Oval Digest: Munster Mash Quins With Vintage Display
Well, it wouldn’t be a Heineken Cup without one of these games would it? Last week I defined a few key issues Munster needed to address if they were to have any chance of beating Quins. Written off by most, including myself and most of their own fans, the men in red showed up yet again when they needed it most, and shell-shocked a Quins side that will hope never to face the same intensity ever again.
Watching the Sunday lunchtime game, and remembering back to the hammering Munster took in Glasgow just last week, one could barely believe we were seeing the same team. O’Gara was flatter, the backrow hunted in a pack, they kicked well and, crucially, the forwards got on top of a Quins 8 devoid of any real bite.
Key for Munster was some big performances from their centres. For one of the first times all year, Downey was used effectively, barreling over the smaller Quins backs on a number of occasions, while some of the offloading from Casey Laulala showed why he was once rated as one of the best 13s in Europe.
Yet one man stood, literally, head and shoulders above the rest. Sky sure do love to pick a hero within a game (witness the sickening hype of the ‘world class’ Owen Farrell on Saturday evening), but if this ploy was ever warranted, it was for Paul O’Connell. Shaven-headed and looking immensely fit, the second row was fearsome, stealing lineout ball, carrying like a demon and even turning over Quins possession at key times. With Warren Gatland in the crowd, this MOTM display will surely have cemented O’Connells name in the squad, if not the starting 15 for the Lions tour.
As for Quins, they generally look far more than the sum of their parts, but were made to look like a middle table Aviva Premiership team by the rampant visitors. Conor O’Shea will have warned his men constantly last week about not making mistakes, fighting hard and not letting Munster get the psychological edge. Quins failed on all three accounts, and looked shattered at the end of the game. The respective control exerted by the 9 and 10 of both teams really told its own story. Munster march on, and will relish a trip to Montpellier to face Clermont. They’ll be written off, but as I said last week, don’t rule out another once in a lifetime Munster performance!
On Saturday, what was supposed to be the epitome of the weekend from an Irish perspective threw up an Ulster performance not befitting of a HEC quarter. The Ulstermen were backed by a huge crowd, returning to the scene of last year’s final, but Sarries (dubbed the ‘anti-rugby’ club by some Twitter wags this weekend) defended resolutely, kicked their goals, and in truth never looked like being beaten.
Ulster’s backline stood way too flat, and some poor performances from the likes of Rory Best and even Pienaar led to a complete systems failure. Luke Marshall will be worried about suffering what looked like yet another head injury, and Ulster will return to Rabo action hoping to salvage a season that promised so much. A repeat performance in the league knockouts will surely warrant a similar result though.
Finally, Leinster faced up to Wasps on Friday night in High Wycombe (‘London’ Wasps is a misnomer!) and played out a typical gun slinging battle with the English side. Wasps winger Christian Wads put in a scintillating performance, scoring two tries and looking electric each time he got the ball, but it was Ian Madigan who again stole the headlines with an assured performance.
Leinster will play French invaders Biarritz at the end of April at home, hoping to cement an Amlin final come May, though will need to tighten up considerably before that, starting with a trip to Thomond next Saturday, and the return of O’Driscoll and Sexton.
In general, despite what Sky might tell you, Quarter Final weekend slightly disappointed, but who would have thought it would be Munster to light up the tournament? There’ll be souvenir DVDs and documentaries made about this one in years to come!