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Burned In Munster

In Rugby Union on December 11, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Munster 24-23 Perpignan

Well, that was close.

Munster turned in a disjointed and erratic performance in Thomond Park on Friday evening, but managed to escape with a one point win over a game and gutsy Perpignan side. Ronan O’Gara earned the man of the match award with his 24 points, but it could so easily have been a very different story.

The men in red looked to have laid down a marker early on when they set up camp in the Perpignan 22 after a series of forward drives, which resulted in O’Gara opening his account with a straight-forward penalty. It looked as though they would dispose of an under-strength French outfit with minimum fuss, and thoughts of a bonus point were already beginning to take shape in the minds of the ever optimistic Thomond faithful.

Man of the match Ronan O'Gara lands a crucial drop goal

Something obviously distracted their team too though, as some sloppy work at a lineout allowed flanker Vivalda to burst onto a loose ball and canter to the line without anyone laying a finger on him. Ok, a minor blip, we thought, and began to relax once more when O’Gara slotted another penalty to put his side back in the lead.

But with just 12 minutes on the clock, lightning struck for a second time as Munster were burned by a simple pick and go which released scrum half Durand up the sideline. He left Dougie Howlett for dead with a simple jink inside, and brows were furrowed all over Limerick.

At this stage, Munster had enjoyed something like 75% possession, but with the forwards lacking cohesion and the outside backs drifting, the visiting French team were finding it easy to contain their meandering attacks. The home side began to make their dominance tell as O’Gara landed another couple of penalties to leave them level at 12 points apiece approaching half time, and things could have been even better at the break had cooler heads prevailed. Unfortunately, Dennis Leamy took a quick tap and go from around half way which seemed to surprise the other 29 players on the paddock, and the move fizzled out, denying O’Gara another pop at goal.

The Munster side emerged from the tunnel with no changes in personnel, and their pack immediately began to grind down their opponents once again. They worked another penalty opportunity for their in-form out half, but couldn’t edge away as another silly mistake allowed full back Porical to level matters with his first penalty.

By this stage, the fans were getting frustrated, as too much possession was kicked away and the centre partnership was consistently choosing the wrong option. Mafi was looking for contact far too much, while Earls missed a few excellent opportunities to release the men outside. It was 75 minutes before World Cup winner Jean de Villiers was introduced, but that was 75 minutes too late. He has struggled to settle in the red so far, but if you’re not going to trust him with more than five minutes in a game like this, questions have to be asked about how the management are using him.

Despite their travails, the Munstermen managed to open up a 21-15 gap through the boot of O’Gara, who landed an impressive seven out of nine kicks (and an opportunistic left-footed drop goal) in difficult conditions, and the home side were just a score away from comfort.

Flanker David Wallace struggled to impose himself on the game

But, once again, a silly indiscretion allowed the Frenchmen back into it. This time it was Mafi who ran away from his support into a bevy of willing tacklers, and was pinged for holding on. Replacement David Mele duly did the honours with the boot, and once again there was only 3 points in it.

Incredibly, Munster continued to hoof the ball high, and a deep kick from Warwick was missed badly by Doug Howlett, allowing Philip Burger to counter. And counter he did, switching on the after-burners to leave Warwick, Earls and O’Gara for dead on a 70 metre sprint to the line.

Perhaps he didn’t realise where he was, or maybe he was just that confident in his team, but cupping a hand to his ear at that stage, at this ground, was an ill-advised move.

The crowd stirred, and Munster attacked with renewed vigour, as they pinned Perpignan back in their own 22. They retook the lead after just a couple of minutes of intense work, and sighs of relief echoed around the arena.

The job was far from done though, and when a Dennis Hurley breakaway try was called back for a knock on, the more pessimistic among us began to fear the worst. Munster kept their heads down though, and with O’Gara maintaining his pin-point accuracy with the boot, he quickly drove his side back into enemy territory.

They closed the game out with all the professionalism we have come to expect from a Munster side, but right at the death there was another example of some highly questionable decision making.

In choosing to go for the corner with a penalty in the Perpignan 22 and a minute and a half on the clock, they were hoping to win the ball and kill the game. Perhaps memories of that Vincent Clerc try at Croke Park were what eventually made up the minds of O’Connell and O’Gara, and it worked as they secured the ball and forced another penalty.

But then came a truly mystifying call.

With just 30 seconds on the clock, they should have kicked for goal, taken the minute and made sure the ball went dead. Whether it went between the uprights was irrelevant. But in kicking to the corner, they allowed their opponents one last chink of light. A stolen lineout would have given them possession and life. It shouldn’t have mattered, and it didn’t, but it could have.

Worryingly, it was symptomatic of what was a very disappointing performance. O’Leary, Warwick, and Mafi all put in some terrible kicks. Some of the scrum half’s passing was also way off beam. The centres showed very little direction. The normally ultra-reliable Howlett made two crucial mistakes. The forwards found themselves isolated far too often, and some of their support play was truly dire.

So, worrying times for the men in red. They will need to put in a vastly improved performance in France next week to keep their campaign on track.

You would be mad to put it past them, but it’s a lot to turn around in just 7 days.

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