nature of the two games, they never had the chance to develop that off-loading game.

Fitting then that with their path to another quarter-final appearing to vaporise before them with Tommaso Benvenuti’s disputed try, Munster finally delivered on the decision-making and off-loading under pressure that Penney has been craving.

Denis Hurley made up for his defensive error minutes earlier with a brilliant offload to Tommy O’Donnell whose strength of mind and body in refusing to be dumped into touch kept Munster’s slim hopes of a reprieve alive. In taking the hit and popping off to the supporting Hanrahan, crucially he also took out two Perpignan defenders.

Hanrahan still had work to do but in situations like that, instinct takes over. This nascent talent is gifted on his feet and just did what comes naturally. Given their high error rate to that point, it was strange that Munster should display that type of clinical execution with their backs to the wall.

Cast your mind back to the last play in the semi-final against Clermont Auvergne last season, when they created space out wide and a potential try-scoring opportunity that could possibly have rescued that contest, only for play to be called back by referee Nigel Owens for a dubiously-awarded forward pass from Paul O’Connell.

Munster are learning on the hoof and the type of game Penney is promoting from broken play will pay dividends in time and adds more to their armoury. Right now, the decision-making at half-back needs to be a little smarter in order to elicit more from a forward pack that is growing in stature. The competition at loose-head alone between James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne is fascinating to watch, with both driving the other to new heights. That was so evident on Saturday when Kilcoyne, having witnessed Cronin make a massive contribution for 62 minutes, came off the bench determined to surpass the input of his team-mate. He made a big impact. Likewise, O’Donnell for Dougall. The return of Simon Zebo in the new year will give Munster more options in attack and positioning him at full-back with Keith Earls and Gerhard van den Heever (who isn’t eligible until the quarter-final stage) on the wings, offers a potent mix of pace and power out wide. I would also like to see Hanrahan get a sustained run in the centre in the Pro12 to see what he might add from there.

After the highs of the clean sweep in round three, the defeats for Leinster and Connacht coupled with Leicester grabbing victory from the jaws of defeat at Montpellier in a manner similar to Munster the previous day, has muddied the waters somewhat for the quarter-final aspirations of the Irish.

Ulster, the only side with a 100% record in the tournament, looked odds-on to qualify for a home quarter-final but Vereniki Goneva’s try in the final minute coupled with Ryan Lamb’s conversion which secured a dramatic one point win for the Tigers must have sickened all at Ravenhill.

Despite their unblemished record to date, in all probability Ulster will still have to go to Welford Road and beat Leicester in round six if they want a home quarter-final. The only consolation for them is that at least their efforts to date make it almost certain they will end up qualifying as one of the two best runners-up.

Leinster’s fortunes in their back-to- back encounters with Northampton must have really frustrated all in their camp. Tournament favourites after their six-try demolition of the Saints in Franklins Gardens, they are now vulnerable with a very demanding trip to reigning French champions Castres in January before entertaining their bogey side, the Ospreys, at the RDS. Neither of those two will be in any mood to make life easy for Leinster.

Losing the big Christmas game at the Aviva Stadium for the second year in a row was not in the script but Leinster have the capacity in terms of quality and squad depth to deal with that disappointment.

Saturday’s defeat will not have done Joe Schmidt any favours either as it has offered his English counterpart Stuart Lancaster a blueprint on how to beat Ireland. With the likes of Courtney Lawes, Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood sure to be on board with England when Ireland travel to Twickenham, the ramifications of defeat could extend to the Six Nations.

One can only imagine the range of emotions experienced by the Connacht squad after their attempts at repeating the heroics of the Stade Ernst Wallon were scuppered even before Toulouse arrived in Galway. With so many key players weakened by a devastating flu bug, they had no chance.

What is crucial for them now is to commit as a squad to making sure that historic win in France isn’t a one-off and concentrate on working their way up the Pro12 table. If they can beat Toulouse away from home in the Heineken Cup, they are capable of beating anyone in Galway. That has to be their goal for the rest of the season.

For Munster, Leinster and Ulster, their ambitions remain that bit loftier, even if the road ahead was made more challenging by those wins for Northampton and Leicester. The English may be hell-bent on exiting the Heineken Cup but they certainly are not prepared to go quietly.


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