Stunning comeback papers over cracks in McGahan’s squad

MUNSTER are not a great team.

Only time will tell if they are even a good team. But Saturday night at Thomond Park proved beyond doubt that this squad still burns with the sense of pride and commitment that has won them many a battle in the past and will continue to do so long into the future.

They were fortunate to escape with four points against Northampton Saints given that they needed to rely on a superb long-range Ronan O’Gara drop goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time to scrape to victory (23-21).

They have never left it this late before but precious results were achieved in similarly unlikely circumstances at the venue several times in the past. For a dozen years now, O’Gara, 34, has been central to all of this.

Credit too must go to those who retained the ball through 41phases before setting up that unbelievable climax.

No praise is too high for front-rowers Damien Varley and Wian du Preez on the field to the end whereas the much vaunted Saints props Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati had long since departed the scene. Munster players were so much out on their feet that few if any were able to celebrate once O’Gara’s kick had sailed through the posts. Tellingly though, all that defensive toil also took its toll on Northampton, who could only look on as Rog lined up a drop goal that has already joined the many legends associated with Munster rugby.

That’s the good news.

But doubts remain about several elements of the side. It could be argued O’Gara’s kick got coach Tony McGahan off the hook after he excluded Donncha O’Callaghan and Denis Leamy when he already had four other experienced campaigners out with injury. It was a brave call and he will probably retain the same back five in the pack for Saturday’s visit to Castres. But many remain unconvinced. Peter O’Mahony is here to stay but Leamy was hugely influential on his introduction after 65 minutes. Incredibly, he handled 10 times during the 41 phases leading up to the drop goal and won’t be slow to remind his colleagues that his pass set up O’Gara for the crucial kick.

In the back division, it is a positive that Tomás O’Leary is challenging Conor Murray at number nine and that Doug Howlett is playing as well if not better than at any time since his arrival. On the other hand, the side has prospered in the past with big, bustling and skilful centres such as Trevor Halstead, Rob Henderson and Rua Tipoki in their ranks and regrettably there’s nobody of that ilk in the current squad. Lifeimi Mafi is playing well but finding the ideal midfield partner for him is proving a major problem, no matter how effectively Danny Barnes has performed at the end of last season and again against Northampton. He gave way late on to Will Chambers but the jury is still very much out on the Australian.

There are other areas that need to be tightened up, with forwards coach Anthony Foley certainly concerned at the failure to impose any pressure on the Northampton lineout throw.

Castres are next up on Saturday having suffered a pointless away defeat in Llanelli. They have forfeited home ground advantage in the hope of a financial bonanza at the Stade Ernest-Wallon in Toulouse and that won’t harm Munster’s prospects. There is also a deal of previous acrimony between the sides, most especially the Peter Clohessy-Ismaella Lassissi biting controversy in 2002 that earned the French flanker a 12-month ban.

Ulster’s victory over Clermont Auvergne was another marvellous result for Irish teams at the weekend and Leinster did well to escape with a draw at Montpellier. Connacht were magnificent against Harlequins and certainly merited a bonus point at the very least.

Those responsible for such things should be a embarrassed that they allowed players like Fionn Carr, Ian Keatley, Jamie Hagan and Sean Cronin to move to neighbouring provinces who didn’t really need them. Over the weekend, Carr and Hagan were confined to the Leinster A team in the B & I Cup and Keatley warmed the bench throughout the Munster game. Cronin was the only one to sample Heineken Cup action but even then only as a replacement in Montpellier and duly scored a magnificent, game-turning try.

How Connacht would have benefited from the presence of this talented quarter.

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