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Rugby

Heineken Cup : Munster 19 – Scarlets 13

Munster did it to us again, for the fourth game in a row.  Dragging us to the very brink before finally dogging out a win.  I told you that my friend, Wrinkly Joe, has been told by his doctor to stay on the cigarettes, the saturated fats and the booze but give up Munster rugby because it’s bad for his heart.  Now, I’m inclined to believe that the doctors in Munster should come together and issue a blanket warning to their patients.  Watch this stuff at your peril.

We all thought there would be a backlash after last week’s victory in Llanelli.  Scarlets would want to return the compliment.

And so, as the Geek and I trudged out to Thomond Park on a sharp, sunny forenoon, it was in hope rather than confidence.  Avalon beckoned.  An almost Arthurian mist hung over Limerick as if to make our Welsh visitors feel at home, and perhaps to lull them, but these are knights, not knaves, and they came well prepared for the joust.

Munster fought a rearguard action for much of the game, with neither side helped by referee Dave Pearson who inexplicably forgot to visit Specsavers, judging by the number of infringements he overlooked.  At times, it looked like Scarlets were playing American football, not rugby, if you judged it by the amount of interference running they did without a peep from Pearson’s whistle, but of course, he also overlooked one or two forwardish passes from Munster, so I suppose we can hardly complain.   That’s the professional game: played on the edge of the laws.

Anyway, as usual, they pulled it out of the fire, although I though Scarlets looked more dangerous for most of the game and probably deserved a bit more than their losing bonus point, which could well turn out to be a very important point indeed.

On the positive side, Murray had a great game and so did Zebo  apart from a couple of decidedly dodgy kicks.  Hurley stayed cool under the high ball.  Earls looked efffective but Mafi, I’m afraid, had a howler.  Twice he fluffed gold-plated chances to run for the line, and when he got possession, he seemed unsure what to do with it.

O Gara, as usual, kept his head, and Munster in the game when Scarlets threatened to overrun us, and of course, as normal, Paul O Connell provided the leadership required.

I was never much good with the permutations of league tables but Munster are now in pole position, facing games against Northampton and Castres.  The Saints demolished a demotivated Catres yesterday, 45-0, but will be playing for pride against Munster.

Some work still to be done, but it’s not a bad way to end the year.

 

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Rugby

Scarlets vs Munster

In a few minutes, the vital Munster-Scarlets match will kick off but Munster fans won’t be feeling over-confident.  After getting out of jail twice in a row thanks to last-minute drop goals from Ronan O Gara, Munster are lucky to be where they are in the points table.  Having lost Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, Keith Earls and only last week, Doug Howlett, Munster are depleted, but of course, as we saw when they took the All Blacks to the wire, that’s when they’re at their determined best.

It’s a big call to travel to Llanelli and take on what is essentially the Welsh international team.

I’m here now in my pub of choice, with my old mate Wrinkly Joe, contemplating two delicious black pints but not particularly sanguine about this.

Back later.

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Half time update.

Jesus Christ, what a half.  Scarlets tore into Munster for the first 20 minutes, dominating possession and putting 8 points on the board with no reply.  Time after time they turned over Munster ball until suddenly Munster seemed to wake up and string a series of fancy passes together, going down the tunnel after 40 minutes, 11-8 ahead.

I’ll tell you this: whatever else you can say about them, following Munster is never boring.

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Full time.

Scarlets 14 –  Munster 17

Wrinkly Joe’s doctor was on the phone with the bad news.  Sorry Joe.  You’ll have to quit watching Munster.  Go back on the cigarettes.  They’re safer for your heart.

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Categories
Rugby

Munster 27 — Castres 24

If you had gone into a bookies this morning and said, Excuse me, I’d like to put a tenner on Ronan O Gara making the winning score with the last kick of the game, what do you think they’d have said to you? Any decent bookie would have tucked your folded note into your pocket and sent you home.  Keep your money.  I might be a bookie, but I’m not a thief.

I mentioned this to my beloved son, Bullet, who replied, Imagine the odds you’d have got if you went into a bookie shop last week and bet on O Gara doing it twice.

Half way through today’s game, sharing a delicious scoop or two with Wrinkly Joe, he leaned over and said, You know how this will end, don’t you?

No, I replied.  How will this end?

With eighty minutes on the clock, Munster will have possession, O Gara will be in the pocket and he’ll slot one over.

How we laughed about that.

Guess what?  With eighty minutes on the clock, O Gara dropped into the pocket and slotted one over to win the away game in Stade Toulousain.  Sickener.  If that was Thomond Park, I reckon the entire crowd would have surfed home on a tsunami of barf, but here comes the downside.

It’s great that Munster have pulled the last two games out of the fire, but as a regular contributor here pointed out, they  wouldn’t  have to do that sort of thing if they were managing the breakdown properly, which they are not.  I couldn’t count the number of infringements Munster were penalised for, and even if you think that Wayne Barnes is a particularly whistle-happy referee, it doesn’t matter.  A professional team must assess the referee as much as the opposition, take note of his tendencies, and play the game accordingly.  Referees are not robots and the likes of Munster, twice winners, should have no difficulty adjusting.  I don’t know whose responsibility that is, but ultimately it goes back to Tony McGahan.

