I glanced at Wrinkly Joe and he glanced back at me. Jesus, we could actually do this.
Do what? Go to Northampton, that’s what — sorry, to Milton Keynes — and secure at least one point to guarantee a home quarter-final.
On paper it didn’t look good, for many reasons. First, Northampton are a fine outfit who took us to within a whisker when they came over here. They beat us by a single point in the 2000 Twickenham final, they’d want revenge after ROG stole the home game in the 84th minute, and they’d be looking to qualify for the Amlin challenge.
Much respect here.
Furthermore, the referee, Romain Poite, was booed off the pitch at Thomond Park after his disgraceful handling of the All Blacks game, and is no friend of Munster.
It’s true that Northampton were missing Ashton, Wood and Lawes, but Munster are missing Howlett, Leamy, Wallace, Flannery and Ronan, so we can call that even. Nevertheless, it all looked very tricky in theory leading up to the game and I must confess I wasn’t feeling especially confident. I thought we might steal a losing bonus point, but I never thought for one second that we’d witness a complete demolition of the home team, with Simon Zebo securing a hat-trick of tries and Munster scoring at will.
By half time, we had weathered the inevitable early surge and the home team were going in with no advantage after expending vast reserves of effort. I felt fairly happy with that, but you can’t afford to be complacent because you never know what’s going to happen in the next phase of the game. I certainly didn’t expect two tries in rapid succession from Johne Murphy and Simon Zebo, but I also didn’t expect Romain Poite to award a second penalty try against Munster whose scrum, in fairness to Northampton, was completely destroyed.
Zebo’s Forrest Gump interception killed off the Northampton challenge, with his try guaranteeing a home draw no matter what happened, and after that it was just a kick-about in the park. Zebo ran in a ridiculous third try, converted by Keatley, who came on for O Gara, and although Armstrong managed to get over the line in the last minute, it was scant consolation for the Saints, whose conversion was the last kick of the game.
You might find it strange to hear me saying this, but I didn’t rejoice at such a comprehensive defeat of Northampton at home. They’ve always been honourable opponents and we didn’t need a huge victory to become top seeds. I’d have been happier if they had sealed their place in the Amlin Cup.
I know. You’re probably shrugging, but that’s how I feel about it.
On the other hand, it’s very nice to see Munster emerging from the ruck as top seed, ahead of Leinster, and undefeated in six games. I don’t know yet who we’ll face in the quarter finals here in Limerick, but I think it will either be Edinburgh or Ulster. We’ll establish that tomorrow, but one way or another we know that three games now stand between us and a third Heineken Cup. Say it quick and it doesn’t sound like much, but each of these challenges will be huge. If we get through the first, we face a bigger one and if we get through that we face something enormous, but you know what?
We’ve been there before, and we’ve won this competition twice, so let’s be a little optimistic for a while. It’s not as if we don’t need a bit of optimism for a change.