Planet Rugby

Munster first into the quarter-finals

16th January 2009 21:59

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Munster sealed a Heineken Cup quarter-final place with an ultimately easy 37-14 win over Sale at Thomond Park on Friday, extinguishing the English side's hopes in the process.

The European champions adhered to the modern-day champions' rule, winning even when some way of their swashbuckling best, but - going on their recent run of form added to this - a defence of their title looks unlikely.

Sale made it impossible for Munster to lose. After a brief flicker of hope for the Sharks in the second half, they caved in completely in the final 20 minutes, with some startling lapses in concentration undermining their efforts all game. Munster merely accepted the gifts on offer in order to achieve their goal.

This was not traditional intense Heineken fare. It was too stodgy and too run-of-the-mill. Munster played like a team that knew it needed to ward off a lull in form, Sale like a team that knew it could not afford to lose.

Thus neither side played with confidence or conviction and as a result the game was neither inspiring nor enthralling. It was like watching two arm-wrestlers cancel each other out: lots of sweat and growling and grinding of teeth, barely any movement.

The pattern of the game was set out in the opening five minutes. Sale regained their kick-off, took the ball through nine phases and into their hosts' 22, but lost it. Munster won their line-out ball, took it through 13 phases and scored the first try when Paul O'Connell caught Sale's defence napping at a maul and dived over the mound of bodies.

From then on, Munster conceded a steady and unprecedented number of penalties - by half-time the count was 8-4. That in itself ought to have let Sale back into the game but Charlie Hodgson, who had a distinctly mixed night, missed two out of three easy kicks before handing responsibilities onto Luke McAlister.

By the time Hodgson had missed his second - having landed one - Munster were 12-3 ahead. In a rare moment of flowing enterprise, the ball was moved well from touchline to touchline three times before it came back right to find Jerry Flannery on the wing for a short sprint home.

McAlister answered with a penalty after Flannery had been sin-binned for a particularly stupid trip, and that was that for the first half bar an awful lot of close quarter rucking and driving from both sides. Sale had the chance to regroup and rethink at half-time, Munster to examine their discipline.

David Wallace scored within 40 seconds of the restart to give Munster an unassailable 19-6 after his tacklers inexplicably let him get up and continue running when they should have been rubbing his nose in the dirt.

McAlister brought the scores back to 19-9 and then Sale came as close as they would ever come to getting back into the game, when Dwayne Peel's quick tap caught Munster napping, Eifion Roberts took the ball past two gawping defenders and Hodgson finished in the corner. McAlister failed with the conversion but briefly, we had a game.

Hodgson's swift transition from hero to zero was completed as he elected to try and catch a chip from O'Gara while falling backwards, a futile escapade. Needless to say, he spilled the ball and Ian Dowling pounced.

It was one-way traffic thereafter. Tomas O'Leary sniped round the fringes of a scrum for a fifth try, then the entire Sale team stood still at a crunching tackle, giving Warwick ample room to canter over in the right-hand corner.

The bonus-point try in victory was enough to seal top spot in the pool, and the champions travel to Montauban next week searching for a bonus-point win that would probably give them a home quarter-final. They'll need to up their game when they get there.

Man of the match: Paul O'Connell and Alan Quinlan come a close second behind the effervescent David Wallace who has done his Lions prospects no harm at all with this display.

The scorers:

For Munster:

Tries: O'Connell, Flannery, Wallace, Dowling, O'Leary, Warwick

Cons: O'Gara 2

Pen: Warwick

For Sale:

Try: Hodgson

Pens: Hodgson, McAlister 2

Yellow card: Flannery (Munster, 19, tripping)

Munster: 15 Paul Warwick, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Ian Dowling, 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 Jerry Flannery, 1 Marcus Horan.

Replacements: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Federico Pucciariello, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 Niall Ronan, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Barry Murphy, 22 Denis Hurley.

Sale Sharks: 15 Mark Cueto, 14 Chris Bell, 13 Andy Tuilagi, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 David Doherty, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 JM Fernandez Lobbe (c), 7 Neil Briggs, 6 Chris Jones, 5 Dean Schofield, 4 Sebastien Chabal, 3 Eifion Roberts, 2 Marc Jones, 1 Lionel Faure.

Replacements: 16 Stuart Turner, 17 Andrew Sheridan, 18 Brent Cockbain, 19 Luke Abraham, 20 Dwayne Peel, 21 Rudi Keil, 22 Mathew Tait.

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)

Touch judges: Nigel Whitehouse (Wales), Hugh Watkins (Wales)

Television match official: Derek Bevan (Wales)

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