Northampton must be wondering just what they have to do to beat Munster in Thomond Park. The Liginds took everything they had, and after a marathon 41-phase endgame crawled out of the coffin and grabbed the win with a monster Gamblor dropgoal. RADGE!
It was a cracker of a game: full of invention, full of incident, adorned with a couple of great tries and a shedload of endeavour. Munster get an awful lot out of the Heineken Cup – it has played a huge part in concreting the identity of the professional team, as well as playing a contributing part to the success of Irish rugby’s provincial structure – but the Heineken Cup gets an awful lot out of them too.
This was classic Thomond Park stuff. Sports fans anywhere around the world would have got a hell of a lot out of this, even if they weren’t familiar with the laws of rugby. The crowd noise, the hushes and the roars, the visible endeavour of the players on the pitch, the flare-ups, the great skill and thumping hits, the tension …
Northampton played a huge part in the spectacle. Their immense scrummaging authority –powered by the enormous Soane Tonga’uhia, back in fearsome form after a curiously subdued World Cup, and the scarcely less impressive Brian Mujati – was intact from last season, but Ryan Lamb provided an improved threat at outhalf, James Downey’s game was clever and more varied in midfield and the Foden/Ashton combination in the back three was razor sharp and incisive.
Munster’s scrum has long been regarded as a weakpoint at European level, and it was hoped that the introduction of BJ Botha would allow them to turn a corner. However, like many other tightheads over the last couple of years he wasn’t able to cope with Tonga’uhia, and it was only due to some questionable Nigel Owens decisions that he wasn’t pinged entirely off the park. The Munster scrum was in trouble for the majority of the evening, but managed to minimise the cost to the team.
Their lineout had no such issues. Paul O’Connell was impressive, Donnacha Ryan was used up and down the line in the manner his lean frame would hint at, and Peter O’Mahony proved a useful option. The first try of the game came from a picture-perfect lineout maul after a mere three minutes, Damien Varley plunging over at the heart of it to send the crowd wild.
Munster are missing some quality players – Earls, Jones, Flannery and Wallace – but in their absence their most experienced players took on even more responsibility than usual. The ageless Doug Howlett had an excellent game, headlining it with a wonderful individual try. Paul O’Connell was the dominant figure in the game, disrupting Northampton mauls, taking the ball up the middle, scavenging at the breakdown and competing brilliantly at the lineout. Gamblor was pulling the strings in vintage style from outhalf, as only he can do; his line-kicking consistently put Munster in good positions, and he seemed to be striking the ball particularly well. Length from the hand has been a real issue with ROG over the last couple of seasons, but this time out he was getting good distance from penalties.
Man of the Match, however, went to nipper Peter O’Mahony, a lad who looks as though he’d fight his shadow if he was the only person in a room. O’Mahony was everywhere: his engine was absolutely first rate. He showed limitless reserves of energy, and enough bolshiness to fill Thomond Park on his own! It’s easier to get away with that sort of carry-on at home than away, however. If he doesn’t temper his temper somewhat he could find himself spending spells in the bin when the Liginds are on the road.
It didn’t hurt that he was up against a pretty ordinary player in Calum Clark, Northampton mystifyingly leaving last year’s captain Phil Dowson on the bench for the majority of the game. Just like some commentators who have suggested that Tom Wood is a ‘natural successor’ for Lewis Moody on the English blindside, Northampton picked him in the No7 jersey, where he’s not quite at his best.
The much-maligned Niall Ronan had another positive effort on the openside. The Mole recognises that Ronan is an up-and-down player, but there’s no doubt he attracts more opprobrium from the narrow-eyed Munster fans than his performances warrant. There’s already a sizeable portion of fans calling for the reintroduction of Denis Leamy, apparently because he carried the ball into contact a number of times in the endgame and didn’t get turned over. Woop-de-fucking-doo.
Northampton went 41 phases without conceding a penalty, primarily because they didn’t show any signs of competing for the ball at the breakdown. They guessed [correctly, in the Mole’s opinion, although we’ll never know] that Nigel Owens was more than willing to ping them.
In the end though, it all came down to Gamblor, and he nailed the drop-goal from a long way out, well over the Northampton 10m line. It was beautifully struck, and there’s so much to admire. He had been running around directing operations for more than eighty minutes, so he must have been leg-weary. The last 41 phases went by remorselessly without pause, and he was involved in the action a number of times, so his lungs must have been burning. Lastly, knowing the the result was on the line, knowing that his team had given their absolute all to get him into position, knowing that he only had one shot at it, he absolutely nailed it.