Satisfaction for now, perfection a long way off

THERE was an element of satisfaction about the end result when a fitful performance but deserved victory at Thomond Park on Saturday night guaranteed Munster will stay top of the Magners League at least until St. Stephen’s Day.

Munster can now confidently throw everything into a make-or-break Heineken Cup double fixture with the Ospreys over the coming fortnight, even if the dress rehearsal played in biting cold and late freezing fog didn’t quite delight coach Tony McGahan.

McGahan’s rating of three from 10 for his charges appears harsh, but then he is in the business of perfection and something close to perfection might be required over the coming days.

“Mark out of ten? Dunno, two or three,” he said, “it was a difficult one in that we had 20 changes to the group this week. Look, we showed the desire to play but, from an execution point of view and getting a lot of things out of it, we weren’t at the races today.”

The Munster scrum was solid enough, the line-outs generally fine and there was little to worry about at ruck time, although that tends to change depending on opposition style or desire.

But the ability to hold possession in contact, was an issue and Munster turned over a much bigger proportion of ball than visitors Cardiff; it’s a problem that appears to be afflicting Irish rugby with plenty examples in the autumn internationals.

McGahan isn’t one to panic, though. Recognising the huge number of squad changes from one week to another, expectation was less demanding although he said: “our execution was disappointing.”

The fact that the game went ahead at all was a bonus. Munster’s decision to demand an earlier start than the planned 7.30 pm kick-off proved vital; so too was the fact the pitch was covered in straw for five days. According to McGahan the ground staff produced the perfect response to a very difficult challenge.

The earlier kick-off at 5 pm meant that when the fog rolled in some 12 minutes from time there was no chance of the match being abandoned. By then too, Munster had survived a couple of Cardiff scares and finished the game with a flurry of goal-line assaults.

At 13-9 the game was very much in the balance, but Ronan O’Gara’s late penalty strike from in front of the sticks gave Munster the seven points buffer and it still allowed Cardiff limp home with a deserved losing bonus point.

The Blues had played valiantly against a Munster side that surely benefited from the inclusion of so many of Declan Kidney’s autumn international panellists.

And those internationals warmed to the challenge in a confrontational first half during which Dan Parks knocked over two penalties before Ronan O’Gara opened Munster’s account in injury time.

Munster had cause to thank second row Mick O’Driscoll for a huge try-saving tackle on Tom Shanklin early in the second-half before they finally got their act together with the creation of the game’s only try. Johne Murphy and Sam Tuitupou were in the thick of the action before Alan Quinlan ploughed through the Cardiff defence for a try O’Gara converted in the 48th minute.

O’Gara added a penalty but Munster failed to put the game away and they had to wait for the out half to make it safe after Parks had kicked a 60th minute penalty to cut the gap to four points.

The fog denied most of the fans a decent view of O’Gara’s clinching score but it allowed Munster’s coach McGahan breathe easily for the closing 50 seconds.

After two days off, the squad will gather again tomorrow and could face some harsh words from the coach. However, experience will tell them to park this win, to recognise only that they’re in a better Magners League place than a year ago; that 160 minutes of rugby over two weeks will define how much they can really enjoy Christmas Day.

MUNSTER: J Murphy, L Mafi, K Earls, S Tuitupou, D Hurley, R O’Gara, P Stringer, W Du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll, A Quinlan, D Leamy (captain), N Ronan.

Replacements: D Wallace for Ronan, T O’Leary for Stringer (both 48), P O’Connell for O’Callaghan (55), J Hayes for Buckley (61), P Warwick for Mafi (63), M Sherry for Varley (70), D Ryan for du Preez (77).

CARDIFF BLUES: C Czekaj, R Mustoe, C Laulala, T Shanklin, G Evans, D Parks, R Rees, G Jenkins, G Williams, F Filise, M Paterson, P Tito (captain), M Molitika, X Rush, S Warburton.

Replacements: B White for Warburton (35, injured), T Slater for Rees (69), S Hobbs for Filse (78).

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).

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