If the ERC need to remind its constituent partners of what it is that makes the Heineken Cup a riveting tournament, just replay at their next board meeting the last five minutes of action at Perpignan’s Stade Aime Giral and the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
It was rugby theatre at its very best.
To France first. There is something about this emerging group of Munster players that endears. Technically flawed and tactically naive they may be, but somehow they survive.
In that unexpected victory last season at Harlequins in the quarter final and in the semi-final defeat to Clermont Auvergne, the over-riding characteristic was character. Money just can’t buy that precious commodity — just ask Racing Metro’s owner, Jacky Lorenzetti.
Surrendering the lead to a disastrous try, facilitated by a poor defensive read from Denis Hurley, the missed conversion from Tommy Allan offered the slimmest of lifelines with one minute left on the clock. ‘If New Zealand can do it, then why can’t we?’ seemed to be the attitude from behind the Munster posts. The irony was that try-scoring hero JJ Hanrahan was only on the field due to the serious knock Keith Earls had just shipped, yet this son of Kerry has a welcome knack for scoring tries. He has the Midas touch and his magical sidestep that left Perpignan full back Joffrey Michel grasping at air was reminiscent of David Duckham or Gerald Davies in their prime.
Perhaps there was also a bit of poetic justice in that last-second reprieve as there was a strong hint of not one, but two forward passes in what appeared to be Perpignan’s match-winning try but referee JP Doyle, having consulted with the assistant, decided not to seek the intervention of the TMO.
At a time when the TMO has been flogged to death in almost every game this season, how bizarre he wasn’t consulted on this key occasion. Had Munster lost the game on that call, even allowing for that calamitous mix up in defence, it would have been a travesty.
That said, the manner in which they came back to snatch the win will surely stand to them. As New Zealand have shown on countless occasions, the rewards are there for those who choose to play to the final whistle.
The win not only keeps Munster’s quarter-final aspirations very much in their own hands but has also delivered another crucial reference point in the evolution of this developing squad. It may not have been the prettiest of games but Munster were good value for their win. At times in the opening quarter they offered glimpses of what they were capable of but continuously shot themselves in the foot with poor execution, questionable game management, silly errors and a series of missed tackles.
The one crumb of comfort at half-time was the solidity of the Munster set piece, the only disappointment being they failed to use it to best effect in that opening half. Instead they put themselves under intolerable pressure in attempting to make passes that were never on.
In that, they were repeating the mistakes of Murrayfield in round one, offering the Perpignan defence big targets to smash. Casey Laulala was nearly halved by one telegraphed delivery from Felix Jones while Peter O’Mahony was blown yards backwards attempting to clean up the debris after a very poor pass from Damien Varley.
Credit the Munster management for the tactical shift that unfolded after the break when Munster mended the error of their ways and adopted a more direct approach which led to the first real opportunity to capitalise on their dominant scrum. To come to the south of France and earn a penalty try is just about as good as it gets for any member of the front five.
Quite why it took referee Doyle four penalties and a free kick before coming to that inevitable conclusion was another mystery on a poor day for this team of officials. That crucial seven-pointer, eight minutes after the break, offered Munster the lifeline they needed after Ian Keatley missed two straightforward penalty kicks in the opening half.
Operating in slipstream of Ronan O’Gara can’t be easy for Keatley but, like the team itself, he showed character to bounce back and deliver when the need was greatest.
Two challenges have to be met head on when you travel to France. First and most important is the mental one. Not only do you need to believe you can win but you must also communicate that positivity to the opposition. The second challenge is the physical one. If you don’t measure up in the mental battle you have zero chance of winning the physical one and Munster were certainly up for that. They started positively, benefiting from the fact that the stadium was well below capacity and as a consequence was nothing like the intimidating cauldron that greeted previous Munster here in 2003 and 2009.
At one stage the physical confrontation threatened to get out of hand with Munster being sucked into a dockyard brawl that suited the limited ambition of a poor Perpignan side. At least after the harsh sin-binning of Peter O’Mahony along with Perpignan hooker Romain Terrain, the contest settled down and Munster began to appreciate they had the ability to win in spite of their crippling error count.
As always on occasions such as this, new heroes emerged and none did better than James Cronin who was absolutely magnificent in his first ever Heineken Cup start. Not only was he dominant in the scrum but also in his ball carrying and defensive duties. International rugby beckons for the Ballincollig man. Sean Dougall was outstanding for the second week in a row while his replacement Tommy O’Donnell made an immediate impact off the bench, playing a crucial role in Hanrahan’s magic moment.
Of the more experienced brigade, Donnacha Ryan — who had ironed out his future with a new three-year IRFU deal before the game — showed no signs of his recent injury absence with a towering performance. BJ Botha was the chief architect of Munster’s scrum dominance while Paul O’Connell, James Coughlan and O’Mahony led the way up front. However, there’s a worrying lack of authority and leadership across the back line and that remains an issue which has to be resolved before the trip to Gloucester, whose defeat to Edinburgh at Kingsholm yesterday, topped off a very rewarding weekend for Rob Penney’s charges.
At the Aviva on Saturday, confirmation, if it were needed, that the heart plays as much a role in the psychological war of sport as the head. Northampton were humiliated on their home patch last weekend and no matter how much Leinster anticipated the backlash that was sure to come, they were powerless to deal with it. Favourites for the tournament, they too had the steel to almost snatch victory with the last play but Jamie Heaslip’s unfortunate handling error dictated otherwise. Such fine margins decide the destiny of the Heineken Cup. Do we really need to dismantle this wonderful competition?
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