Boot of O'Gara helps Munster to stand up and fight off Saracens
POOL ONE Munster 15 Saracens 9:When this meeting is simplified, an important difference separated the English visitors from their Limerick hosts: one man’s right boot.
Forget the intrusive and inconsistent performance of replacement referee Pascal Gauzere, especially his handling of the scrums, or even Munster’s hugely successful raid of the previously impenetrable Saracens lineout, this contest was decided off the kicking tee.
The master, once again, gave a young pretender to his rule on magical Thomond Park nights like this a lesson in composure. The victim was an IRB player of the year nominee no less.
Ronan O’Gara’s perfect return was in stark contrast to the 21-year-old Owen Farrell landing just two from six shots at goal.
The increasing din for O’Gara’s removal from the Test arena should die down for now. Ulster’s Paddy Jackson only registered two from seven place-kicks on Friday night.
And yet, to simplify matters down to O’Gara kicking excellence would be a disservice to Munster’s new hard edge up front. The statistics support number eight James Coughlan – 12 carries for 39 hard metres, mostly off restarts, and seven tackles – receiving the man of the match award but it was the next generation who stood up more than what remains of the old order. That they outfought Steve Borthwick’s grizzled English cum Springbok cum Celtic gathering of power is the best compliment of all.
Peter O’Mahony was phenomenal, be it his openside duties, the lineout or deft handling in open play, while Dave O’Callaghan, Dave Kilcoyne and Mike Sherry excelled in a physical encounter some predicted would leave them badly exposed.
Yes, O’Callaghan’s namesake, that old warhorse they call Donncha, made a telling defensive contribution (despite being sin-binned for fighting Rhys Gill), as did James Downey, Doug Howlett, Felix Jones and Simon Zebo, but it was the 22-year-old Cork blindside who, under this glaring spotlight, shined brightly.
At 6ft 5in and 100kg, O’Callaghan proved a useful cog in Anthony Foley’s excellent defensive lineout as his place in the backrow pecking order has surely improved after this performance.
In the 30th minute we witnessed proof that the Youghal man is of pure bred Munster stock. Already stunned from a collision with the 21 stone Mako Vunipola, he knocked himself out cold tackling the recently naturalised English prop for a second time.
Play moved swiftly on as O’Callaghan horribly searched for his equilibrium.
Muhammad Ali once called them the “Black Lights of unconsciousness”. As they shined in O’Callaghan’s eyes, instinct kicked in. Saracens were flooding through the midfield so the physio was dismissed as he made another shuddering tackle. He got up and ploughed on, deserving a standing ovation when relieved by Paddy Butler on 62 minutes. Along with Simon Zebo’s twisted ankle, it was confirmed that O’Callaghan will be fit to travel to Vicarage Road for Sunday’s second edition of this brawl.
“An English team coming to Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup, there is something special about that, and we wanted to set down a physical marker early and I think we achieved that,” said Coughlan afterwards.
“I think our accuracy went out the window as a result, that is something we are going to have to look at. We must be a bit more controlled in what we are doing as we left a fair amount of points behind us.”
That’s certainly true, but the concession of 17 penalties, 12 were out of Sarries kicking range, seemed like a calculated plan to force this latest, supposed Goliath into a street fight.
The crowd, as they always have done, played their part even if the long standing tradition of respecting opposing kickers wasn’t adhered to. The natives were understandably livid with some of Gauzere decisions. You pitied the French man by the end as he seemed lost on this field of professionals. Maybe a referee must undergo such an experience to develop.
On this night, Munster momentarily shelved the new Rob Penney doctrine and went about creating havoc right from the kick-off. There was almost another of those Sebastien Chabal moments, with Chris Ashton the intended target, as Donncha O’Callaghan led the manic opening kick-chase.
A feral 20 minutes ensured.
“The breakdown was a bit of a mess,” said Mark McCall, the Ulster man and Saracens director of rugby. “We came out the right side of the penalty count but it does stop the flow to a game. Munster came into the game with a massive reputation for playing a lot of ball in hand. It was a pretty awful game, scrappy game.”
Gauzere also seemed to misinterpret the scrum, especially in the first-half, handing Saracens two free-kicks and two penalty kicks, much to BJ Botha’s frustration, one of which Farrell nailed on 36 minutes. O’Gara was having none of it, restoring Munster’s six point lead within 90 seconds after Ernst Joubert’s lineout infringement.
Line out steal
They should have got more from the opening 40 minutes, especially after O’Mahony’s lineout steal was followed by Kilcoyne and Sherry rumbles up the middle, only for O’Gara’s drop goal to sail wide.
Farrell partially atoned for two earlier misses to make it 9-6 but, again, this prompted an immediate response with Keith Earls’ constant threat from outside centre creating the yardage and now that Gauzere had finally realised which team was dominating the scrum O’Gara was presented the chance to make it 12-6.
In complete control now, O’Gara rewarded Donncha O’Callaghan’s physicality in contact to make it 15-6 with 27 minutes to play. Saracens dug deep, switching Farrell to outhalf while the arrival of John Smit and Vunipola gave them the ascendancy in the scrum.
Munster looked increasingly exposed but just as Will Fraser seemed certain to score in the corner, to set up a grandstand finish, Zebo arrived with a hugely important cover tackle.
Farrell missed another kick but he swallowed deep to finally reward Saracens’ relentless late charge. The bonus point does allow McCall’s men to look positively at this very poor performance ahead of what promises to be a fascinating revenge mission.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 4 mins: R O’Gara pen, 3-0; 28: R O’Gara pen, 6-0; 36: O Farrell pen, 6-3; 38: R O’Gara pen, 9-3. Half-time. 43: O Farrell pen, 9-6; 49: R O’Gara pen, 12-6; 53: R O’Gara pen, 15-6; 78: O Farrell 15-9.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D O’Callaghan, D Ryan; D O’Callaghan, P O’Mahony, J Coughlan. Replacements: P Butler for Dave O’Callaghan (62 mins), W du Preez for D Kilcoyne, D Varley for M Sherry, C Laulala for F Jones (all 66 mins), I Keatley for S Zebo (74 mins).
SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, O Farrell, B Barritt, D Strettle; C Hodgson, N de Kock; R Gill, S Brits, M Stevens; S Borthwick (capt), M Botha; K Brown, W Fraser, E Joubert. Replacements: M Vunipola for W Fraser (temp, 21 - 30), M Vunipola for R Gill, R Wigglesworth for N de Kock (both 50 mins), D Strettle for C Hodgson (57 mins), G Kruis for M Botha, J Smit for S Brits (both 59 mins), A Saul for W Fraser (64 mins). Sin bin: Donncha O’Callaghan and Rhys Gill (20-30 mins)
Referee: P Gauzere (France).