Ulster performed an astonishing smash-and-grab raid in the first half-hour at Thomond park, then stuck around to take an absolute walloping from the suddenly awakened and irate home-owners before finally staggering away with the spoils.
If Munster’s failure to qualify for the quarter-final stages last season signalled the end of an era, there was still something to the mystique of Thomond Park; they didn’t lose a game there in the pool stages in 2010-11, and O’Gara’s epic drop-goal after forty-one phases against Northampton this season was another chapter in the legend.
With Ulster’s weekend victory, however, there are no more prisms through which to view it as an untakeable fortress. First it was simple: no-one won at Thomond in the HEC other than Munster. Then Leicester broke that law in 2007. Then nobody won a knock-out game there; Harlequins broke that law in 2011, winning the Amlin Cup semi-final. That was glossed over as being ‘only’ the Amlin, but with Ulster taking the honours in a HEC quarter-final over a Munster team who had won all six of their pool games, the final door has been kicked in.
Thomond will always be a hard place to win, because Munster are a good team and the vocal and passionate fanbase reward Munster decisions with enormous cheers and barrack any ref who has the nerve to penalise the home team, but the burnished reputation that it had acquired through the efforts of Munster teams over a decade has been tarnished, dented and finally breached, and visitors will no longer feel that they’re beaten before they’ve even taken the field.
McGahan’s Last Hurrah
Tony McGahan has caught a lot of flak from Munster fans since taking over from Declan Kidney before the 2008-09 season, but in The Mole’s eyes he has done a reasonably good job … and perhaps in this season a better job than in any previous term. Munster have suffered enormous injury problems this season, with David Wallace and Felix Jones ruled out on Ireland duty before the season proper even kicked off; Doug Howlett, Niall Ronan and Denis Leamy ruled out for the season with respective Achilles tendon, knee and hip surgeries; promising young hooker Mike Sherry missing almost five months of the season through an ankle problem, and Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray missing games for both Ireland and Munster through injuries picked up in the green against France. Jerry Flannery announced his long-rumoured retirement, putting an end to the unlikely hopes of the many members of the Red Army who thought he might make it back as good as new.
McGahan’s team selection for the quarter-final was ballsy. It both rewarded form, looked to address specific weaknesses and had an eye on the future: a very tough cocktail to mix. Ultimately, the ingredients didn’t really come together, and while it wasn’t a disaster by any means, nor could it be counted as a success.
Tommy O’Donnell was outplayed at every level by his opposite number Chris Henry. Peter O’Mahony had been caught out of his depth at openside the previous week by canny operator Shane Jennings, and McGahan hoped to pull the same trick against Henry by picking a quick, lightweight No7 against a guy who had more or less been pushed into the role.
It didn’t pan out at all. Henry was smarter, tougher, more physical and simply far better than O’Donnell all day long. The Ulsterman has played a huge amount of rugby this season while O’Donnell has struggled with injury; anyway, by any genuine examination of the depth chart, he’s only Munster’s third-choice openside when everyone is fit, with David Wallace and Niall Ronan definitively ahead of him. There was a serious gulf in effectiveness between the two, and had Henry not been sin-binned at the end of the first half, he’d have been The Mole’s Man of the Match.
Elsewhere, the selection of Dennis Hurley on the wing was badly shown up. Hurley had been burnt a couple of weeks ago by Aironi’s openside flanker for a try, and his lack of acceleration has been flagged for a number of seasons. Try-machine Craig Gilroy absolutely skinned him, then ran through weak tackles from the other members of the back three to score a wündertry from inside his own half.
It’s hard not to feel for Hurley. He had been having the best season of his career at fullback in Jones’ absence, yet the jersey was immediately handed back to the former Seapoint man without any sort of contest upon his return. Hurley is a confidence player who went through an extended period with the yips that followed his borderline disastrous performance under the high ball in the 2008 final, and his frailties had seen him pushed on to the wing for three seasons, a position where he lacks the pace to thrive. Jones’ injury in August saw him given a chance at No15 for the entire pool stage, and he repaid Tony McGahan’s faith in full, putting in some absolutely cracking performances. In The Mole’s opinion, Jones did nothing to unseat him but got picked ahead of him on reputation and remembered form, and then failed to perform in his big test of the season.
Mike Sherry put in a credible performance as a 23-year old against the current Irish hooker and captain in Rory Best, and it’s clear that he has a big future in the game. Ireland are looking pretty clever at the moment as regards hookers. While Best  is way out in front and Cronin  has a pretty firm grip on the back-up role at the moment, Sherry  and Varley  are both good operators and will push Cronin hard for his spot, while Leinster’s Richardt Strauss  will be eligible through residency in less than six months.
The Boys Of Summer
It will be interesting to see what decisions Kidney makes with regards to selection for the NZ summer tour. As pointed out by a perceptive poster on the Leinsterfans website, Kidney has brought Munster players into the Irish set up over the last year as soon as they have leapfrogged the incumbent at provincial level: Murray over O’Leary, Ryan over O’Callaghan and O’Mahony over Leamy.
None of the contenders in Ulster in those positions [Marshall, Tuohy and Henry] have been given a look-in, and while Paul Marshall didn’t even see a minute of gametime at the weekend – in common with the rest of the Ulster subs, it should be said – Tuohy and Henry had cracking games. Both players outplayed their direct opponents, and made Kidney’s Six Nations selections look one-eyed and in Tuohy’s case, just plain wrong. The Mole has long held that Ryan and Tuohy should have duked it out for the No4 jersey in this Six Nations, with the O’Callaghan era resigned to history, and the evidence of Sunday supported that thesis. Tuohy outplayed Ryan and once again showed the form that Ulster fans have seen all season, and that Declan Kidney ignored in favour of O’Callaghan and McCarthy.