Here’s a good table quiz question following Friday’s action in Swansea: what team won a Magners League match in which they used three different fly-halves and concluded proceedings with two scrum-halves on the pitch?
Obviously we all know the answer now, but just a few years down the line, it’s one that could well cause a head scratching epidemic between inquisitive types.
Speaking of scratches, Paul Warwick’s injured eyeball forced Tony McGahan’s hand for a fixture which, despite featuring the league’s top two, drew only 9,000 punters to the Liberty Stadium.
Following an expansive first half display, featuring a superb third minute try from Lifeimi Mafi, Munster reverted to the tried and tested ‘pick-and-go’ to get the job done after the break.
Forced to throw academy graduate Conan Doyle into the fray also forced a change in Munster’s approach, with McGahan demonstrating the sort of flexibility any coach worth his salt must allow for in his manual.
The experienced Munster pack, inspired by Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan and the outstanding David Wallace, brilliantly protected Doyle behind the scrum during his half hour of action.
The Garryowen youngster successfully bisected the posts in the 50th and 59th minutes, keeping Munster in touch before the excellent Tomas O’Leary crossed the whitewash to put the visitors in the driving seat.
Following Doyle’s withdrawal, with Peter Stringer introduced at scrum-half and O’Leary moving into the number 10 slot, the former Cork minor hurler again demonstrated his value to the Munster cause.
With little grace but plenty of grunt, O’Leary kicked a 40-metre penalty to put seven points between the sides heading into the final 10 minutes.
In a game as tight as this, every successful penalty proved vital in returning Munster to the league summit ahead of its six week hiatus, the perfect tonic ahead of Friday night’s Heineken Cup clash with Sale in Limerick.
“We badly needed a performance and a win,” said captain Paul O’Connell, no doubt pleased to have 80 tough minutes under his belt. “It had been a tough and long week for the lads with the seven-day turnaround after the Ulster defeat.”
“We had been sailing very high in the competition but then came two bad losses, especially last week at home when we let down everything we represent – ourselves, management and supporters. We were eager to get a response and we got that.”
It was a real guts and glory type of Munster display, achieved against improbable odds given how they’d fared in their previous two outings. And while the lineout requires further remedy, it would be churlish to pick holes in the province’s display.
O’Leary and Wallace encapsulated the team’s marvellous effort. The flanker, arguably Munster’s player of the season to date, had, even by his standards, a phenomenal night; proving a constant menace at the breakdown and outstanding in open play. He must be a shoo-in for a starting berth on the Lions team given his versatility and all-round footballing ability.
The same virtues apply to O’Leary, who once again didn’t shirk from the big hits when the time demanded it of him.
Bolting a full 60 yards crossfield to send Ospreys wing Jonny Vaughton into touch, the son of Seanie demonstrated his increasing prominence within the team to deny the hosts a try.
In scoring the match-winning try himself, O’Leary again demonstrated his work ethic, given that he released the ball from the base of the ruck to Mafi only to immediately dart into position to receive the Kiwi’s offload to score.
It was, without doubt, his finest display yet in a red shirt and only Wallace’s brilliance denied O’Leary the man of the match gong.
That O’Connell came through unscathed and that Denis Leamy enjoyed a lively hour’s action were further bonuses for McGahan ahead of Friday’s face-off with the Sharks.
This clash again promises to provide an epic evening’s rugby at Thomond Park, with Sale, containing a slew of soon-to-depart staffers, knowing they have to win to retain any hopes of progression.
For Munster, a victory will ensure another quarter-final appearance, but it will, surely, as fate tends to dictate when these games come along, be anything but easy. Sure there’d be no point in making the trip otherwise!
Sale come to Thomond in good form having seen off English Premiership leaders London Irish at Edgeley Park by six points last weekend.
Given that Sale have a couple of scores to settle with the European champions, the Thomond Park crowd will have to regain its ‘16th man’ voice, something which has been conspicuously absent of late.
After all, when the wind blows a certain way over the Shannon, you can still hear Sebastien Chabal wincing after Paul O’Connell’s legendary lunge into his midriff when the teams crossed swords here some three years go.
“As far as we are concerned it’ll be ‘win or die’ because there won’t be a runner-up qualifying from our Pool so it is vital that we produce a quality performance,” according to Sale coach Philippe Saint André.
“But we know that it will be tough going to Munster because we experienced a severe defeat a couple of seasons ago when they scored four tries, which was a real hammering.”
One doubts there’ll be a hammering doled out by either team on Friday night, but Munster will draw enormous confidence from the nature of their win over the Ospreys who, forget not, provide the glut of the Welsh test team.
At the time of writing, question marks hang over the fitness of Ronan O’Gara and Paul Warwick, but the feeling in the camp is that both will be declared available for selection.
Without either, there’s no doubting that the obstacle would be considerably higher. Yet given how well Munster fared in their respective absences in Swansea, Sale know they’ll still head into this fixture as underdogs.
“Munster did a job on us and we have no complaints,” said Ospreys coach Sean Holley after his team surrendered their league leadership last weekend.
Let’s hope that Monsieur Saint André will be making similar post-match noises at Thomond Park this Friday. Munster to win after another epic.
Munster v Sale Sharks, Sky Sports 1, Friday, 7.30pm; highlights on RTE Two at 11.20pm