Munster holding out for a miracle as Harlequins beckon

Munster holding out for a miracle as Harlequins beckon

APRIL 30, 2011. Amlin Challenge Cup, semi-final, Munster v Harlequins, Thomond Park.

Munster had just come through a joyous quater-final in Brive and had juggernaut-esque smoke coming off them.

The woeful efforts away to London Irish, the Ospreys and Toulon earlier in the season were forgotten, and the hubris of 2009 was present in the pre-game description of Quins as "a middling side from an average league".

In the event, Quins battered Munster in the first half, and were unfortunate to go in only seven points ahead. They withstood the expected onslaught to prevail 20-12. The line-ups that day were:

Munster: Jones; Howlett, Mafi, Warwick, Earls; O’Gara, Murray; du Preez, Varley, Buckley; O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll; Leamy, Wallace, Coughlan. Subs: Sherry, Horan, Hayes, O’Connell, Ryan, Stringer, Tuitupou, Murphy

Harlequins: Brown; Camacho, Lowe, Ooooooooooh Turner-Hall, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Gray, Johnston; Kohn, Robson; Fa’asavalu, Robshaw, Easter. Subs: Cairns, Jones, Lambert, Vallejos, Skinner, Moore, Clegg, Chisholm.

The Munster line-up, and particularly the bench, was ligind-tastic, and Munster had only one defeat in European rugby in Thomond Park at that stage, to an Ian Humphreys-led Leicester side in 2007, when the Liginds were already-qualified. That renowned Munster-hater/non-homer (delete as appropriate) Romaine Poite in charge in the middle.

The result in that Amlin semi-final was genuinely surprising — no one thought Quins had the poise at that stage in their development to sack fortress Thomond, despite Munster having started something of a rebuild three months earlier. That they did with some degree of comfort raised quite a few eyebrows on both sides of the Irish Sea, and was an early harbinger of the fortunes of both sides in the interim.

Since then, Harlequins have gone on to lift the Amlin Cup (in most fortuitous style, robbing Stade Francais blind in the Cardiff City Stadium), then followed that up with a Premiership win — they started like a train during the World Cup, wobbled a bit, then finished very strongly to beat Leicester in a riveting final. In Europe last year, they bottled it in Galway to leave a not-so-rampant Toulouse to lose limply to Edinburgh in the quarters.

This season, they cruised through a weak pool (Biarritz, Connacht, Zebre) to qualify as No 1 seeds for the quarters.

As for Munster, they claimed that year’s Magners League with a win over a shagged-out Leinster in Thomond Park. The following year, they won all six games in a powdery pool, but were disposed of in their citadel by an Ulster side that tackled everything that moved and took their scores, but were by no means a superpower. It was like Ireland’s defeat in Murrayfield this year, with the scoring sequences reversed.

That they got thrashed by the Ospreys in the Pro12 semi-final merely completed the unhappy end to the unhappy Tony McGahan era. Munster fans were glad to see him go, and this year was hoped to be something of a new dawn. Sadly, Munster look as muddled as they did 12 months ago — the desire to play a more expansive game, with forwards carrying and offloading, clashes with an ideology married to muck and bullets, grinding forward play and trench warfare.

If one compares that Munster side to the one today, it’s one that is two years into the transition that started after the Toulon defeat. The arrival of BJ Botha and the graduation of Donnacha Ryan to the first team means the tight five is probably stronger now, but the Paul O’Connell shaped-hole at the centre of the pack still needs a (fully fit) Paul O’Connell shaped-solution.

He made his comeback to the Munster team proper at the weekend against Connacht and had the demeanour of a caged animal.

The back-row is the area of the biggest change, and specifically the flanks. Peter O’Mahony is a fine and talented player, but as a Heineken Cup-level blindside, even a Denis Leamy in the twilight of his too short career is still a better option, and David Wallace over Tommy O’Donnell/Niall Ronan is a no-brainer.

The lack of brawn in the current Munster edition is probably best-illustrated by the change on the flanks — at least if Leamy and Wallace felt like resorting to rumbling, they had the beef and skills to do it, but O’Mahony and O’Donnell, at this end of their careers and despite being good footballers, rarely dominate games.

In the halves, Conor Murray has matured from Academy graduate to a fine player, and is now an undisputed Ireland starter. He still seems to play a little too much to instruction, carrying a lot last year and box-kicking too much in this year’s Six Nations. In time, he will grow the experience and confidence to run a game as he sees it.

If Ronan O’Gara regains the 10 shirt, it will be a surprise — Father Time has finally caught up with him, and, as with Ireland, he is playing himself out of the team. So, Murray/Keatley — promising, but down a level on Murray/O’Gara from two years ago.

Further out, Munster are fairly similar — Downey/Laulala is a solid centre partnership with a hint of creativity, rather like Warwick/Mafi was, but with the invention outside instead of in. The back three is almost the same, but given Hurley for Jones, Earls getting over injuries and Howlett getting on a bit, they are crying out for Zebo to return. He is rated 50-50 and will be itching to play to put himself in the reckoning for the Lions.

So Munster are a clear level down on the team that lost two years ago, and still very much a work in progress. What of Harlequins? The team that lined out at Saracens last weekend had 11 of the starters, and the exact same spine of Brown, Turner-Hall, Evans, Care, Easter, Robshaw, Robson, Johnston and Marler.

Two years on, the team is familiar with silverware and is now confident and experienced. If the graphs of the two sides were level at the last meeting (which is generous to the Irish side), they have diverged dramatically since. It will take a massive reversal of form and class for Munster to prevail, and it might even be their best European result of all time. Time to take out the rosary beads.

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