Munster run in six to sweep through

 

Munster 37 Sale Sharks 14:ONCE AGAIN, in yet another time of crisis, Munster stood, fought and delivered in style. Sale came with intent, but their supposed 3,000-strong support were silenced by a stunning, six-try bonus-point win for Munster which ensured qualification for the Heineken Cup knock-out stages for an unparalleled 11th year in a row.

Even news of Clermont’s bonus point win made no difference, for even if they make up the five-point leeway next weekend, Munster have the superior head-to-head record.

The mauling by Ulster had, in trademark fashion, done Munster a power of good. For all the flashy work, it was the nitty gritty that got them there.

They had clearly put in hard labour on their work at the breakdown. They stayed on their feet and committed numbers to clearing out the ball, before picking the time to go wide, where there was space to be had.

Paul O’Connell, as ever, set the tone, with a hatload of carries, and the rest all followed.

Even from our blinkered, green-red haze, surely there is no more outstanding backrower in Ireland or Britain than David Wallace, who scattered would-be tacklers with his pistons for legs.

Donncha O’Callaghan and the fired-up Jerry Flannery were mighty too. But this was a compelling team effort, with Ronan O’Gara running the show, mixing his game shrewdly.

This time, O’Connell, O’Callaghan and co didn’t target the peripheral. Of all the Sale heavy-hitters, there was no doubting the credentials of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe as a true warrior, and one with plenty of issues from his last visit to Ireland.

He claimed Charlie Hodgson’s kick-off and thus compelled Munster to go through an early, five-phase defensive drill. Denis Leamy made a big hit on Neil Briggs, before a turnover tackle by O’Callaghan on the Puma lifted the initial pressure.

Even better followed with Munster’s first counter-punch. Wallace, Flannery, O’Connell and Alan Quinlan all carried in turn as they and their fellow forwards worked their socks off in clearing the ball out, before Munster went wide to Keith Earls in the outside centre channel in a template of their gameplan.

Earls grubbered ahead and gathered, and Ian Dowling made a typically selfless clear-out. After sharp hands by Lifeimi Mafi and O’Gara off the recycle, the outhalf bravely reclaimed a chip ahead by Paul Warwick just short of the line. From that recycle, O’Connell dived – American Football-style – over the pile-up of bodies to touchdown adroitly.

Hodgson missed a penalty, but atoned after Tomás O’Leary was pinged for not releasing.

Undeterred, Munster retorted with a stunning team try, through a sustained bout of high-intensity phases – everyone contributing – before going wide again.

O’Gara retrieved what looked like a deliberate intercept, and Warwick cleverly re-aligned the attack for Wallace to put Flannery over in the corner. O’Gara even converted.

A scoreless second quarter followed, as the binning of Flannery for tripping Lionel Faure forced Munster to roll up their sleeves.

McAlister’s confidently struck penalty to reduce the lead to 12-6 was in stark contrast to the flaky Hodgson, but, that said, Munster made light of their disadvantage.

However, a hard-earned overlap was ruined by Earls wayward pass for Warwick, though those outside had become way too flat.

All changed after the interval, and how. O’Connell and O’Callaghan double-teamed Fernandez Lobbe from O’Gara’s kick-off to rip the ball from him amid shades of the their double hit on Sebastien Chabal here in that seismic moment three seasons ago. This time the reward was even more immediately tangible, as Quinlan drew two defenders and passed flat to Wallace, who bounced off McAlister, and then picked himself up to power on another 20 metres and take tackles by Chris Bell and Hodgson to reach out for the line.

O’Gara’s conversion made it 19-9, but though Munster were within a try of a bonus point win to qualify for the last eight, soon it was a one-score game too.

First Nigel Owens penalised Quinlan for coming in from the side, and McAlister landed the routine penalty.

Sale’s heavy-duty bench looked like a potentially clever use of two gameplans, or else was too clever by half, but Owens, having seemingly penalised O’Leary for not releasing following a 16-man arm wrestle for the ball, one of those replacements, Dwayne Peel, tapped and went with lightening speed. The 21-stone Eifion Roberts was in support to break tackles by O’Gara and John Hayes and then put Hodgson over with an offload.

Back came Munster, with sustained pressure culminating in O’Gara noticing that Warwick and Dowling had kept their width. He put in a cross kick. Hodgson defends at fullback, but there was no hiding place now as he not alone fumbled the ball above his head but slipped also; Dowling bounced over for the bonus-point try.

Eh, clearly Charlie has never played Gaelic.

Munster upped the heat some more, even as the rain teemed down. God, Sale must have been hating this by now.

Warwick earned the attacking five-metre scrum from which Sale were shunted back, and O’Leary darted over on the blind side for an insurance fifth try.

Howlett, having put in a monster hit on Rudi Keil, then retrieved a chip by McAlister and took a high hit himself; but Sale switched off as Owens played advantage, and Warwick steamed on to O’Gara’s pass to score untouched.

SCORING SEQUENCE - 5 mins:O’Connell try 5-0; 9: Hodgson pen 5-3; 12: Flannery try, O’Gara con 12-3; 19: McAlister pen 12-6; (half-time 12-6); 41: Wallace try, O’Gara con 19-6; 50: McAlister pen 19-9; 51: Hodgson try 19-14; 57: Dowling try 24-14; 66: O’Leary try 29-14; 75: Warwick try 34-14; 80: Warwick pen 37-14.

MUNSTER:P Warwick; D Howlett, K Earls, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O’Gara, T O’Leary; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (capt), A Quinlan, D Wallace, D Leamy. Replacements: D Fogarty for Leamy (21-29 mins), D Ryan for Quinlan (54 mins), F Pucciariello for Hayes (68 mins), N Ronan for Leamy (70 mins), P Stringer for O’Leary (72 mins), D Hurley for O’Gara (76 mins), B Murphy for Earls (77 mins). Sinbinned: Flannery (19-29 mins).

SALE SHARKS:M Cueto; C Bell, A Tuilagi, L McAlister, D Doherty; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; L Faure, M Jones, E Lewis-Roberts, S Chabal, D Schofield, C Jones, N Briggs, J Fernandez Lobbe (capt). Replacements:R Keil for Tuilagi (28 mins), A Sheridan for Faure (45 mins), B Cockbain for Schofield (47 mins), D Peel for Wigglesworth (50 mins), M Tait for Hodgson (62 mins). Not used: S Turner, L Abrahams.

Referee:Nigel Owens (Wales).