‘The rugby players mauled in seven by seven’ was a little tune that might have run through a few supporters’ minds during Saturday night’s European Cup fixture at Stradey Park.
To describe the conditions as wet and windy might be factually correct, but only to a point. This was Old Testament weather, embracing the sort of meteorological extremities which left Noah with no choice but to break out his saw and sander.
Fifty-three minutes into the latest Llanelli/Munster face-off, referee Wayne Barnes actually stopped play because he couldn’t adequately see what was going on.
Calling aside skippers Ronan O’Gara and Simon Easterby, prompting RTE’s Michael Corcoran to suggest that the match might be abandoned, Barnes informed both of his decision to temporarily halt proceedings.
As the players did what they could to stave off hypothermia, O’Gara wryly suggested that the game should be ended there and then, with Munster nine points ahead. Easterby giggled, while Barnes raised an ironic brow in the outhalf’s direction.
The game, joking aside, went on, as waves of rain washed across the stands of this soon to be demolished arena.
And it was Munster who proved the stronger side in the conditions, which made the previous week’s meeting with Leinster seem tropical in comparison.
Rarely has a European Cup match been played in such absolutely appalling weather. Some Munster players ended the game having worn three different jerseys during a real endurance test, particularly for wingers Ian Dowling and Brian Carney.
There’s no worse place to be on a dog of a rugby day than on the wing. For vast periods of a mud-spattered, wind-howling 80 minutes, the winger does what he can to maintain feeling in his toes.
He’ll hop, he’ll skip, he’ll jump to ensure he avoids the fate that befell many polar explorers of yore. He’ll probably spend a good deal of the game wishing he was a 17-stone manbeast, buried in a maul but at least insulated by body heat.
When the opportunity arises, he’ll probably join in mauls a little more than he’d usually like to for fear of damaging his chiselled chin and flowing mane.
But if it’s a choice between mangled ear and lacerated back over pinkened fingers and knees, he’ll still probably opt for the latter. ‘To hell with my looks,’ he’ll mutter as he ploughs into a mass of bodies. ‘At least I’ll be warm.’
Matt Browne’s marvellous image of the saturated Ian Dowling (in stirring form of late) perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to be back on a hoor of a day.
They may get to grab the headlines on the dry sod, but a back’s lot is a sorry one during a game like Saturday last’s, a day that made your average ploughing match look arid.
The final five minutes of normal time offered a demonstration of what any team worth its salt should do in the slop, wind and rain.
Having enjoyed 72 per cent of possession during the second half, and playing into a gale, Munster went through phase after phase after phase.
No less than 32 times did the men in mud-clad navy recycle the ball and keep the Scarlets both frustrated and on the back foot.
Marshalled by the magnificent Anthony Foley, Munster controlled possession in a most outstanding manner.
Offering further proof that this is a group designed for the longest and hardest of roads, Declan Kidney’s side demonstrated what singles them out among the provinces.
Bloody-mindedness was a facet cited by both George Hook and Conor O’Shea during their late-night TV analysis on Saturday night – and it’s something that Munster possesses by the bucket load.
It’s what gives them a chance of emerging from this tinder box of a pool, made all the more incendiary by Clermont Auvergne’s 10-point win at home to Wasps.
The experience which Foley, O’Gara, Stringer and Wallace have built up during long, testing European campaigns came to bear on Saturday last.
The team’s ability to strangle the opposition into submission, to play the game at their pace and to execute the desired game plan makes Saturday’s performance destined for the Munster Rugby hit list.
Yes, there were 10 particularly ropy minutes during the first half and a stunning last-ditch Lifemi Mafi which prevented Llanelli from seizing the initiative.
But the mark of any good team is to regroup and refocus and to take advantage of any opportunity that comes its way.
David Wallace’s try was testament to that, when Peter Stringer (though clearly over the touchline when he threw the ball in) fired a quick lineout into the flanker’s path.
O’Gara’s conversion and injury-time penalty gave Munster a 12-point lead at the break, an advantage which ultimately proved decisive during a torrid second half.
The experience, cuteness and know how came to bear after the interval, with water carrier Alan Quinlan entering the fray to relay advice to his team mates whenever the opportunity arose.
The heavier the rain fell, the heavier the hits became, and Munster were not found wanting. Frankie Sheahan was particularly effective when he entered the action, and Kidney must be pleased to see his number two hooker returning to his best.
Worryingly, the Munster lineout was far from secure, though the tornado swirling around Stradey Park did partly explain why.
But without the outstanding Quinlan and captain Paul O’Connell, Kidney seems to be lacking a third jumping option on his charges’ throw-in.
The coach will already have pored through the video analysis of Saturday’s game and knows that this is an area where Munster can be got at minus not one, but two talismanic presences. What team wouldn’t?
Ronan O’Gara had another superb 80 minutes and clearly has little problem combining the roles of playmaker and captain.
His kicking, along with that of opposite number Rhys Priestland, was exceptionally good considering the conditions and there were signs of a re-calibration of the Stringer/O’Gara axis.
The scrum-half will no doubt be reflecting this week on a shocking box kick which paved the way for Regan King’s try, but all in all he should be happy with his contribution.
The wonder that is Shaun Payne continues to amaze and enthral while the midfield pairing of Mafi and Tipoki is solidifying with every 80 minutes they get together.
The Scarlets make the return trip to Thomond Park (with the capacity to reduced to 9,000 according to weekend speculation) with nothing but pride to play for.
But they will not lie down and ought to pose a more dangerous challenge on what will surely prove a drier, less windswept day.
While Munster top the pool at the halfway stage, qualification to the last eight still looks like it’s going to require three massive performances from the province.
It’s never any other way, is it?