Ronan O’Gara departed Sunday’s fray with a raised fist and a smile on his face. “Welcome home, lads,” cried one Munster fan as the skipper, Peter Stringer and Alan Quinlan were replaced in the dying minutes of the province’s 20-point victory over Clermont Auvergne.
Mutual appreciation hung in the Limerick air almost as prominently as the cranes currently dominating the Thomond Park landscape. Each player replaced by both teams offered applause to the ever-appreciative and quick witted fans upon their exit and it was returned in kind.
But O’Gara’s beaming smile was a telling moment for Irish rugby, let alone Munster’s prospects of emerging from the Group of Treacle.
Group of what? Consider the following, dear readers. The ‘Group of Death’ (which is always “ill-fated” in case you haven’t noticed) has become as hackneyed as ‘The Celtic Tiger’ in modern Irish parlance. And one feels that it’s time we all moved on when it comes to our sporting terminology.
And being in a sticky situation is surely a more pleasant alternative to any notions of flat-lining. A phrase has been born right here on these august pages, so remember where you read it first!
Seeing a happy O’Gara and a lively Peter Stringer haul Munster’s charges left, then right, then left, then right again, was a delight. Both half-backs have well and truly put the World Cup behind them and it was a pleasure to see them clicking so marvellously.
It was difficult to avoid the somewhat corny sentiment expressed by that sole voice when welcoming O’Gara and company back to familiar, albeit hi-vis jacket-clad surrounds.
This ground is where Stringer, O’Gara and a host of other players have built their reputations and, in many respects, their legends. Whatever it is about this place, whatever mythical ingredient is channelled through players and fans alike, it soaks into your system. I for one am hooked!
It’s what makes Munster matches in Thomond an event as opposed to simply a sporting event. And it’s why whenever this ground takes on a company-tagged stadium title, it won’t matter a whit.
Because this is Thomond Park and it always will be Thomond Park. Try telling a single soul that loves the game otherwise.
The lunchtime kick-off, along with the absence of beer and nosh inside the ground could well have made this a very un-Munster-like occasion. But that didn’t prove to be the case.
Murty the Mascot got his first Limerick outing in his new kit and had the well-insulated crowd (via several layers and the contents of a few hipflasks) giggling at the break.
‘The Fields of Athenry’ didn’t ring around the stadium as we’ve grown accustomed to, due to the old stand and the trees that once offered shelter down one length of the pitch no longer being with us.
The openness of this once intimate place demanded a deepening of the Munster roar and a touch more base. The faithful duly delivered on this count as did the team, who picked up the all-important bonus point against an understrength but highly awkward Clermont outfit.
It made one wonder what 26,000 fans inside this revamped stadium a year or so from now will sound like in full voice. Fortress Thomond with shiny new ramparts and twice the number of fans is a terrific prospect.
Speaking of prospects, Munster knew they had to win and secure the bonus if they’re to harbour ambitions of a knock-out fixture against Wasps come mid-January.
Now there’s a hell of a lot of rugby to be played between now and then so it’s important not to look too far down the line and start thinking about Doug Howlett and all that.
But consider this: Munster’s next two European outings are against Llanelli Scarlets, who are surely already out of contention following heavy defeats to Clermont and Wasps.
The prospect of travelling to France in January with two wins and a minimum of one bonus point would leave the province primed to tackle both their remaining opponents.
The outcome of the Wasps/Clermont double-header will also be pivotal to Munster’s ambitions and I hope Wasps win both games.
Why? It would end Clermont’s interest in the tournament (one suspects they’ve only one eye on it anyway) and define the final pool game between Munster and the champions as a pure knock-out affair.
Were this sequence of results to transpire, and with the losing bonus from the Ricoh Arena in the bag, Munster wouldn’t require a ‘Miracle Match’ scenario to progress to the knock-out stages.
Win by eight points and deny Wasps any type of bonus point and Munster would win Pool Five. Whatever the outcome, it should be, as it always is in this competition, fascinating to observe.
One of the many memorable incidents in Sunday’s game came in the final stages of the first half, as Munster heaved into the Clermont defence as they sought a second try.
The French had frustrated the hosts thanks to, despite being camped inside their own twenty-two, their outstanding discipline in the tight.
Even Ronan O’Gara joined in the pack effort as Munster attempted to cross the Clermont whitewash, with the Thomond horde willing the ball over the line.
I stand corrected, but I saw only one player from either team not flinging themselves into that maul, leaving 14 players pushing one way and 14 the other. It might have been rugby at a more basic level but it was nonetheless fascinating to witness.
Seconds later, Rua Tipoki sniped down the blindside and dived over the line for Munster’s second five-pointer.
The Kiwi’s try saw him treated to a fireman’s lift from the outstanding Ian Dowling. The Kilkenny winger enjoyed what was surely his most complete performance yet in a Munster shirt and used the ball excellently on Sunday.
Unlike some wingers, Dowling clearly doesn’t mind the heavy stuff and made several telling infield forays, establishing several platforms for the pack. His body position going into contact was top class, and he rolled excellently in the ruck, ensuring that quick ball was made available to Stringer at the base.
Quick ball was a match-long service which Stringer was happy to avail of. It allowed Munster to play with more width, probably more than Clermont had anticipated in their pre-match preparations.
Particularly evident in the first half, Munster’s midfield pairing of Tipoki and Lifemi Mafi didn’t hang around in possession for too long, feeding both Dowling and Brian Carney with plenty of ball.
The manner in which the back row sought to support the backs was very impressive, with Alan Quinlan and David Wallace enjoying massive performances. Quinlan, in my book, was the outstanding player in the park, though there were a half-dozen Munster men not too far behind him.
It made the decision of Reggie Corrigan (co-commentating for Sky Sports) to award man of the match to Clermont try scorer Marius Joubert all the more baffling.
How a player who is substituted on a team that loses by 20 points can be adjudged the game’s best performer was a bizarre call from the ex-Leinster and Ireland prop. Joubert wasn’t even Clermont’s best centre on the day!
It also serves as a reminder that simply being an ex-player isn’t enough to make you an expert analyst. Stating otherwise is akin to suggesting that our international soccer players should have a role in appointing the next Republic of Ireland manager.
The bould Reggie has been the butt of a lot of jokes in rugby circles this week, (all in the appropriate spirit of course) and one can state with near certainty that he’ll make better MOTM calls in the future. We all live and learn, do we not?
Finally, a word about the front row. This is a unit which, irrespective of who has occupied the jerseys, has been unfairly maligned when it comes to Munster rugby this past decade.
Against a formidable Clermont front row, including two of our Georgian friends from the World Cup, Messrs Horan, Flannery and the returning Hayes put in sterling efforts.
And, albeit in a cameo role in the final minutes, Tony Buckley barged around the sod with great intent when coming on for ‘The Bull’.
By full-time, it wasn’t just Ronan O’Gara who was smiling.