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Steely O Gara Ensures Another Epic Victory
10 October 2006, 5:42 pm
Once more, the red flags of the province waved proudly in one of the great bear pits of English rugby; the home support every ounce as passionate about their rugby as the visiting hoard.
Once more, the red flags of the province waved proudly in one of the great bear pits of English rugby; the home support every ounce as passionate about their rugby as the visiting hoard. ( By Dermot Keyes )

Over the past few years in the aftermath of big matches, this reporter s mobile phone jitterbugs with greater regularity than usual.

Sunday s order of business was surprisingly slow in this respect, yet the one text received from a saturated fan at Welford Road more than suitably encapsulated the day s events.

What a day. Got soaked. No spare trousers. In BIG trouble. Will soldier on in good cause. MUNSTER!

One imagines my textee was not alone in wondering why he hadn t packed spares for the latest pilgrimage across the water in support of the European champions.

Yet by full-time, one imagines none of them gave a damn about how wet they were after another nerve-shattering, heart stopping Munster victory.

Once more, the red flags of the province waved proudly in one of the great bear pits of English rugby; the home support every ounce as passionate about their rugby as the visiting hoard. And once more, the mighty men of Munster have failed to disappoint.

The first round of the competition may be all that s behind us, yet already this season s European Cup has surely recorded one of its greatest tussles.

This was blood and guts rugby, the sort of match to warm the cockles of those who love their rugby as physical, as wholehearted and as fully committed as one could ever hope for.

Time and time again, through phase after phase and tackle after tackle, Munster and Leicester, two of the teams most responsible for making the European Cup what it is today, simply pummelled each other.

Leicester, were suitably dejected come Nigel Owen s final whistle.

On more than one occasion, the Tigers had punched Munster onto the ropes and got the opposition s knees wobbling.

But, for all their efforts and goodness did they try, Leicester could not land the knock-out punch. Knocking Munster, as if we didn t already know it, takes that little extra force.

Yet it can t be emphasised enough that it was for no wont, desire or spirit on behalf of the hosts that they came out the wrong side of a 21-19 scoreline.

Defensively, Munster were magnificent. And when they needed that something unexpected in attack, the champions could find it.

Donncha O Callaghan s 10th minute try is surely destined for legend. Should the European Cup remain in this province come the end of the season, it will be claimed that O Callaghan s run for glory on Sunday last began from the Welford Road car park!

With the bit firmly between the teeth, the Munster lock hauled his mighty frame half the length of the pitch to score the most memorable try of his career to date. Ian Dowling s superb rumble on Scott Bemand disrupted a Leicester attack which led to O Callaghan s epic try.

Drifting infield to brilliant effect, Dowling showed the sort of clued-in incisiveness which makes a good winger so much more than simply the guy that finishes a move and dives in at the corner.

For Munster s second try, during a particularly strong period of Leicester play, fellow winger John Kelly showed a similar level of awareness. Drifting infield and breaking the Tigers defensive line, Kelly powered upfield, drawing a tackle before offloading to Trevor Halstead.

The South African centre drew three Tigers into the tackle before David Wallace used every ounce of his brawn to get the ball over the try line. It was a stunning try, proof, if any more were needed, that Munster no longer exclusively rely on their pack to produce to the scoring goods.

Leading by nine points at the break, Munster had been helped by the wayward kicking of former fly-half Paul Burke, whose selection ahead of Andy Goode had raised eyebrows prior to kick-off.

It was no surprise when Goode appeared in Burke s place at the resumption of hostilities. And for most of the second half, Goode ran the show, pinging the ball with both speed and accuracy, and pinning Munster inside their own twenty-two for most of the half.

But when Munster needed relief, a pack marshalled by Stringer provided Ronan O Gara with the quick ball that the occasion demanded. O Gara, who d found himself the centre of English media attention in the build-up to the game, kicked his team out of trouble quite superbly.

On a day when the boot was destined to prove valuable (as predicted in these very pages last week), O Gara produced one of his greatest ever kicks in the 79th minute.

After Nigel Owens had brought a Munster penalty 10 metres forward, with time running out on the clock and most of the match s momentum at that point with Leicester, O Gara opted for the posts.

Having earlier missed a conversion and penalty that he d normally back himself to stick between the posts, one could have thought that O Gara s confidence might be somewhat undermined. But it s a mark of his growing maturity as a top class footballer that he shook off those misses so well.

And what a glorious kick it was. From the moment it left the kicking tee, O Gara knew it was on his way.

As the rain sheeted down on top of two weary yet thoroughly gallant teams, the ball bisected the posts. The flags were raised. Leicester hearts sank. Munster arms were raised aloft after what ultimately proved to be the match s decisive score.

"Winning on the road is one of the hardest things to do in this game," said Munster captain Paul O Connell after another enthralling afternoon of European Cup rugby.

"And winning at Welford Road, one of the hardest grounds to visit, is great. A lot of our play in the last few weeks hasn't been very good, but our work rate has been high.

"We are still a long way off our best. We lost in Sale last year in our opening match so we are into new territory this season in the Heineken Cup. It's a different season for us and now we have to figure out a new motivation. We are finding our feet and this win was part of that experience."

A happy yet surely equally relieved Munster coach Declan Kidney said their two-point win was a hugely important moment in his team s season.

"We knew the first 20 minutes was going to be vital and I was happy when we were 10-3 up, said Kidney. We know we got a win in the end but we also realise the result could so easily have been turned around.

"But this win will count for nothing if we don t go back to Thomond Park next weekend and carry on the good work. Experience tells us that with a six-day turnaround we are going to be under pressure come next week."

Bourgoin, who lost at home to Cardiff Blues in their opening Pool Four match, will present another significant challenge to Munster when they meet at Thomond Park on Saturday next (kick-off: 5.30pm).

But, having recorded a victory which required absolute commitment and the sort of intensity which would win most Test matches, Munster now find themselves in the box seat. But my goodness how hard they were made to work for it.

Dermot Keyes is a reporter with The Munster Express and PRO of Carrick on Suir RFC
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