The two-time champions yesterday ripped up the form book and defied the bookmakers’ odds to defeat the champions of England on their own, hard turf and reach the 10th Heineken Cup semi-final in their glittering history.
Furthermore they did it the old-school way, digging deep in the face of adversity following a woefully inept second half in Glasgow the previous weekend, ignoring ill-advised reports of an untimely end and producing a hard-nosed, strong-willed and desperately hungry performance to deliver yet another famous European win on the road.
On a bone-dry pitch in bright spring sunshine at The Stoop in Twickenham, Munster forgot all about their woes in the RaboDirect Pro12, where hopes of a play-off spot were quite literally thrown away in Scotland eight days earlier.
After an early dalliance with the throw-it-wide at all costs confusion that has been their undoing for much of this first season under Rob Penney’s frustrated charge, Munster even overcame the shock of seeing Ronan O’Gara miss his first two shots at goal to settle any anxiety and work their way into a game they were not supposed to win.
They stopped Harlequins playing their natural running game and then more than matched Conor O’Shea’s side when the Premiership titleholders tried to bash it up the middle. And yet this was more than just a spoiling job. Munster earned their trip into the last four, where they face another huge task in trying to overhaul competition favourites ASM Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier on Saturday, April 27.
That’s for another day, though. For now, Munster should be allowed to bask in the warm glow this victory deserves, particularly given the way they had been written off in the wake of that poor league form.
This, said Penney, “was more about a team really keen to do well for themselves”.
He added: “People have given them no hope and you do that to any team and they’ll lift. There’s something a little special around this group. I’m not sure if it’s (an X factor)… just their ability to overcome some adversity.
“That resilience factor is to the fore. We would like to have it a little more often. In terms of big occasions, big players stepped up and a couple of the less-heralded guys were outstanding.”
Penney had blasted those same players in the wake of the Glasgow defeat, calling the last period of the game “embarrassing” and accusing them of letting themselves and the jersey down after Munster had sunk to their heaviest defeat for nine years in going down 51-24.
Yesterday he struck a different tone, that, in fact, what he had seen up to those final 30 minutes against Glasgow had been pleasing to his eye.
“It was a matter of shoring up certain areas of vulnerability, especially around our defence. We thought if Harlequins looked at that too intently and focused on those areas, they were never going to be there this week because we had equally shored up those areas. Sometimes you have to be exposed before you know where your weaknesses are.
“Glasgow played quite a bit of rugby…. we probably hadn’t been exposed to a team playing that much against us. It was ideal preparation for us. Harlequins play a lot, they tried some stuff and our defence was really good.”
Trailing just 9-6 at half-time in south-west London, O’Gara having fixed his sights to keep in touch with opposite number Nick Evans’s kicking, Munster emerged for the second half and turned a nip and tuck game into an 18-9 lead within just 16 minutes of the restart.
It really was the perfect start for Munster, every bounce of the ball falling the right way, every 50-50 situation going in their favour. O’Gara had levelled at 9-9 two minutes in after a Quins offside. Then Paul O’Connell, at the centre of everything in just his third game back for the side following back surgery last December 31, won the restart and with the support of his willing pack, mauled it up to halfway.
The fire was in Munster bellies, both on the pitch and in the remarkable support, turning The Stoop into an enclave of the home province by outnumbering the home supporters in numbers and decibels.
Simon Zebo, another returning hero after a fracture in his foot, broke upfield from halfway, Peter O’Mahony launched into a strong carry, followed by Dave Kilcoyne and the phases, patiently put together, were rewarded with another penalty, which O’Gara happily accepted to put the visitors in front for the first time in the match.
It got even better. From the restart, James Downey won the loose ball on the deck, O’Mahony kicked upfield and then tagged his man on the opposing 22 in tandem with Zebo, another penalty accruing at the breakdown. 15-9 to Munster and another massive roar, just 48 minutes on the clock.
It was a lead they would not surrender. The high intensity, great tackling and superb breakdown work, all exemplified not just by O’Connell but also by Tommy O’Donnell in particular, continued apace and, married to the now accurate boot of Ronan O’Gara, proved a winning combination.
O’Gara slotted one more from the tee in the 56th minute, this time from a scrum penalty and Harlequins were done, choke tackled into submission, Evans’ 65th minute penalty not so much a rallying call as a last whiff of defiance.
To Munster, not just the spoils but a much-needed affirmation of both the coach’s often misunderstood game plan and the players’ ability to execute it. Granted, it was more old school than new dawn but Penney was taking it, either way.
“It would be great if we could carry on,” said Penney. “It’s such a difficult competition. We’re really disappointed the way the Rabo’s worked out, and nobody more so than me. But the backroom, and in particular, Simon Mannix and Anthony Foley and Ian Costello and the coaching group, have done a terrific job keep focus, keeping the faith and keeping this group working towards what was a pretty good performance today.
“I think it’s a great reward for the whole backroom and for the Munster province but the most important bit is that the players will get a little bit of confidence and a little bit of faith as we springboard into whatever’s left of this and beyond this season.”
That will depend on the mighty Clermont, who brushed aside a good Montpellier side on Saturday at their Stade Marcel Michelin fortress and now decamp to their quarter-final rivals’ hometown to greet Munster in three weeks.
“They’re a world-class side,” Penney said. “There are two or three Kiwis in there that could still wear the All Black jersey and playing them in their home environment will be exceedingly challenging. This was a massive enough challenge but playing that French team... The only thing is they can only put 15 men on the park at once. So that’s where our hope lies.”
HARLEQUINS: M Brown; T Williams, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston; O Kohn, G Robson; M Fa’asavalu, C Robshaw – captain, N Easter.
Replacements: J Gray, M Lambert, W Collier, C Matthews, T Guest, K Dickson, B Botica, M Hopper.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Hurley, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne , M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Ryan, P O’Connell — captain; P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell , J Coughlan.
Replacements: D Varley W du Preez, S Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, P Butler, C Sheridan, I Keatley, I Dineen.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).