Munster stretched to the limit

 

In a predictable sign of Munster's now successful times, the Thomond Park reaction was as much one of phew as yippee. Even the management were struck by how quiet and slumped the players initially were in the home dressing-room. They had to be cajoled to have a sing-song, to enjoy the winning feeling. This winning stuff can become very draining.

Not just mentally either, for physically Munster must have expended as much sweat and guts as in any of their previous eight Heineken Cup wins out of eight at their Limerick bearpit. Certainly this collision was as fiercesomely crunching on their bodies as any of those that went before, for Newport were undoubtedly better than any of the three other Welsh sides to have lost here.

An "absolutely delighted" Declan Kidney said: "You can talk about performances and results and enjoying yourselves. Now we're trying to do all three but it's the mental strength that it takes to do it, you're playing your first game in Europe, you're 15 points up in 15 minutes and I myself was thinking would he ever blow the final whistle then, and that means it must be harder for the guys playing. Now the boulder is moving once more, and they're getting it moving themselves."

Newport aren't a good side, Kidney countered, "they're a great side. They're playing Bath at home next Friday, would you put money on that?" On Newport maybe. "And as for the knockers of our interpro series, Ulster and ourselves have now beaten Cardiff and Newport." Palpably better coached and drilled than Cardiff, Newport in truth created more, scoring two fine tries out wide and only being denied a couple more by Anthony Horgan's first-half covering tackle on Matt Mostyn and Jason Holland's muscular 72nd minute effort in preventing Alix Popham from grounding the ball over the line.

By comparison, Munster's three first-half tries came from a brace of close-in lines and one from sheer pressure defence. Some monster Munster hits went in, notably from John Hayes, Anthony Foley and Alan Quinlan (now back to his best) in the second period but all the time Newport's ball carriers somehow made the ball available. It was bloody hard to get the pill back from them, Munster's players sighed afterwards, and it was to their opportunistic credit that they made every hard-won turnover count. David Wallace did some excellent work at the breakdown, notably in stealing the ball for Mick Galwey to lead the charge in the prelude to Frankie Sheahan's opening try.

As with the Stade Francais quarter-final last season and other Thomond games, Munster had maximised home advantage with an explosive start and as good as they are at gritty comebacks, they're also strong front-runners but thereafter this was hard work nonetheless. The covering and return kicking of Dominic Crotty was unstinting, likewise John Kelly's work-rate and Anthony Horgan's defending. Predictably the midfield defence had to cope with the expected target runs of the man mountain Fijian captain Simon Raiwalui as well as their direct counterparts.

Ronan O'Gara varied his game very well again, though perhaps contributed to the second-quarter lapse by kicking rather than retaining the ball more. His line-kicking was generally excellent and his goal-kicking too, save for an untypical loss of concentration with one close-in conversion and ensuing nerves when missing a second.

Peter Stringer did what he does better than any other Irish scrum-half, to much relief the scrum held up well, the line-out variations and drives of both teams were excellent and the donkey work of the tight five - tackle counts and hitting rucks - augmented the effectiveness of the loose trio.

Leading them all, Galwey was a colossus again. The day before his 34th birthday it wouldn't be stretching credulity to say the legendary lock was as good as he ever has been in his previous 100 games for his province. He set the tempo with a couple of lineout drives, then taking out four players in one rumble and then another three with his ninth European Cup try. And that was just for starters, his work-rate, and physical in yer face presence never relenting.

In the second and fourth quarters, Newport threw the kitchen sink at Munster and it's doubtful whether any side has stretched them quite like Shane Howarth and his cohorts did, the reconverted Kiwi out-half being superb at keeping Munster's loose forwards honest and creating space.

Twice the home defence was outflanked for tries in the corner by Ben Breeze with cut-out passes and decoy straight runs which checked Munster's drift and lured them inside a little. The brains trust will have been looking at that yesterday.

Perhaps, too, Munster took their foot off the pedal after the first quarter but in any event the first of Breeze's two tries on the resumption brought Newport to within a score and, cometh the hour, Munster needed something special. In many ways, O'Gara was the instigator with a change of strategy designed to up Munster's quick-rucking tempo after Mike Mullins had run back a kick by Matt Pini. The out-half's half-break and popped release off the deck was superbly supported by Foley.

O'Gara again ran hard and popped the ball up for the supporting Sheahan and though Newport in turn ran back Jason Holland's skewed up-and-under, a brilliant steal on his feet by Kelly enabled Quinlan to take it on. Galwey, Clohessy and Sheahan in turn picked and went in one of those stirring Munster forward drives before O'Gara, 60 seconds after his original cut to an increasing crescendo of noise, again ran hard, Gary Teichmann blatantly coming in from the side at the tackle and then playing the ball from an offside position for O'Gara to land a crucial 35 metre penalty.

Thomond throbbed and Teichmann had some nerve to query that decision, or his illegal playing of the ball at another tackle situation two minutes later after Mullins had strongly run Galwey's line-out up the middle, which O'Gara punished again.

Howarth's skip pass for Breeze to outflank the Munster defence once more sent a shiver through Thomond Park in a nail-biting finish, made slightly more bearable by the out-half having failed to land another touchline conversion. But Newport had already marked down the return at Rodney Road as Munster's most difficult trip ever to Wales.

Scoring sequence: 2 mins: O'Gara pen, 3-0; 9 mins: Sheahan try, 8-0; 13 mins: Galwey try, O'Gara con, 15-0; 28 mins: Howarth pen, 15-3; 33 mins: Howarth pen, 15-6; 40 mins: Horgan try, 20-6 (half-time); 42 mins: Breeze try, Howarth con 20-13; 64 mins: O'Gara pen, 23-13; 66 mins: O'Gara pen, 26-13; 75 mins: Breeze try, 26-18.

Munster: D Crotty; J Kelly, M Mullins, J Holland, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, F Sheahan, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt), J Langford, A Quinlan, A Foley, D Wallace.

Newport: M Pini; M Mostyn, J Jones-Hughes, A Marinos, B Breeze; S Howarth, D Edwards; R Snow, J Richards, A Garvey, S Raiwalui, I Gough, P Buxton, G Teichmann (capt), A Popham. Replacements: J Pritchard for Jones-Hughes (7 mins), G Taylor for Raiwalui (22-25 mins, temp).

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).