Dan McGrath

Keith Earls evades Mark Cueto at Thomond Park. The centre’s handling skills were excellent throughout Friday’s clash with the Sharks. | Photo: Dan McGrath

Yet another unforgettable night in this heaving cauldron. Yet another night when the men of Munster had heroes all over the paddock.

Yet another night when the home supporters gave the full-voiced soundtrack that’s been playing for a decade another spin on the turntable. Yet another ‘one of those nights’ kinda nights.

The Ferrero Rocher of Irish sport when it comes to the big occasion, Munster continue to spoil us, the red-clad gift that just keeps on giving.

Of course it had all been so different the last time Munster had lined out on home soil.

Battered by an Ulster team on the brink of a new dawn (victory over Harlequins offering further proof of that contention), some despondent observers spoke of the Munster locomotive coming off the tracks.

What Grade A baloney. A week later, pride and a good deal more was restored when defeating their Magners League rivals in Swansea. A week on from that, Munster served up one of their greatest ever displays in European Cup rugby.

This was an utterly stunning dismissal of Sale, one of the meanest defences in the English Premiership, who’d been predictably ‘bigged up’ by the cross-channel media in the days before this fixture.

During the post-match press conference, Sharks coach Philippe Saint André, his face as pale as his team’s change kit, looked like he’d been upended a few times by the awesome Paul O’Connell himself out there.

“Nothing to say other than to say that they were much better than us,” said a visibly bewildered Saint André.

“We are the best defence in the Guinness Premiership, I think we’ve conceded nine tries in 11 games and today we concede six tries. Congratulations to Munster, they played very well, they did not make any mistakes and today we were not good enough to match them.”

When it was put to Munster coach Tony McGahan that this was the best performance from the province since he first assumed a coaching brief here, a wry grin broke across his face.

“Excellent question,” he said “Look, it was a very good performance against a very good Sale side at home, I think, especially coming after a difficult few weeks. 

“We’ve only, over a 12-week period, been together for three or four weeks as a full group though different reasons – through illness, injury or other reasons outside of our control.          

“Once we get time together, we certainly have the ability to play good rugby so in that context of where we’ve come from over the last four weeks; it certainly was a very good result.”

Dare one write it, but the answer was almost Kidney-like such was its non-excitable tone. After the bonus point touting comment made ahead of the visit of Montauban, McGahan has clearly added a few coy communicative strings to the coaching bow.

On the pitch, McGahan’s team did some talking, sending out a clear and resonant message that the European champions remain this tournament’s standard bearers.



Munster will travel to Montauban next Saturday (kick-off: 4.35pm) knowing that collecting the maximum five points will give them a great chance of securing a home quarter-final draw.

But all that will concern the team this week is winning – with anything else that comes with that certain to proving a, erm, bonus.

Munster tore into Sale from the off, whose appetite for the contest was questioned by Sunday Tribune columnist Neil Francis, a man for whom the rugby glass is always half-empty. Tosh, in my view.

A little like Kilkenny hurlers in their pomp, there was a relentless majesty about Munster’s play last Friday. Seldom has a team led by only six points at half-time having bossed the opening 40 minutes as completely as Munster did.

Two tries within the opening quarter hour had the raucous support thinking the floodgates would open and had it not been for a forward pass from Keith Earls, a third try would surely have been registered before the 30th minute.

But with the concession of penalties (some proving highly questionable) again proving a Munster bugbear, Sale stayed in touch and could well have been level were it not for Charlie Hodgson’s latest flaky performance.

From the restart, Munster ripped chunks out of the Sharks, who, for all David Wallace’s brilliance, ought to have halted him short of the whitewash. But do that they did not and it looked like the air was rapidly wheezing out of the visitor’s tyres.

But, remarkably, Sale remained in contention thanks to the quick wits of replacement Dwayne Peel, who was omitted from the Welsh Six Nations squad three days later.

A quick tapped penalty led to, ironically, Hodgson touching the ball down in the corner under the East Stand and suddenly the margin between the sides was down to just five points.

But that was as good as it got for the visitors and just five minutes later, Hodgson reverted to type, failing to hold Ronan O’Gara’s kick, with Ian Dowling capitalising on the error to seal the bonus point.

Tomas O’Leary, whose stock continues to rise, added the fifth try, while the superb Paul Warwick, deployed on the night at full-back dived in to make it a half-dozen seven minutes before Nigel Owens’s final whistle.

“We just really wanted it,” said man of the match O’Connell. “We put a lot of ourselves into it this week. There’s been a lot of talk about Thomond Park in the last few weeks, a lot of opposing players talking about playing here…

“The crowd are fabulous here but they don’t do anything for you on the pitch – you have to do that yourself. We filled the jersey well today.”

In truth, Munster did much more than that. The link-up play between forwards and backs was, at times, exemplary, their physicality at all times, be it John Hayes or Doug Howlett, was phenomenal.

For all the Anglo-led talk about English teams challenging for the title, last Friday’s performance once again made one point abundantly clear: Munster remain the team to beat in the Heineken Cup.

“I feel that they will win it again,” said Philippe Saint André. Hard to disagree with you, Philippe. Allez les Rouges and all that. 

Montauban v Munster, Sky Sports 2, Saturday, 3.30pm; highlights on RTE Two on 9.30pm.