Defeating the English Premiership leaders on home turf at The Stoop in a Heineken Cup quarter-final on April 7 would represent a remarkable upset on Munster’s part in what has been an immensely challenging first season at the helm for head coach Rob Penney. Yet after months of missteps, setbacks and injuries allied to some alarming recent form, Saturday night in Musgrave Park gave home supporters hope that a corner has been turned.
With a first win in four RaboDirect PRO12 games, a defensive clean sheet and a hero’s return to action after months on the sidelines, the lack of a fourth try and its accompanying league bonus point seems almost churlish to highlight. Yet while Munster remain two spots and seven points outside the play-off positions with four games of the regular season remaining, Paul O’Connell’s return to fitness, a rediscovery of form for discarded Ireland fly-half Ronan O’Gara and signs of some clear blue thinking from the collective bodes well for the big games ahead.
Munster will play second-placed Glasgow and league leaders Leinster either side of their European game, three huge games that will be the true litmus test of the progress made under Penney.
Saturday’s performance, which featured long periods of possession, an opening try from O’Connell and two more from hooker Damien Varley, pointed to a more varied gameplan than the prevalent dogmatic devotion seen throughout this campaign to throwing it wide and praying the passes stuck.
There were still instances, highlighted by the returning and ever-critical O’Connell, of the previous frustrations as Munster turned over more than acceptable amounts of ball and Connacht, lethargic in the opening half as the home side took a 15-0 lead, defended heroically to deny them that bonus point.
Still, Penney believes his players are now making better decisions.
“I think so. We’ve always said it was going to be a roller coaster and the bumpy ride continues, to a degree. We’re all learning together about not only the structure and the ability to create space... also learning, from my perspective in particular, about the different skill sets within the group and who’s capable of doing what.
“That whole strategy and focus around attacking space is something we are trying to apply more effectively and more accurately and as we saw in that first 20 minutes or 30 minutes in that [first] half, it’s a pretty potent formula.”
Add fit-again Simon Zebo and Keith Earls to that mix and the potency increases significantly but for now the recuperation of O’Connell in time to face Quins is just the boost Penney needed most.
“The easy term for me, that sums him up, is he’s like a big security blanket,” he said of O’Connell. “You just know the detail’s there, the challenging environment that you want to create where people are comfortable to be challenged, and the challenge is always there when he’s about.
“He’s a very intelligent, driven, assiduous scholar of rugby and you just sense when you’re putting the team out there and he’s in it — and it’s the first time I’ve really been able to do it because he was underdone when we had a crack against Racing [Metro in October] — that everybody understands what they’re trying to do because if they don’t, they know that Paulie will challenge them and get the best out of them.
“You just see him on the park too, driving and dictating and really getting the best out of everybody. He’s just a wonderful leader and a great man to have around.”
Penney’s satisfaction was the polar opposite of Connacht head coach Eric Elwood’s emotions after seeing his side’s three-game winning streak ended on a bitterly cold night in Cork.
Connacht had climbed into mid-division and were chasing four wins in a row in the league for the first time since September 2002. Alas for Elwood, the game was up from an early stage as Munster dominated, spurred by an effective scrum, Sligo-born scrum-half Cathal Sheridan’s quick and sharp passing, in turn giving O’Gara the ammunition and time to play at his best.
It produced O’Connell’s opening try in the 11th minute, from a good offload by Sheridan five metres out, and O’Gara’s intelligent kicking out of hand brought out the worst in Connacht lock Mick Kearney, his shoulder charge on the fly-half bringing a yellow card two minutes later, the resulting penalty leading to a lineout and maul from which Varley got over for the first of his scores — 12-0 after 15 minutes.
“The game was over after that 10-minute spell where we gave away a penalty in their 22,” Elwood said ruefully. “We didn’t see the ball for the next seven minutes, they got a try and then we gave away another penalty and a try. That was 12 points in 10 minutes, and you can’t do that against a team like Munster.
“We showed the type of defence we are capable at the end of the game but if we had that at the start, it may have been a different story but we weren’t at the races.
“Not only did we not hold on to the ball, we didn’t defend properly. The game of rugby is quite simple, you either play with the ball or you play without it and we failed on both counts.”
MUNSTER: F Jones (I Keatley, 67); D Howlett — captain, C Laulala, J Downey (I Dineen, 62), D Hurley; R O’Gara, C Sheridan (D Williams, 57); D Kilcoyne (du Preez, 71), D Varley (M Sherry, 60), S Archer (BJ Botha, 60); Donncha O’Callaghan, P O’Connell; T O’Donnell (N Ronan, 58), S Dougall (B Holland, 60), J Coughlan.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw, D Poolman (F Vainikolo, 59), E Griffin, B Murphy, G Duffy — captain, D Parks (M Nikora, 67), K Marmion (P O’Donohoe, 55), B Wilkinson (D Buckley, 47), J Harris-Wright (A Flavin, 53), N White (R Loughney, 51), M Kearney, G Naoupou (M McCarthy, 47), A Browne, J Muldoon (E McKeon, 62), W Faloon.
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)