There was not so much as a single drop of theatrical blood to be seen on European quarter-final day at The Stoop, thanks be to the sporting gods: just bucket-loads of the real stuff, sweating from every Munster pore as they staged another of their great Heineken Cup productions. And no-one sweated more of the red stuff than Paul O’Connell, who, in the space of 80 jaw-dropping minutes, not only booked himself a seat on the British and Irish Lions flight to Australia this summer, but put up his hand to pilot the plane.
Four years on from the most notorious incident in the annals of this wonderful tournament – Harlequins’ brazen attempt to fiddle their way past Leinster and into the semi-finals by ordering the wing Tom Williams to bite on a capsule of fake haemoglobin as part of an illicit substitution strategy – the Londoners met Irish opposition once again. Which is just about where the parallel ended. Unlike the men from Dublin in 2009, the men from Limerick were so obviously the superior outfit that no amount of cheating could have cramped their style.
O’Connell? He was the Father Superior, so to speak. A lock forward blessed with more God-given rugby gifts than any mere tight forward has a right to expect, he also reminded a sell-out audience – an audience that included three senior members of the Lions think-tank, including the head coach, Warren Gatland – of the leadership abilities that persuaded Sir Ian McGeechan to award him the captaincy of the British Isles collective the last time they crossed the Equator, a few short weeks after “Bloodgate”.
Afterwards, as the England captain Chris Robshaw and his fellow Quins began the miserable process of licking wounds both physical and psychological, the rival coaches agreed on pretty much everything, from the overwhelming dominance of the Munster forwards at the breakdown to the pinpoint accuracy of Ronan O’Gara’s tactical kicking game. But most of all, they agreed on O’Connell. Their comments, made at different times and without collusion, amounted to a two-part hagiography.
“He was majestic: he’s one of the best locks Ireland has ever produced,” said Conor O’Shea, the Quins rugby director. “He’s the complete man,” said the Munster coach, Rob Penney, by way of a follow-up. “Paul has the ability to see things through the eyes of others, and understands the trials and tribulations of the players in the team. He makes everyone feel good to be around him. When you couple that with his rugby ability…”
Among the more belief-beggaring facts underpinning yesterday’s proceedings was that O’Connell, bedevilled by back spasms, was playing only his sixth game in just over a year. As Penney suggested, if he could perform with such authority in a major knock-out match after such prolonged inactivity, how good might he be in June and July, when the Lions take on the Wallabies in the principal business of the rugby year? “He’ll be humming,” predicted the coach, in tones that brooked no disagreement.
It was only reasonable that the Munster captain should take a few minutes to find his bearings and in the early stages, with both the scrums and the aerial contest going the way of Quins, the home side began building a score. Two first-quarter penalties from Nick Evans put them six points ahead and even though O’Gara responded after a threatening run from the impressive centre Casey Laulala, the advantage was restored when James Johnston, not for the first time, turned Dave Kilcoyne inside out at a set-piece.
But by the end of the half, the balance of power had shifted decisively in the Munster direction. If Laulala and his fellow midfielder James Downey looked far more powerful than their Quins counterparts – by all accounts, their partnership here was infinitely more productive than anything they had managed since moving to Limerick a little over a year ago – the two visiting flankers were even more dominant.
Peter O’Mahony, already capped by Ireland, brought an earthy aggression to the visitors’ work at the tackle area, and by playing through the pain of a severe shoulder injury for much of the second half, he reinforced his reputation as a seriously hard nut. Meanwhile, the new breakaway Tommy O’Donnell was a revelation. An old-fashioned ball-ripper of a No 7, he would have claimed the man of the match gong had O’Connell not decided to operate at a Test pitch. Certainly, the late developer from Tipperary gave Robshaw all the grief he could handle, and more.
With their skipper stoking the fires, Munster cruised to an 18-9 lead within 16 minutes of the restart. Under the most extreme pressure, Quins either inched their way offside around the corners of rucks and mauls or threw increasingly desperate Emergency Ward 10 passes that allowed the visiting back-rowers to indulge their appetite for road kill. O’Gara kicked four penalties in this period, a couple of them too easy for words, the others significantly more awkward.
Evans did manage to cut the deficit five minutes into the final quarter after Williams ran hard on the angle off his wing to make a rare midfield break, thereby forcing the Munster scavengers to infringe on the floor. But with O’Mahony continuing to hurl himself into the fray – his disregard for his own wellbeing was every bit as alarming as it was admirable – the Londoners could not capitalise further. By the end, they knew the truth of it. They had been on the wrong end of a six-point hiding.
“There are times when you can have your gripes and complaints, but this isn’t one of them,” said O’Shea, with complete honesty. “The better side won. What we have to do now is learn the lessons from the journey Munster themselves made before winning their first Heineken title. We’ll feel sorry for ourselves, yes, but only for a day. We can’t afford to allow the good things we’ve achieved this season to drift away.”
It was the right response, undeniably. But O’Shea will need to draw on all his motivational skills to minimise the damage.
Scorers: Harlequins: Penalties Evans 4. Munster: Penalties O’Gara 6.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, G Lowe, T Casson (M Hopper 75), U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan (J Gray 49), J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa’asavalu (T Guest 50), C Robshaw (capt), N Easter.
Munster: F Jones; D Hurley, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (W Du Preez 75), M Sherry (D Varley 75), B J Botha (S Archer 75), D Ryan (D O’Callaghan 68), P O’Connell (capt), P O’Mahony (P Butler 78), T O’Donnell, J Coughlan.
Referee: J Garces (France).
Heineken Cup semi-final line-up
Clermont Auvergne v Munster
Saturday 27 April Stade de la Mosson, Montpellier
Saracens v Toulon
Sunday 28 April Twickenham