Low lie mighty Harlequins as Munster roll back the fears
Towering O’Connell performance lights the fuse
Oh ye of little faith. Rolling back the years in vintage fashion, Munster defied their own recent formline, the odds, the Gods, the tea leaves and perhaps even the fears of many of their most diehard fans in yesterday’s stirring Heineken Cup quarter-final at the Stoop to eclipse Harlequins.
In the process they saved their season and kept Irish interest alive on semi-final weekend for the 14th time in 16 years. Why do we ever doubt them?
As Paul O’Connell noted immediately afterwards, not quite licking his lips at the prospect, they’ll be underdogs again three weeks’ hence when the tournament favourites Clermont host them on Saturday, April 27th (kick-off 6pm local time, 5pm Irish).
At least the game will be in Montpellier’s Stade de la Masson rather than their own Stade Marcel Michelin fortress, where Clermont extended their unbeaten record to 58 matches with a ruthless demolition of Montpellier by 36-14 on Saturday – after the latter had dominated the first quarter or so.
Earlier that day, Leinster will host Biarritz in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final, but that would have felt like a slight anti-climax by the province’s recent European standards.
A try-laden weekend was completed by a second tryless affair yesterday when Toulon beat Leicester 21-15 to earn a semi-final at Twickenham against Saracens, on Sunday, April 28th.
As a minor aside to extending their season, Munster’s leading Lions candidates did themselves no harm in front of Warren Gatland and his coaching ticket. And they gave themselves another day in the shop window three days before the squad is announced.
Paul O’Connell, official man of the match, was such a towering figure that not alone has he edged closer to selection, he will have given Gatland serious thoughts of making him the tourists’ captain again.
Conor Murray was facing off with Danny Care for the third scrumhalf’s slot along with Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs, and thoroughly eclipsed the Englishman with his carrying, offloading, passing, kicking game and all-round work-rate.
He surely will be on the plane now, and the cases for both Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo can’t have been harmed either.
O’Mahony was simply savage when Munster took Harlequins and the game almost literally by the scruff of the neck in the third quarter, when Zebo, in his first game for eight weeks since breaking a metatarsal bone, also shone with his chasing and catching.
“He’s great isn’t he?” said Rob Penney of his captain. “It’s hard to explain what he does. Everyone speaks about him in glowing terms, and so they should.”
“First and foremost, he’s just a wonderful man. He’s a great bloke. And you couple that with his empathetic outlook on life – he sees things through other people’s shoes, so he understands the trials and tribulations of what other people are going through.
“And he’s just got this understanding that makes everyone feel good to be around him. You couple that with his rugby ability and he’s just a really complete man and Munster obviously have fed off him for a long period, and equally Rog today was superb. You can’t speak highly enough about both of them.”
Doubt after last week
“I suppose there was a lot of doubt after last week,” admitted O’Connell. “We probably threw a bit of a dummy against Glasgow. It wasn’t our intention; we were very low during the week.
“ It was a great, great performance. Some of the young guys, Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell – it’s hard to pick guys out, but I thought they were phenomenal – particularly in that 10-, 15-minute period after half-time, they really stood up.”
It was put to O’Connell that this had been traditional Munster cup rugby. “It probably was. It’s funny, I was laughing with Rob (Penney) afterwards because he probably can’t win.
“We never discussed playing as we did. Our plan was to just do what was required of us at any given moment and that’s what we did today.
“We did things which put them under a lot of pressure and built pressure on them. I think our maul, kick game, the carrying of some of the younger players, was excellent.”
Generously saying “well done” to a “brilliant, brilliant Munster” performance, Harlequins head coach Conor O’Shea added: “I thought Paul O’Connell was absolutely majestic, the whole team was physical but he was the totem the whole team rose around.”
“Paul O’Connell is one of the greatest secondrows in rugby and one of the greatest secondrows Ireland have ever produced, if not the greatest.
As the team rallied around him you could see that was the focus. Peter O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan, they all ever gave their all but he was the man they all rallied around.”
A prospective Lions captain? “Definitely.”
“It’s going to be tough,” said O’Shea, echoing the words of O’Connell and Penney, who quipped that Clermont can only put 15 players on the pitch at one time, “but you never, ever write Munster off.”
Indeed, and you’d think we’d have learned by now.