Munster repulsed a spirited comeback from the Dragons at Musgrave Park and pulled a losing bonus point away from the reach of their visitors with a late Ian Keatley penalty kick.
Their first half display was pacy and entertaining, highlighted by two very well-taken tries that had been set up by clean line breaks from Johne Murphy and Denis Hurley respectively. Peter Stringer directed operations inside new boy Ian Keatley, the traditional zippiness back in his pass and with some indiscriminate terrier-esque yapping at forwards, whether they were Munstermen or Welshmen.
Keatley had a mixed game, looking pacy and dangerous in attack, quite fragile and lightweight in defence and not at all as reliable as O’Gara with the boot, be it from placed ball or from the hand. It’s an incredibly high standard to be judged against, because whatever the weaknesses of other parts of his game, Gamblor has been a world class positional kicker for his entire career … probably the best in the world, including Carter, Wilkinson and whoever else you want to put in there.
Danny Barnes nipped in for another try, without really setting the world alight at outside centre. Still, the ability to pop up on the last shoulder and dot down a five-pointer is a valuable skill for an outside centre, and shows that his rugby brain is ticking away nicely. He looks a little bit lighter than billed, and took a couple of big bumps in defense, but all in all a good start to the season for the Tralee Kiwi.
The Dragons were, as ever, a well-coached and combative outfit. They’ve lost a few players to the Welsh RWC11 squad [hooker Lloyd Burns, second-row Luke Charteris, backrowers Faletau and Lydiate, and winger Aled Brew] and lacked just a bit of spark and quality. Out-half Jason Tovey had a reasonable game without setting Musgrave alight, and wingers Hughes and Poole showed genuine pace and posed a threat. Second row Adam Jones was possibly their best player, a big strong lad capable of running well with ball in hand, be it in tight spaces or open play; he showed some nice passing skills as well and dealt out his share of hard hits.
Butterball Archer has improved his fitness over the off-season, had a reasonable game at scrumtime and a more effective outing in the loose than anything he has previously shown. With BJ Botha injured, John Hayes ancient and Peter Borlase sh*te, he’s the starting Munster tighthead this month, and there’s pressure on him to produce. Marcus Horan on the other side was up to his old [pre-2009] tricks, throwing 10% passes and moaning all the time … on the back of his excellent scrummaging performance against Connacht for the Ireland Select XV, I had thought that Horan was going to bed himself in as a hardened old gnarly scrummager for another couple of years, but if he’s back to this level of nonsense there’s no hope for him!
A special note of praise should be attached to one aspect of Munster’s performance: their discipline. Their determination to pursue and reclaim the title that got away from them last year was nothing short of heartwarming. With the introduction of penalty-magnet Italian teams Aironi and Treviso, the Liginds found themselves cruelly ripped from the floor of the Specsaver’s Fair Play League, and only finished third from last. Their eighteen yellow cards and one proven citing was a sterling attempt to retain their position at the bottom – and indeed such form excelled their previous ‘champion’ season of 09-10, when they only managed seventeen yellows and a red, although admittedly in fewer games – but they were blown away by a magnificent team effort from Aironi, who compiled a stunning twenty-two yellows, one red and one proven citing.
However, with three yellow cards at home in their first outing, Munster have set a hot pace for the Parmesans to follow. At the rate they have set of three yellow cards per match, the Liginds will compile an unassailable total of sixty-six yellow cards this season. Their most productive player in this regard was Leifimi Mafi, who picked up both the twelfth try and the twelfth yellow card of his Munster career against the Dragons. With 118 Munster appearances to his name, his strike rate has now dropped below one-in-ten … a proud day for him, and for the whole Mafi family.
He may yet come under pressure from a home-grown contender. Backrower Peter O’Mahony has long been talked up amongst Munster fans as an outstanding talent, and he repaid the faith Tony McGahan showed in making him captain for the evening by getting sin-binned. O’Mahony has now been yellow-carded twice in the three starts he has made in his Munster career; to compare him on the same basis to Mafi, it’s twice in twelve appearances, for a strike rate of one-in-six. He’s a truly able padwan.
Arguing with the ref, getting sin-binned, pushing opponent players in the back, walking around with a map on him like a bull-dog chewing nettles? This guy has all the hallmarks of a true Ligind in the making.