Evans despairs as spirited Quins fall short of a shock

Munster 15 - Harlequins 9
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Two questions were posed after an intense and absorbing match: how much longer can Munster maintain their remarkable unbeaten record at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup, and how much longer before Harlequins finally win a match? On the evidence of this taut encounter the answer in both cases has to be "soon".

Two questions were posed after an intense and absorbing match: how much longer can Munster maintain their remarkable unbeaten record at Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup, and how much longer before Harlequins finally win a match? On the evidence of this taut encounter the answer in both cases has to be "soon".

Munster appeared uncharacteristically spiritless for much of a squally evening in Limerick. In their 17 previous European Cup ties here they have displayed pride, passion and indomitable will-power, whether blowing sides away or stealing a late victory against the odds.

Such qualities were on display again on Saturday, but most of the time they came from Harlequins, especially during the second half when Munster did not manage a single point. There was not a hint to a packed house that included the Lions head coach Clive Woodward and his Lions assistant (and Ireland's head coach) Eddie O'Sullivan that this was the bottom team in the Zurich Premiership.

"We came here as underdogs," said Mark Evans, Quins' director of rugby. "Everybody had written us off. Bookies were offering 20-point starts, that sort of stuff, but we believed we could win." And they came mighty close. In the closing stages of the match well into added time, yet another superlative effort saw the excellent Luke Sherriff break away. Ace Tiatia drove on, went to ground and released the ball, which appeared to roll sideways.

But even as a quick-witted Quin flicked it up to Jeremy Staunton, who was in space and would surely have scored, the referee Hugh Watkins whistled for a knock-on. "I think Jeremy would have scored," Evans said, "and although we needed the conversion, had it gone over I think it would have been too late for Munster to come back. We are gutted. Absolutely gutted."

Harlequins had to play 30 minutes of the tie with 14 men thanks to three yellow cards. Munster's solitary yellow was a joint affair, when the loose-head prop Marcus Horan and Quins' tight-head Maurice Fitz Gerald were dismissed at the second set scrum for some perceived skulduggery.

But Ace Tiatia's irresponsible handling of one Munster unfortunate's neck in a tackle earned him a card at a critical juncture. Staunton's sin-binning, after the former Munster player's ambiguous slap at the ball was deemed a deliberate knock-on and meant he had to endure a lot of ribald comments from home fans who last year were right behind him.

As for Munster, despite two well-taken tries their traditional furnace up front needs to rediscover its vital spark, otherwise future visitors will be inspired to destroy Fortress Thomond at last.

Munster: Tries Horgan, Leamy; Conversion O'Gara; Penalty O'Gara. Harlequins: Penalties Staunton 3.

Munster: C Cullen; M Lawlor, J Kelly, R Henderson, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes, T Hogan, P O'Connell, J Williams (A Quinlan, 63), A Foley (capt), D Leamy (G McIlwham, 12-22).

Harlequins: G Duffy; G Harder, W Greenwood, D James, S Keogh; J Staunton, S So'oialo; C Jones, T Fuga (A Tiatia, 56), M Fitz Gerald (M Worsley, 28), R Winters, S Miall (O Palepoi, 72), N Easter (M Worsley 12-22; Fuga, 60-69; L Sherriff, 69), T Diprose, A Vos (capt).

Referee: H Watkins (Wales).

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