O'Gara's guile shows up English inferiority

Munster 33 Northampton 19
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The Independent Online

It is part of an outside-half's skill to understand the lay of the land in his own backyard: to be familiar with the peculiarities of a pitch's surface, its camber, the way the ground slopes sharply towards this corner or rises gently towards that one. It is not part of the job description to be a meteorologist – No 10s spend their weeks looking at tapes of the opposition, not weather charts – but judging by the way Ronan O'Gara used the Limerick wind to blow Northampton clean out of the Heineken Cup, he would have spotted the 1987 hurricane a whole lot quicker than Michael Fish.

"He is a master," said Jim Mallinder, the Midlanders' director of rugby, with genuine admiration. "We spoke at half-time about what O'Gara might do to us with the wind at his back, but there are times when talking isn't enough."

In the event, Northampton barely got a word in edgeways as the Irishman's right boot did all the talking that mattered. In extracting full value from the conditions – he seemed to summon gusts at will, to command every current and pocket of air – he reminded everyone, not least those big city types from Dublin he believes have turned against him, that there is no finer kicker out of hand to be found anywhere in the sport.

With the wind in his face before the interval, he tormented Northampton with what he called "contestables": high kicks into the wild western sky that might have been specifically designed to leave Ben Foden, the new England full-back, questioning his own sanity. Playing with the conditions in the second period, he turned puppeteer, sending punt after searching punt down the long diagonals and drawing Foden, Chris Ashton and Bruce Reihana around the field as though they were attached to invisible strings. In actual fact, the Northampton men could hardly be faulted in their response, although Reihana messed up elsewhere in allowing Doug Howlett to slip by him for the second of Munster's four tries. While slower, less alert players would have struggled to get within 30 metres of O'Gara's rolling touch-finders, the ball always seemed to be an arm's length away from these three. It was a measure of the Munster captain's brilliance that he used his opponents' expertise against them and made them look daft.

Worse still for England's sole quarter-finalists, they found Donncha O'Callaghan and the arch-bandit Alan Quinlan in full warpaint. Anyone unconvinced of Quinlan's status as an international-class pain in the arse might spend a few minutes talking with Keith Wood, the grand Lions hooker who took the greatest pleasure in watching his old province advance to the last four on Saturday night. "I've hit him myself, and he was in my team," Wood remarked. "I've said to his mum, 'I know he's your son, but he must be the most annoying rugby player in the world'. She agreed with me, wholeheartedly."

All things considered, then, Northampton were well beaten. They constructed a wonderful try just before the break, ripping their way through a multi-phased attack to leave themselves a three-on-one overlap going left, and headed for the dressing room three points to the good. Yet they had not truly come to terms with the intensity generated by the swarming Munster forwards and knew deep down that with trial by O'Gara awaiting them, the road ahead was too long.

English rugby folk had better start getting used to it, for as Mallinder freely acknowledged, the immediate future on the European stage is both dark and forbidding. Reflecting on the first Premiership-free Heineken Cup semi-final draw since 2003, he agreed that the Irish-French domination of this season's tournament was an accurate reflection of the balance of power in the northern hemisphere. What was more, he predicted that things would decline further before they improve.

"This is a significant moment for the English game, but it's where we are," he said. "The Heineken Cup is a massive focus for the Irish teams, the main priority. For us, it isn't the first priority. That has to be the Premiership, with whatever happens in Europe coming on top. I don't know if the situation will right itself: all I know is that it's there, and it's evident. We're not French and we don't have massive budgets. We operate under a tough salary cap. Teams have to pay the going rate if they want to keep their best players, so we'll be cutting back our squad from 34 to 31 next season to stay within the limit. That means people will be playing a lot of rugby, and it's hard for them to get themselves up week after week for the Premiership and then raise it again for a big Heineken Cup tie.

"We don't have the financial muscle you see in France and we're not set up like the Irish, who can target European matches from a long way out. We start preparing for games like this a week ahead, not months ahead. Do I think the Heineken Cup will come back to England? I certainly believe we have clubs capable of winning the tournament, but it is becoming increasingly difficult."

And on that cheery note, he returned to his team to dispense a little tender loving care to the likes of Dylan Hartley, his hugely energetic and committed captain, who, he said, was "too cut up to come out here and speak to people". Many of Mallinder's words were familiar – Lawrence Dallaglio and his fellow Wasps were warning of these Heineken Cup perils five years ago – and there is no doubting that the punishing domestic schedule, allied to tight financial controls, leaves the English clubs at a disadvantage.

Yet the consequences of a free wages market or, horror of horrors, an end to Premiership relegation, are too awful to contemplate. Right now, English rugby is better off clinging to the twin rocks of economic prudence and competitive equalisation than heading for the hard places on the horizon.

Scorers: Munster: Tries Howlett 2, Warwick, De Villiers. Conversions O'Gara 2. Penalties O'Gara 3. Northampton: Try Clarke. Conversion Myler. Penalties Myler 4.

Munster: P Warwick; D Howlett (W Holland 83), K Earls, J De Villiers, I Dowling (L Mafi 41); R O'Gara (capt), T O'Leary (P Stringer 84); M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes (A Buckley 72), D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll, A Quinlan (N Ronan 75, D Wallace, J Coughlan (N Williams 63).

Northampton: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke (J Ansbro 75), J Downey, B Reihana; S Myler (S Geraghty 67), L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (capt), E Murray (B Mujati 57), C Lawes, J Kruger, P Dowson (M Easter 75), N Best, R Wilson.

Referee: N Owens (Wales).