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Lorraine O'Sullivan/Inpho
A New Year Brings Same Challenges To Munster
12 December 2008, 5:48 pm
By Dermot Keyes, The Munster Express
Well so much for the season of goodwill. Sitting in the cosy surrounds of the Tote at the Sportsground may have left the journalistic finger tips minus their distinctive festive hue of blue on Sunday, but the result did little to warm Munster rugby cockles.
"How will the game go," a good friend, not particularly awed by the union game, had queried earlier that day.

In my infinite wisdom, I suggested that the latest Connacht/Munster meeting would be a nip and tuck affair until around the hour mark; thereafter Munster's greater quality would spur them onto victory. If only.

The game's three-quarter mark did indeed see the match in the balance, but Doug Howlett's sin-binning after catching Gavin Duffy in mid-flight tipped the tie in Connacht's favour. While Munster didn't play particularly well, threatening a try only in the dying minutes, full credit to Michael Bradley and to Connacht on a job well done. No ALT tag specified

Heineken Cup rugby out west would do wonders for the game in a province the powers that be in this island probably still aren't overly enamoured in retaining. Defeat in Galway was not the way that Munster would have wished to bring the curtain down on what was, by any standards, another remarkable year.

They end 2008 as European champions and, despite Sunday's reversal, Magners League leaders, a tag any supporter would have gladly taken this time last year. But it speaks volumes that the Munster performance that will be most vividly recalled from a year now in its final flickering embers wasn't the Heineken Cup final nor the 18-0 win at the RDS.

Tuesday, November 18th 2008 will be remembered forever and a day for the display that the Munster 'second string' produced against the All Blacks. For a team so hell-bent on winning to be championed by all and sundry for a game they actually lost is another of sport's many wonderful quirks. Sometimes it feels as if this particular team can do no wrong. But of course, reality and the demands of a coach will tell you otherwise.

The remarkable pack effort against New Zealand was the best display that Munster's forwards produced all year long. And while the team has certainly fronted up in terms of its defensive responsibilities, Tony McGahan & co know that the pack has found it difficult in the set-piece of late.
And in this respect, video analysis of the Connacht display cannot have made for easy viewing. That vast improvements in both scrum and lineout are required for Saturday's interpro with Ulster goes without saying.

A stung Munster team usually follows up a less than stellar effort with an eyeball popping, sinew straining, gut-busting 80 minutes. And they'll need it against an Ulster team that, despite last Friday's defeat to Leinster, is slowly moulding into the shape Matt Williams is striving for.

Like Connacht, there's rarely a comfortable night to be had when our northern friends take to the Thomond sod, and one imagines it'll be no different this time around.

And it would be wrong to label this as a 'must win' for a Munster team that hasn't consistently sparked at home this season. Why? Ask Paul O'Connell or Ronan O'Gara and they'll tell you every game is a must win.

No ALT tag specifiedOf course, Munster's newly constituted stadium was another of the great success stories of the Irish sporting year - a credit to the efforts of all involved.

The emergence of Keith Earls, was one of the great individual success stories of the Munster year, so too the form of Niall Ronan and Ian Dowling while Donnacha Ryan's elevation to test ranks was thoroughly deserved.

'Start as you mean to go on' is a phrase that rings readily through as resolution time approaches.

And while Munster's decorated squad know that winning is all that matters, they also know that 80 solid minutes should also lead to the sort of performance that's put them in their lofty spot.

So from Cappoquin to Currow, from Roscrea to Rosscarbery and from Mungret to Miltown Malbay, a happy New Year to one and all. Keep standing. Keep fighting.

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