By golly, this was a toughie. Two teams who could almost quote each other’s eating habits and sleeping patterns brutally squared up again and again and again on a biting Limerick Sabbath.
That Llanelli have lost all four of their Pool Five fixtures is something of a travesty and offers no reflection on their footballing abilities. Again on Sunday they showed glimpses of wondrous attacking endeavour and tremendous stubbornness in the tight.
That they were so well stymied by the hosts says much for the rod of steel that runs though this Munster side, arguably shaping into the finest yet assembled by Declan Kidney.
That the Scarlets were continuously offside at the breakdown and went unpunished for that indiscretion is referee Dave Pearson’s fault and his fault alone. Munster are past masters at gaining the illegal yard so to turn around and crucify the Scarlets for doing likewise would be petty parochialism.
That Llanelli find themselves sharing the same status in this competition as hapless Ulster is again a plague on ERC houses for the ludicrously lopsided nature of this season’s draw.
Forget not this is the team which reached the penultimate stage of the competition last year, having ended Munster’s reign as champions of Europe. They wear hearts on sleeves in Stradey every ounce as much as the men of Thomond do, hence the great respect that exists between players and fans.
Of course that respect counted for nought on the turf, as both sides tore into each other in a manner which threatened to blow over on more than one occasion.
High tackles and flying fists featured a little too much for either coach’s liking and there could well have been more than two sin binners given the preponderance of silly beggars that transpired at times.
But that anarchy didn’t win out on the day owes more to both units’ collective savvy than it did for commendable officiating. Mr Pearson made some highly questionable calls on Sunday and did his best to ensure his performance wouldn’t warrant a ‘home town’ tag.
Time and time again, bodies (particularly those in black kit) flew into the ruck with little effort made to remain footed. That Llanelli soon identified that Pearson was patrolling the offside line about as well as the Maginot Line repelled foreign invaders gave them a vital spoiling foothold.
As Munster fans grew hoarse at telling Pearson and his touch judge homies to open their eyes to the evident spoiling tactic in operation, the clock ticked on. And the longer it did, the more one feared that Llanelli’s lightning fast hands and feet might take the Munster train off the rails.
Territorially, Munster dominated vast swathes of this game with little return to show for their toil. That they failed to make phase after phase of possession count on the Scarlets try-line in first half injury time gave the visitors a psychological edge at the break.
Pick and drive was, more often than not, the Munster move of the day and while the hosts did try to mix it up, the advanced positioning of the Scarlets defensive line made breaking it highly difficult.
A try before half-time would surely have ended the game as a contest and provided Declan Kidney’s side with the second half platform to seek a crucial bonus point.
But Llanelli, showing the sort of defensive fortitude we’ve come to love of our own men in red, formed a magnificently disciplined human shield and kept Munster out.
As had been commented upon elsewhere in recent weeks, this is the sort of game that Munster win and Leinster don’t.
Patchy, scrappy games are not part of the Michael Cheika coaching manual and Leinster’s inability to find either consistency or a ‘Plan B’ approach is why their European campaign is effectively over.
Those who choose to criticise the traditional strengths of the Munster game always seem to forget something when the province choose to play a tight, pack-orientated game: more often than not, it works.
Only the myopic could fail to see the potency in every starting Munster back on Sunday. Ian Dowling is making good on his early promise and his infield forays rarely end anywhere other than across the gain line. He had another excellent game on Sunday and is knocking hard on Eddie O’Sullivan’s door.
Finishing off a magnificent move made possible by Flannery’s fleet-footedness and Denis Leamy’s tremendous hands, Brian Carney again demonstrated what an excellent finisher he is.
But he also proved his worth in defence, especially after 20 minutes when darting from inside his own twenty-two, dancing past would-be tacklers and heading infield to avail of cover at the breakdown.
At midfield, Rua Tipoki and Lifeimi Mafi found getting beyond Jonathan Davies and Regan King incredibly difficult, but they provided a similar level of resistance when Llanelli had ball in hand.
Tipoki is looking like an inspired piece of business on Kidney’s behalf. Replacing Trevor Halstead was always going to be a highly difficult task, but how Tipoki is relishing that role.
As the teams exchanged pleasantries at full-time, the Kiwi left the field to rapturous applause with a glint in his eye and a beaming grin. Tipoki is clearly enjoying his rugby and the fans have immediately warmed to him, recognising what he brings to the table.
That he and Mafi are, match by match, dispelling many of the concerns being expressed about their defensive nous must be a source of enormous encouragement for Kidney. Theirs looks like a genuine midfield partnership in the making, capable of producing the big hits and line breaks in equal measure.
At full-back, Shaun Payne is playing the rugby of his life. He proved unflappable again on Sunday, fielding every ball that came his way without the remotest hint of doubt.
Any young full-backs out there ought to get their hands on videos of Payne’s play this season as he’s been nothing short of phenomenal.
With Doug Howlett’s competitive arrival just weeks away and with Barry Murphy back to full fitness, Kidney boasts an offensive depth that previous squads under his watch have lacked.
Up front, Denis Leamy produced his best display of the season, David Wallace looked a ball carrying threat all afternoon and Donncha Ryan replaced Mick O’Driscoll with excellent effect for the final quarter.
While Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer weren’t as influential as they normally are, and with Anthony Foley having a quieter 80 minutes than he had at Stradey Park, Munster still won. Remember that this was a win achieved against a top-class Llanelli side minus Paul O’Connell and Alan Quinlan into the bargain.
This was not a win which required the usual suspects to haul Munster across the winning line. That in itself is enormously significant.
That the rebuilding of Thomond Park isn’t the only impressive restructuring process currently on show in Munster rugby is also enormously significant.
And should Munster emerge from this pool of treacle (and that is still a decidedly difficult looking challenge), the possibility of a second European Cup win in three years looks attainable.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. The small matters of Clermont Auvergne and the defending champions have yet to be dealt with. It should be nothing other than fascinating to observe. Again.