Croke Park will host an All-Ireland final of unique proportions when Munster and Leinster face off on May 2 for the right to be classified as the best side in Ireland. There is also the not insignificant matter of a place in a European cup final at stake in a repeat of that tumultuous day in Lansdowne Road in 2006. It’s the game neither side dare lose.
If Munster had their semi-final slot in the bag long before the final whistle at Thomond Park yesterday, Leinster’s ongoing involvement was in doubt right up to the end as Harlequins chased any kind of score that would rescue them. In the end Leinster’s brave defence and composure was sufficient to guarantee that an Irish team will contest the final in Edinburgh on May 23rd.
The other semi-final offers an Anglo-Welsh affair between Cardiff Blues who accounted for Toulouse — ensuring there will be no French presence at the penultimate stage for only the second time in the history of the tournament — and Leicester Tigers who scraped past Bath.
Munster’s comprehensive victory over the Ospreys has now propelled them into an eighth semi-final this decade, a feat unprecedented even by the great Toulouse sides. Prior to kick-off Munster ceo Garrett Fitzgerald accepted a special presentation from the ERC to commemorate Munster’s 100th game in the tournament. I have been fortunate enough to witness well over 90 of those games and I cannot recall a more complete performance than this one.
There has been a certain begrudgery in some quarters about the manner in which Munster has approached their dominance of Europe in recent times, some even accusing them of being boring. Well, this was the end of that. If Toulouse or Stade Francais managed to conjure some of the quality phase play that Munster produced yesterday, we would be waxing lyrical about Gallic genius. This Munster side is now the complete package. But that does not guarantee ultimate success.
Playing against the wind in the opening half Munster adopted a ball in hand, off-loading game which had the Ospreys under all kinds of pressure. In fact, apart from penalty kicks out of hand or at goal, Ronan O’Gara didn’t kick until he launched an up-and-under in the 37th minute. Instead Munster’s kicking game was directed by Tomas O’Leary and Paul Warwick, while O’Gara orchestrated operations through the hand. The result was spectacular, none more so than the opening try by Warwick which stretched the Ospreys through several phases with Lifeimi Mafi creating havoc. The manner in which Warwick side-stepped both Ospreys second rows, Alan Wyn Jones and Ian Gough and rounded Tommy Bowe was sensational and put down a marker on what was to come.
Any side forced to line out without quality internationals in Gavin Henson and Lee Byrne is bound to suffer. Yet it must be noted that the Ospreys started with 14 full internationals with three more making an impact off the bench. Yet in the end they were left with their heads hanging, praying for the final whistle, humiliated.
Munster are now the consummate professional side, patient with or without the ball. At times in that opening period they appeared like the matador teasing the bull. The manner in which they retained possession throughseveral phases invited the Ospreys to concede penalties under pressure and allowed them to build a score. Tony McGahan had also done his work in interpreting exactly what referee Wayne Barnes was looking for at the breakdown and for the majority of the game managed to keep him happy.
Without the ball Munster were comfortable, relying on astructured and wellorganised defensive screen where each and every player knows his role. As a result, despite the quality the Ospreys had on offer behind the scrum, they never looked like scoring a try.
Munster had game breakers everywhere none better than the midfield of Mafi and Keith Earls who continuously asked questions of the visitors hunger for the tackle. What a pity injury denied Earls of more game time during the SixNations. It is hard to believe he is in his first full season as a Munster regular.
On the back of this performance, Munster will be raging favourites to emulate the feat of Leicester as the only side toretain the Heineken Cup. Their hunger to achieve that milestone was there for all to see, especially as the second half gathered momentum and they piled on the points with a ruthlessness that one rarely associates with Irish sporting sides.
By their own admission, having finally captured the trophy in 2006, Munster hit a wall and subsequently paid the price with a tame exit against Llanelli at Stradey Park in the 2007 quarter final. This time around the lessons have been learned and if anything the quality of therugby being produced is even better than that which secured the trophy last season.
Nowhere was this in greater evidence than the performance of man-of-the-match Paul Warwick who has slotted into the full back role as if to the manor born. His kicking game has offered an extra dimension to that already provided by O’Gara while he rarely if ever takes the wrong option. His second drop goal, hit with confidence and precision from the half-way line, displayed all the hallmarks of a player content with his lot. On this evidence the only losers are London Irish who conceded defeat during the week on their quest to sign the Australian.
In the build up to this game, much was made of the contest between the respective half backs and in particular the roles of Tomás O’Leary and Mike Phillips. Yesterday was O’Leary’s finest hour in a Munster shirt and given the presence of Lions management Warren Gatland and Rob Howley in the stand, the former Cork hurler has now put himself firmly in the shop window for Lions selection. Munster now need to ensure that he has more support when he makes those searing breaks.
LEINSTER’S feat inproducing the only away win of the four quarter finals over the weekend will offer a major confidence boost as they prepare for another titanic struggle against their near and dear neighbours. On the evidence of the respective performances yesterday Munster will have trouble in stifling the level of expectation that will now accompany them. That will suit Michael Cheika’s side. Despite a faltering scrum they showed sufficient courage, commitment and a doggedness that will fortify them as they retreat and prepare for what lies ahead. In a strange way the defeat to Munster in the Magners League in Thomond Park last week will offer a very fresh reference point from which to launch their assault. They will have learned much. The challenge for Munster now is somewhat different as they seek to maintain yesterday’s level of performance into the final month of the season where an unprecedented double of Magners League and Heineken Cup success is now very much within their grasp. On the evidence of this display nobody would dare bet against them.
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