Some people are saying that the group is now down to two, since both Northampton and Castres have lost two games, but there’s still a way to go before we can declare anyone dead and buried.  Certainly, Llanelli and Munster are in prime position, but let’s see what happens in the back-to-back December games.

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Categories
Rugby

Munster 23 – Northampton 21

Sport can be an allegory for life, but this was a metaphor for the times we live in.  It was inspirational.  An absolute refusal to lie down.  A complete rejection of the obvious truth that they were going to lose.  An overturning of reality.

One point behind and with two minutes left on the clock, Munster decided to dig in and grind out a result.  They put the heads down, they recycled the ball over and over, at one stage going all the way back to the half-way line under pressure from the Saints, but fighting their way on, yard by yard until finally, safe in the pocket, six minutes and 41 phases later, Ronan O Gara slotted as neat a drop goal as you’ll ever see to end Northampton’s hopes.

What a great game, but more importantly, what a great endgame.  I don’t know about you, but I have never witnessed such an exhibition of guts, brains, balls and backbone as we saw tonight in Thomond Park.  However, in case you think I’m being parochial, let me say that this is aimed as much at Northampton as it is at Munster.  They all deserve whatever praise comes their way, although I’d have to admit that I’m a little biased, which is probably forgivable in the circumstances.

It sends out a message: If you want to beat us, you’ll have to produce something out of the ordinary.  I’m sure the Northampton lads are sick tonight, though I don’t take any satisfaction from that.  They’ve always been tough and honourable opponents, and their supporters have always had a good time here in Limerick.  But I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t gloat a tiny bit, if only privately, in my own mind, for a second or two.

This was Munster at its best.  At its absolute best.  It exemplified the ethos that has sustained the effort all these years, the determination to fight back in the face of almost insuperable odds and more often than not, to win.  I couldn’t make it tonight, unfortunately, and I’ll regret that forever because this game surpasses all the miracle matches that I was at.  The only Munster performance I can think of that exceeds this was the All Blacks game.

For two minutes before the 80th, and for a further four afterwards, Munster kept the ball in hand, never making a mistake, never knocking on, never conceding a penalty, completely focussed on one objective: an absolute refusal to be beaten in Thomond Park.  They did that for 41 phases, and I have to say that full credit is also due to Northampton for not conceding a penalty despite the pressure.  Back and forth, east to west, never straying too close to the line, Munster drove it forward, fell back, drove forward again until finally O Gara, the maestro, judged that the moment was right, took his time and slotted the three points, finally allowing Nigel Owens to blow the whistle.

As I said, it was an allegory and a metaphor.  These guys showed us that no matter how hard the times, how tough the opposition, with balls, guts, brains and backbone, you can still fight back and win, provided you show enough downright cussedness.

Marvellous.  I can say no more.

 

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Update.  It’s unfortunate that Saints coach Jim Mallinder is blaming the referee.  I thought he would be bigger than that, as his supporters are.

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Categories
Rugby

Heineken Cup Final — Leinster 33 Northampton 22

Leinster were dead and buried at half time, going into the dressing room 22-6 down.  Northampton were killing them in the scrum, at the breakdown and in open play.

I’ll be honest with you.  I thought it was over.  I couldn’t see them coming back, not so much because the gap was too big, but because Saints were so dominant in every aspect of play.  And yet, right from the restart, it looked like the two teams had swapped shirts, as Leinster smashed into their opponents, kept possession, forced them to defend desperately, and Jonny Sexton racked up score after score.

We’ve never seen such a comeback in a European Cup final.  Within a quarter of an hour, Leinster had the lead.  It was an extraordinary display of determination and refusal to to quit, combined with some outstanding individual performances.  Brian O Driscoll, as usual, was at the top of his game, proving once again that he is one of the finest players ever to step onto a rugby pitch, and Sexton put in the display of his life.

Whatever was said in the dressing room worked.  Leinster’s scrummaging improved beyond recognition and the substitution of Jennings for McLaughlin probably improved things at the breakdown for Leinster.  O’Driscoll got the measure of Foden and I thought Nacewa was immense under the high ball.

It’s true that Saints were tired after a hard semi-final against Leicester the previous week, and Ashton must also have been feeling the effects of the thumping he got from Tuilagi in that match.  It’s also true that Hartley got a nasty bang on the head in the first half and stayed on to finish the game, but all in all, I think Northampton were in the end beaten by a team with more self-belief on the day.  With twenty minutes to go, it seemed to me that their players were acting like defeated men.  The body language was not good.

On a broader point, this match showed in stark detail how punishing the modern game has become. I know the players are all much bigger and stronger now than they used to be say 15 years ago, but that also means bigger impacts, and while you can beef up in the gym, bone is still just bone, and ligament is still just ligament.  I’m beginning to wonder what the future holds for professional rugby players at this level.  In the last few weeks we saw the retirement of two young players from the Munster squad : Barry Murphy, who had a nasty ankle break against Ulster,  and Ian Dowling, who suffered a bad hip injury against Ospreys back in September.  Of the players who soldier on, what will life be like in ten years time?  What lifelong damage have they suffered, especially players as courageous as Brian O Driscoll?

But that’s a discussion for another day.

Here’s wishing Leinster well.  They thoroughly deserved their second Heineken Cup, matching Munster’s haul, and we’ll welcome them to Thomond Park next weekend for the final of the Magners League.
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