Munster didn’t require any last minute heroics from Ronan O’Gara to seal a vital away win at Parc y Scarlets, but the Heineken Cup centurion controlled the shape of the game and won his personal duel with Welsh out-half Rhys Priestland.
For all O’Gara’s canny game-appreciation, it was an awesome performance from Man of the Match Paul O’Connell that tipped the scales in Munster’s favour. The Lions captain grabbed the Scarlets pack by the scruff of the neck and shook the fight out of them, ably assisted by his new second-in-command, tighthead kingpin BJ Botha. The Scarlets had nothing to match the physicality of O’Connell or the technical excellence of Botha, and in truth were on the receiving end of a small lesson in Heineken Cup rugby.
Having scored seven tries in their two matches in the competition to date, the Scarlets looked set to spread the ball wide and move the game away from the strength of the Munster pack. However, enormous winger George North was a late scratch, greatly reducing their firepower, and highly-rated outside centre Scott Williams had a match to forget. So too did Rhys Priestland. In a reprise of the outhalf battle from the Ireland vs Wales RWC11 quarter-final, Priestland missed two relatively easy first-half kicks that would have put the Scarlets in the driver’s seat while Munster uncharacteristically faffed about for the first twenty minutes.
The Scarlets lost the initiative and allowed Munster back into the match with only eight points of damage done, and the Irish province went into the break ahead on the scoreboard with a late O’Gara penalty.
O’Connell was the dominant figure in the game, carrying the ball into contact fifteen times, and No8 James Coughlan roared back into form with some great runs and took the honours against his highly-rated opposite number Ben Morgan. While O’Connell’s performance deserves special mention, it was an excellent all-round effort from the Munster pack. Openside Niall Ronan had one of the best games of his career, rewarded with a sharply-taken try, while Damien Varley and Donnacha Ryan plowed into contact with bad intentions. All the while – and in contrast to the last two campaigns – the Munster scrum, marshalled by new arrival Botha, was inflicting damage on the Llanelli eight at the set-piece.
Winning the forward battle at every turn, Munster were able to dictate the pace of the game. The Llanelli pack were forced to make tackle after tackle, and were unable to generate the turnovers to feed a backline starved of quality possession.
The much-vaunted Scarlets backline were a little disappointing. They were far from the razor-sharp outfit that sliced Northampton open in Franklins Gardens, with Priestland failing to direct their efforts with the same aplomb he showed for Wales in the World Cup. JJV Davies showed glimpses of good form, but too often their breakouts ended in forward passes or handling errors. The hard running of Sean Lamont hinted at the damage of which a returning North is capable; Lamont was hungry for ball and made several damaging charges through the Munster backline, but the Scarlets could manage just one try, and that came in the eighth minute from a Munster mistake.
This win puts Munster in a great position in their group. They have won two tight matches away from home, and have the blueprint for how to beat the Scarlets in the return fixture at the weekend. Northampton are already out of the group, having lost all three of their matches to date [and conceded ten tries in doing so]. While they might be keen to get revenge in the last game of the group at Franklins Gardens, the sting will have gone out of the game, and it’s entirely possible that Jim Mallinder will focus his efforts on the Premiership.