Vintage Munster Stoop to conquer and rediscover that old cup magic
Harlequins left crushed as Paul O’Connell leads Munster in tearing up the form book
This may have been the first of the weekend’s try feasts not to produce a try, but it was no less compelling for all of that. This was cup rugby, with Munster – albeit a a more youthful, remodelled and recently damaged Munster – dipping into their well of cup knowledge to produce a vintage Heineken Cup performance.
Some things remain cast in stone. Led from the front by Paul O’Connell’s tour de force, and on the ground where he made his Heineken Cup debut fully 15 seasons ago, Ronan O’Gara overcame a couple of early blips with his radar to control proceedings and land his ensuing six penalties to steer Munster across the line.
All week even they had wondered if this Munster team could dip into the well in time-honoured fashion. They did, with a display which grew in authority as the match progressed, reaching a veritable crescendo of unremitting desire and intensity in a ferocious third quarter; their unrelenting pressure rugby broke Harlequins’ spirit.
As O’Gara had suggested, they struck an altogether better balance in deciding when to go wide and when to go up the guts, in truth more often choosing the latter as they sensed it was their route to victory. For sure the twin towers of Munster rugby led the way, but the others were right up besides them.
More than anything, a cup tie revolves around little moments, be it set-pieces or skirmishes, a hanging restart or a loose ball. In so many of these moments, Munster men were quicker in deed and though ts.
In this regard, Tommy O’Donnell really did seem to be everywhere, his astonishing workrate typical of his team’s fired up energy. In a key period of Munster vice-like pressure in the second-half, after James Downey had stopped a potentially dangerous Mike Brown counter-attack with a tackle of such technical timing and brutal force that it was almost a thing of beauty, an extended O’Donnell hand charged down Nick Evans’ line kick .
Peter O’Mahony wasn’t far behind; furious in the collisions, competitive in every area of the pitch, making one muscular and athletic steal of a defensive five-man Harlequins’ line-out. But it was one of those collective Munster efforts that made singling out individuals unfair.
There were no weak links in the chain, with Conor Murray’s carrying, probing, kicking and physicality around the fringes the perfect foil for an inspired Munster pack. Outside O’Gara, a la Downey, Casey Laulala had probably his best game in a Munster jersey.
Their scrum, David Kilcoyne having initially found disfavour with Jerome Garces, became a weapon of slow, grinding torture, and even so their line-out maul. Increasingly they set closer targets and played territory . Their execution of the choke tackle, with the backrowers immense, and the hunger with which the cavalry arrived, almost literally strangled the life out Harlequins, and they were equally effective in forcing turnovers at the breakdown with the ball on the deck. In the latter respect, and in the collisions, O’Connell was immense.
And whereas O’Connell did gild the lilly with the referee, Chris Robshaw became an increasingly frustrated figure, and his constant dialogue with Monsieur Garces seemed merely to annoy the official. Even Nick Evans looked rattled.
Even in the first-half, Munster had enjoyed the better of the possession and the territory ; the one major concern being that they trailed 9-6. But for two misses by O’Gara and Garces twice penalising Munster for wheeling and Kilcoyne once for loosening his bind, Munster assuredly would have been.
As it was, Munster were grateful to see Evans also miss one, and stay in touch through a brace of penalties by O’Gara, but they went up a couple of gears immediately upon the resumption. O’Gara having drawn the sides level, O’Connell gathered a short hanging restart by Evans from a forest of Quins’ hands, Murray’s box kick was claimed by Simon Zebo, O’Mahony made his steal and a sequence of rumbles featuring O’Donnell, Kilcoyne and O’Mahony, O’Gara pushed them ahead.
When Zebo made a follow up tackle on Tom Williams, O’Mahony was in for the turnover penalty which O’Gara nailed – all within the first nine minutes of the restart. Still there was no let-up, Laulala making a wonderful line break and astonishing offload inside to the supporting Murray, before his long pass to Denis Hurley was picked off by George Lowe. Cue Downey’s hit, O’Donnell’s chargedown and when Joe Marler was pinged for slipping his bind, O’Gara made it 18-9.
Quins were afforded a glimmer of light by a rash of penalties and an Evans three-pointer . But Munster’s defence had also become a weapon, and two choke tackles by Coughlan and O’Donnell led to two key turnovers and they even saw out the game in Quins’ territory.
They really are ridiculous. They can never be written off.
Scoring sequence: 4 mins Evans pen 3-0; 19 mins Evans pen 6-0; 29: Evans pen 9-3; 34: O’Gara pen 9-6; (Half-time 9-6); 43: O’Gara pen 9-9; 47: O’Gara pen 9-12; 49: O’Gara pen 9-15; 57: O’Gara pen 9-18; 66: Evans pen 12-18.
HARLEQUINS: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, T Casson, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter. Replacements: J Gray for Buchanan (49 mins), T Guest for Fa'asavalu (51 mins), M Hopper for Cassen (76 mins).
Not used: M Lambert, W Collier, C Matthews, K Dickson, B Botica.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Hurley, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha, D Ryan, P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony, T O’Donnell, J Coughlan. Replacements: D O’Callaghan for Ryan (69 mins), D Varley for Sherry, W Du Preez for Kicloyne, S Archer for Botha (all 76 mins), P Butler for O'Mahony (79 mins).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France),