24 points from the boot of Ronan O'Gara saw Munster to a shaky 24-23 win over Perpignan on Friday, with Catalan hopes now slim.
24 points from the boot of Ronan O'Gara saw Munster to a shaky 24-23 win over Perpignan in Limerick on Friday, with Catalan hopes now hanging.
Perpignan scored all the tries but they just could not stop giving away cheap penalties and O'Gara could have had nine more points in a game where Munster kicked so much you wondered whether there had been some private sweepstake on it in the Munster hierarchy.
It was a perfect game of rugby for the men in red. Nearly.
That means both half-backs and full-back kicked a lot, while the back row ran a lot. The opposition was pinned in its own half as though caught up in a spider's web and a steady drip-drip of penalties and points accumulated. All over the southern hemisphere, rugby watchers – those still awake – buried faces in hands and lamented. All over southern Ireland, glasses were raised high in confidence. Vive la difference!
The stats tell their own tale. Munster are strong in the line-out and weak in the scrum, so controlled the game so well that there were only four first-half scrums but nineteen first-half line-outs. Perpignan could not get the ball or territory they wanted at all.
Nearly perfect. But two alarming lapses in concentration utterly ruined the picture and meant that despite some 70+ per cent of territory and possession in the first half, Munster were not even ahead at the break, instead held 12-12 by the visiting Catalans.
Indeed, the French, mixing opportunism and enthusiasm with equal vigour, racked up nearly a point a minute during the first quarter-hour, dismaying Thomond Park's noisiest so thoroughly that it took a full 20 minutes for 'Fields of Athenry' to get going.
After O'Gara had given Munster the lead with a straightforward penalty, a Perpignan line-out in Munster's 22 was stolen so well that it surprised even the Munster half-backs. It surprised Yoann Vivalda – the seventh choice Perpignan flank forward pitched in at the deep end – far less and he marched between Munster's pods, snatched up the loose ball and sped away to the corner.
O'Gara restored Munster's lead, but barely had he done so than the home side's line was breached again, this time with hooker Guillem Guirado running through space around the fringes and offloading to scrum-half Nicolas Durand, whose side-step made Doug Howlett look every inch an overweight prop.
Jerome Porical converted the second one to make it 12-6.
Yet Munster were obviously getting the better of the structured parts of the game, with diagonal kicks from O'Gara and Paul Warwick especially causing heavy territorial damage to the French.
The penalty count by the end of the half was 8-2 in favour of the Irish; O'Gara landed two more goals to bring parity to the scoreline as the teams trooped into the sheds.
Munster regained the lead early in the second half when O'Gara notched his fifth, but a brief flicker of hope for the hitherto strangled French came from one of those rare scrums, with the French flattening the Munster unit to gain a penalty with which Porical restored parity.
Only a flicker. O'Gara dropped a goal off his left peg, missed another penalty with his right as Munster turned a screw with inexorable precision, then did add another with his right after Quinlan had followed up and caught a high kick. The question seemed to be now whether Perpignan could cling on for a bonus point or not.
They did better. David Mele landed a penalty after Lifeimi Mafi had held on but on the day that Free State prop Wian du Preez made his Heineken cup debut for Munster it was another from Bloemfontein, Philip Burger, who opened up the game again, fielding a high ball and returning it all 70m for a brilliant solo try.
But Mele could not land the conversion. Munster two points behind with eight to play? Where have you heard that one before? Sure enough, within four minutes, O'Gara had kicked another goal after a high tackle by Bertrand Guiry and Munster led 24-23.
Darragh Hurley sped away off the back of a ruck to land what looked to be the cruellest of sucker punch tries, but was pegged back for a knock-on. Then Munster got their mitts on the ball again for another couple of minutes, ground out another penalty and in a bizarre break with tradition, kicked for the corner rather than the posts. Perpignan discipline faltered under the pressure and the clock ticked down as Wayne Barnes administered a warning.
The final act was entirely appropriate. Munster won the line-out and were driven back five metres by a fine Perpignan effort before kicking the ball limply out into touch. Even in an attempt to administer a knockout blow, Munster could only resort to the cheap kicking option. The Irish got out of jail here, next week in the AimÃ©-Giral will be different.
Pens: O'Gara 7
Drop goal: O'Gara
Tries: Vivalda, Durand, Burger
Pens: Porical, Mele
Munster: 15 Paul Warwick, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Denis Hurley, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Tomas O'Leary, 8 Denis Leamy, 7 David Wallace, 6 Alan Quinlan, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Denis Fogarty, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Damien Varley, 17 Darragh Hurley, 18 Tony Buckley, 19 Mick O'Driscoll, 20 Donnacha Ryan, 21 Niall Ronan, 22 Peter Stringer, 23 Jean de Villiers.
Perpignan: 15 JÃ©rÃ´me Porical, 14 Farid Sid, 13 David Marty, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Christophe Manas, 10 Gavin Hume, 9 Nicolas Durand, 8 Ovidiu Tonita, 7 Bertrand Guiry, 6 Yoann Vivalda, 5 Robins Tchale Watchou, 4 Olivier Olibeau, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Perry Freshwater.
Replacements: 16 Marius Tincu, 17 JÃ©rÃ´me Schuster, 18 Kisi Pulu, 19 Charles Geli, 20 David Mele, 21 Jean-Philippe Grandclaude, 22 Philip Burger, 23 Rimas Alvarez Kairelis.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Ashley Rowden (England), Robin Goodliffe (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)
By Richard Anderson