Munster turned in a phenomenal second half performance that crushed the spirit of Northampton for the second time in four months and sent a tremor of fear down the spine of any and all prospective opponents in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding phase! Between architect McGahan and foreman Foley, the two-time champions look to be building something special.
Talented nippers like Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo have been introduced into the team and have hit the ground not just running but flat out sprinting, while players who had hitherto been regarded as workaday pros – the likes of James ‘Germany’ Coughlan, Dennis Hurley and the unfortunate Niall Ronan – are playing the rugby of their lives.
Tied in with the consistent excellence of team leaders Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara, these youngsters and one-time nearly-men have forged a team that is ferocious on the road and nigh-on impossible to beat in Thomond Park. This Munster team have come through a sometimes agonising, sometimes ecstatic, generally underwhelming and always erratic series of pool performances to somehow emerge from their toughest fixture as a try-scoring, fire-breathing contender for the trophy. They tore into Northampton from the opening whistle, and while the Saints had their moments – notably in the scrum – they couldn’t ‘andle Munster’s riddum.
It shouldn’t go unmentioned that Northampton were missing three of their four best home-grown players in Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Chris Ashton; the other one of the four is, of course, Ben Foden, whom they struggled to include in the game with the regularity his talent demands. Munster fans will reply that they’ve an injury list as long as your arm, and point to names like David Wallace, Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones and Doug Howlett missing from the team-sheet. However, with Munster-bred replacements in Peter O’Mahony, Damien Varley, Denis Hurley and Simon Zebo, the Irish province clearly have better depth in their squad and, you’d have to argue, a better system of bringing players into the pro game from the youth ranks.
This will go down in a lot of peoples’ memories as The Zebo Game. It’s just like the Stanley Matthews Final … except the Cork lad is the guts of thirty years younger for his career’s defining moment. It’s extremely rare to bang in a hat-trick of tries against respectable opposition in the Heineken Cup [I’m sorry to say that that excludes all you hat-trickers who dotted down against Aironi/Viadana/Bourgoin away from the Stade Pierre Rajon over the years] and to bag the trifecta away from home against last year’s finalists? That’s one for the scrap-book. Or Bebo. Ho-ho-ho.
One of the commenters on the Grauniad’s match report made the point that wingers are at their quickest in their early 20s, and that’s the time to pick ‘em. The Mole had never really considered it that way, but it’s not a bad point: the likes of Joe Rokococo and Sitiveni Sivivatu were electric eels up until about 25 or 26, and have since lost bundles and bundles of pace, and with it a whole lot of their threat. Rokococo in particular is nothing short of washed up, although he’s enjoying his jetsam career in beautiful Bayonne with bundles and bundles of €50 notes in his pockets. Pace for pesos? That’s the market, baby.
However, in contrast to both Zebo’s triumphs on the pitch and Joe Rocket’s belle epoque on the banks of the Garonne, life wasn’t so rosy for Munster’s poor eejits in the front row yesterday, nor for their inside centre.
As may have already become apparent from his recent posts, The Mole is no NIQ-basher. Northampton, on the other hand, took up the cudgels of Fergburger and his ilk, absolutely laying the wood on Munster’s contracted non-Irish-qualified players. Eddie Wigglesworth’s revenge!
If it wasn’t Soane Tonga’uhia and Brian Mujati making mincemeat of Brendan James and Wian du Preez in every scrum, it was enormous Yankee second-row Samu Manoa smashing Lifeimi Mafi repeatedly with some of the hardest-hitting yet technically flawless tackles the Mole has seen in this year’s competition. He got his hat on the numbers, as proponents of the gridiron would have it. Boom.
While Mafi was getting bashed six ways from sundown, Botha and du Preez were just getting plowed into the stadium:mk turf. The Munster scrum suffered a catastrophic failure, leaking two stone-cold penalty tries. Both Munster and Leinster packs will agree that the Saints scrummage illegally – of course they would, both have suffered grievous ego damage at the hands of Tiny and Mugatu [inventor of the keyboard necktie] – but the difference between Leinster and Munster is that while Leinster’s scrum coach Greg Feek was able to concoct a remedy to Northampton tactics at halftime in last May’s HEC final, Munster’s scrum coach McCarthy had nothing for his men at the break except oranges.
That’s harsh. He also oversaw a change of personnel, spreading the ample blame a little thinner to cover veteran loosehead Marcus Horan. Now that’s good middle management!
It’s a little churlish to criticise their one weak-point in an otherwise outstanding team performance, but it was an intriguing element of the game. Munster clearly had the better pack – better kick-off receptions, better lineouts, far superior at the breakdown, better handlers – but Northampton were able to bleed them at every scrum. Normally when a side has a particularly strong set-piece [especially a scrum] they can dictate the pace of the game. In this instance, Northampton seemingly didn’t realise – or maybe just weren’t capable – of doing same.
PS: Will Greenwood and Tyrone Howe were priceless in proclaiming restarts as “the new set-piece”. Eh … it’s always been a set-piece, lads. It’s a restart from dead ball, in which the two teams are arrayed against each other and there are particular regulations that govern how it’s carried out.