ONE hundred Heineken Cup games later, yesterday’s quarter-final victory over the Ospreys at Thomond Park was an historic occasion for European champions Munster.
And the 101st won’t be bad either. Croke Park will now house an all-Irish semi final on Saturday May 2 after Leinster’s amazing triumph over Harlequins at the Stoop. Heady days indeed, and a mouth-watering prospect that will raise the profile of Irish club rugby to unprecedented heights.
Momentarily, Munster can bask in the plaudits of another ferocious 80-minute exhibition. It was a special day for the champions, whose inaugural European fixture 13 years ago was against Swansea, one part of the Neath-Swansea alliance that makes up the Ospreys.
With the intense rivalry that has endured between them since Munster won that inaugural match 17-13, even the most hopeful home supporters could not have envisaged a display that will surely rank alongside any of Munster’s great Heineken Cup wins of the last decade. A quality Ospreys side were made to look very ordinary as the champions sent out a chilling warning of their intent. Ospreys travelled with hopes of an upset, but it was never on the cards from the time Paul Warwick scored a brilliant opening try in the 34th minute. From then on Munster were at their ruthless best, teasing and taunting the Ospreys with a mixture of powerful forward play and individual and collective class behind the scrum.
Munster’s scrum was solid, as was the line-out and the pack generally competed to the satisfaction of English referee Wayne Barnes at ruck time.
Still, Barnes wasn’t popular early on when he wrongly penalised Munster twice and allowed the Ospreys licence to disrupt. But those interventions never played a significant role in this match as Munster seized the initiative with Warwick’s opening try and powered home from there.
Even Munster coach Tony McGahan was breathless when describing the brilliant performance of his team, highlighted by the individual displays of Warwick, Lifeimi Mafi, Ronan O’Gara and skipper Paul O’Connell.
“The guys were pretty ruthless,” said McGahan. “They showed great ambition and drive to be as good as that. With the experience and the certain age profile of the players, it means they’re pretty anxious to take every opportunity presented to them; they know they need to make the most of it and I feel they’re doing that at this point in time.”
It was a cat and mouse affair in the early stages, with O’Gara and Hook exchanging penalties, but 3-3 does scant justice to O’Connell’s troops, denied a try when David Wallace got over but couldn’t touch down. They lost another chance through the hasty intervention of referee Barnes, who awarded a penalty to Munster instead of allowing another attacking move develop near the Ospreys line.
That advantage was cancelled out by Hook with a mammoth second penalty before Mafi took the game by the scruff of the neck with a magnificent break that ultimately opened up the opportunity for Warwick to score a try O’Gara converted.
The lead was stretched out to 16-6 at the half thanks to a trademark drop goal from Warwick on the run. Hook kicked a penalty four minutes after the break, but the Munster pack turned the screw to the point that some of the key Osprey, Ian Gough and Huw Bennett among them, were called ashore early.
O’Gara kicked a penalty before a sustained assault, with Mafi and Doug Howlett prominent, ended with O’Connell skidding over in the corner, and the out-half again converted.
Within seconds Warwick dropped his second goal from half-way and Keith Earls put the seal on a wonderful Easter Sunday afternoon’s work with two tries that highlighted his huge range of skills — which may well earn him a wild-card Lions tour selection.
Inevitably, O’Gara popped over both conversions to maintain his 100% record.
MUNSTER: P. Warwick, D. Howlett, K. Earls, L. Mafi, I. Dowling, R. O’Gara, T. O’Leary, M. Horan, J. Flannery, J. Hayes, D. O’Callaghan, P. O’Connell (captain), A. Quinlan, D. Leamy, D. Wallace.
Replacements: M.O’Driscoll for O’Callaghan (61), N. Ronan for Leamy, P. Stringer for O’Leary (both 66), T. Buckley for Hayes (67), B. Murphy for Mafi (69), D. Fogarty for Flannery, D. Hurley for O’Gara (both 76).
OSPREYS: T. Bowe, J. Vaughton, S. Parker, A. Bishop, S. Williams, J. Hook, M. Phillips, P. James, H. Bennett, A. Jones, I. Gough, A. W. Jones, R. Jones (captain), F. Tiatia, M. Holah.
Replacements: R. Hibbard for Bennett, F. Levi for Gough (both 57), C. Griffiths for Jones, D. Biggar for Bishop (both 64), T. Smith for R. Jones (70), J. Nutbrown for Phillips, A. Lloyd for A.W. Jones (both 75).
Referee: W. Barnes (England).
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