Thomond Park has been central to many of Munster’s great days in Europe, the only previous hiccup coming in a Heineken Cup pool game loss to Leicester in 2007. If that Tigers victory was deserved, Harlequins went one better with a performance that should have yielded a much more comprehensive winning margin.
The visiting pack won the physical battle up front and tactically were streets ahead of a Munster team that fell off tackles and provided Harlequins with an opportunity to secure their third Challenge Cup title and earn a prized place in the Heineken Cup next season.
Winning coach Conor O’Shea remarked that his side “hadn’t come here to roll over and have bellies tickled” and he was right as his young charges handed out a lesson in panache, physicality and patience to a Munster team that hit the panic and self-destruct buttons from an early stage.
Although the crowd were incensed by some decisions by French referee Romain Poite, they were knowledgeable enough to realise that Munster were architects of their own downfall on this occasion.
Munster coach Tony McGahan admitted that on another day he might have been moved to comment on the referee but thought better: “I don’t think that it is correct or proper to make any comment on that (referee) given the way that we played. If it had been a close game and if we had given ourselves every opportunity, then that could have been a point to use as an excuse. But the way we played certainly didn’t lend itself to that.”
From the off, Munster looked like a team caught in the glare of the headlights. With everyone seemingly waiting for someone else to make things happen, they allowed Harlequins dictate the pace of the game and compounded the difficulty with a plethora of handling errors and rash decisions even from senior players such as Ronan O’Gara.
If one player made an error and another compensated, somebody was waiting in the queue to make another. It was that type of day.
Harlequins carried the challenge to Munster in attack and stymied them with blanket cover defence. Munster spent most of the afternoon running into walls and compounded their problems by infuriatingly dropping the ball or invariably taking the wrong option.
If Munster could have turned the clock back on the first half they surely would; it was easily their worst performance in recent memory. Struggling to win the ball, they found it impossible to keep it for the short spells they were in control.
Harlequins played all the rugby and Munster made all the mistakes to allow the English side take virtual total control of the game. They trailed by 14 points as the clock edged to the half way mark. And had Quins taken their chances it could have been 20. Instead, one moment of quality from Munster helped them back into the contest and they left the field for the break with a general sense of relief about them that the deficit was manageable (7-14). Felix Jones’s try, converted by Ronan O’Gara, gave Munster a lifeline they hardly deserved. It was in response to tries by George Robson and Danny Care, with Nick Evans and Care adding a conversion each.
Evans, and Harlequins could have rued two missed penalties but Rory Clegg, Evans’ second half replacement, wasn’t as wasteful and he knocked over penalties in the 47th and 58th minutes to emphasise the difference between the teams.
Munster’s last gasp attempt to save the game was much like their overall performance — sprinkled with errors and poor handling. Doug Howlett’s 76th-minute try gave them hope but O’Gara’s conversion attempt from the touchline was off target. Harlequins knew then they were safe; Anything else would have been a travesty.
MUNSTER: F Jones, D Howlett, L Mafi, P Warwick, K Earls, R O’Gara (captain), C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll, D Leamy, J Coughlan, D Wallace.
Replacements: P O’Connell for O’Driscoll, J Hayes for Buckley, S Tuitupou for Warwick (all half time); P Stringer for Murray, M Horan for Du Preez (both 56); J Murphy for Earls (inj., 64), D Ryan for O’Callaghan (68), M Sherry for Varley (73).
HARLEQUINS: M Brown, G Camacho, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, U Moyne, N Evans, D Care; J Marler, J Gray, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa’asavalu, N Easter, C Robshaw (capt).
Replacements: N Clegg for Evans (half time, inj.); C Jones for Marler (65); T Vellejos for Kohn (73)
Referee: R Poite (France).