Munster reclaim that old magic
RUGBY:AFTER AN oddly dull and uneventful first period on a glorious autumnal Sunday in Limerick, the thought occurred that maybe the Heineken Cup was losing a little of its magic. Ha! This was Munster in Thomond Park after all, and as the home pack mauled their way toward the line to complete a flurry of three tries in the final 10 minutes and secure a bonus point in a 33-0 win over Edinburgh, it was like the old days. Feeding time in the zoo and all that, and the old Thomond roar was back.
The feelgood factor arising from Damien Varley’s try with the last play of the game was palpable. With that, Munster jumped to second in Pool One on six points, within three of Saracens, whom they host in the first of back to back games on Saturday December 8th. Tickets might be a touch harder to come by than for yesterday, when the official attendance was 22,146.
“The bonus point could be really important,” said Rob Penney afterwards. “We’ve a couple of massive games before Christmas so we’re masters of our own destiny in that regard. If we do well, we’re in the hunt whether we get bonus points or not. We still have to beat Saracens to keep ourselves in it. I’d rather have the bonus point than not!”
There was a palpable sense of relief too, although it’s striking to note how the groups are already being dominated by a heavyweight Anglo-French axis, featuring the cash-rich Gallic trio of Clermont, Toulouse and Toulon, along with the English duo of Harlequins and Saracens, as well as in-form Ulster after their ultra-efficient win away to Glasgow on Friday maintained their unbeaten start to life under Mark Anscombe.
As expected, the fate of the Irish quartet will largely hinge on the pivotal back to back meetings in December, for in addition to the Munster-Saracens clashes, the champions Leinster run into a rampant Clermont, while Ulster and Connacht go head-to-head with Northampton and Biarritz. But missing those games will be Ulster’s captain Johann Muller who will be out for eight weeks after rupturing thumb ligament on Friday.
Watching Clermont follow up last week’s 49-16 win over Scarlets with 36 unanswered points in the second half away to Exeter on Saturday, the feeling persisted that Leinster assuredly dodged a bullet in avoiding them until then.
Against the same two opponents, Vern Cotter’s international-laden squad have scored a dozen tries to one by Leinster. Asked if there was more to come after their 20-13 win away to the Scarlets, Joe Schmidt admitted: “I hope so because there has to be. You can’t keep surviving on skinny margins like that.” Trailing Clermont by two points in their current form was “not our favourite position to be in. Last time we went there in the pool, it was ten-all coming to our home game.”
While the continuing absence of Rob Kearney, along with Seán O’Brien, was now of more pressing concern to Declan Kidney, there were more encouraging signs yesterday at Thomond Park for the Ireland coach prior to announcing a preliminary squad of 30 or so players on Wednesday for the forthcoming November Tests against South Africa and Argentina.
Uppermost amongst these was an hour’s tour de force from Paul O’Connell. “We all know what he’s capable of and it’s just lovely to see him now looking like he’s in really good shape and giving it for 60 and as he heads into the next few weeks. He was as frustrated as everybody was with his injury and I think the patience shown is a really good lesson for us all. Give a guy time and not rush him back and he’s been terrific for the last two weeks; last week came in cold and this week he has gone up another level.”
Penney is a brave coach, for sure, and while there was a better mix to their game here, it understandably pleased him no end that his players evidently share his sense of conviction about the type of rugby they are trying to play.
“As I’ve said we’ve still got to ride the rollercoaster and we’re still getting better at what we’re trying to do and I’m really rapt with their perseverance. Because it would have been easy to go back to what we know.
“And they’re hearing it. They’re in the public arena. ‘Why are you trying to do this for? Why don’t you go back to . . . ?’ But as I’ve explained to the lads when you are going through anything new as an athlete you end up in a dark place. They call it the pit and you end up in the pit for a while and it’s very frustrating and it’s a horrible place to be because it’s so easy to go back. But when you pop out of it the sun’s a lot brighter and you can actually far exceed anything you were able to do previously.
“So we’re just on the bottom of that pit I think, still trying to work our way out but there’s light at the end of the tunnel and I think given another few months of this understanding and us working together and having faith in each other we’ll be a better side and we’ll continue to be a better side.”
Edinburgh brought little or nothing to the contest, and returned home with nothing. Despite some significant investment in their squad, last year’s semi-finalists have thus gone through their first two Heineken Cup games without scoring a point, while conceding 78.