Munster slip back into their European groove

 

Munster are continuing to demonstrate an affinity for all things French. On Saturday evening at the Stade Pierre Antoine in Castres they wrote a new chapter to a European odyssey that shows no sign of abating.

It proved a mixed weekend for Irish rugby with Leinster also winning, beating Biarritz on Friday night, but Ulster could not sustain the impetus in the Cup, producing an excellent display for 60 minutes against Saracens at Vicarage Road before conceding 24 points in the final quarter to lose 55-25. Connacht succumbed to 45 unanswered points in their European Shield game against Neath at the Gnoll.

Munster's 32-29 victory, their second in succession in this season's Heineken European Cup, leaves them perfectly poised for the visit of Bath to Thomond Park next Saturday. They lead Pool Four, the only unbeaten team, and will be aware that victories in their remaining home games against Bath and Castres, quite apart from what they manage on their travels to Bath and Newport, might be enough to provide a passage to the European Cup quarter-finals.

Munster's success at the weekend was all the more laudable given that they trailed 206 at one stage and had flanker Alan Quinlan sent to the sin bin for the last 10 minutes of the first half. Coach Declan Kidney was not as concerned as the travelling support. "At half-time I wasn't too upset by our performance. I thought that when we were on the ball we were very good, the trouble was that we weren't on the ball. It was a case of could we dig our way out of trouble, could we get the first score." Munster's ability to withstand the shards of panic when their predicament appears bleak owes something to the coach's philosophy. "Why panic? It doesn't exactly improve your situation in any part of your life, and sport mirrors life sometimes."

Trailing 20-9 at the interval, outhalf Ronan O'Gara kicked a brace of penalties, full back Dominic Crotty scored a try and suddenly the sides were level. Castres forged six points ahead only for Munster to respond with two superb tries, the first from Anthony Horgan and the second, which started in their own 22, from O'Gara.

Castres captain, Ireland second row Jeremy Davidson, proved a gracious loser. "That try was like the one they scored in Bordeaux. They have a real touch of class when they play like that and they deserved it completely just for that try."

Ulster threatened a similarly momentous achievement for 60 minutes yesterday at Vicarage Road. The Irish province led 12-11 at the interval and 25-19 early in the second half following a fine try from Shane Stewart, who was a late pre-match replacement for the injured Jonathan Bell. David Humphreys converted before adding two penalties.

But when Richard Hill grabbed a second try, it sparked a glorious half an hour for Saracens, who swamped the visitors with a hat-trick from Dan Luger and another from outhalf Duncan McRae. It was an amazing collapse and one that will trouble coach Harry Williams.

Humphreys tried to articulate the disappointment. "We played really well for 60 minutes and were in the match. We will have to look at why we fell apart in the last 20 minutes." When it was suggested that there were a great deal of positive aspects to the Ulster performance, the captain conceded: "It is the result that counts. You can see why Saracens are top of the league."

Saracens French full back Thomas Castaignede admitted: "Francois (Pienaar) was very upset with us after the first half. In fairness Ulster played very well and we knew that we had to improve considerably. We did that in the second half."

Ulster must now travel to Toulouse next Sunday and to take on a French side that have lost their two games to date. Leinster make the short journey to Franklin's Gardens for a clash with the reigning European Cup holders, Northampton. The latter's defence of the trophy has been seriously undermined by a second defeat at the weekend, on this occasion at home to Edinburgh Reivers.