Ronan O'Gara had plenty to say for himself on the subject of English rugby last week, none of it remotely complimentary. This did not appear to be the brightest way of preparing for the Heineken Cup, for few players have shouted the odds ahead of a trip to Welford Road and lived to tell the tale. O'Gara did more than survive, however. In backing up his conversational excesses by making a series of equally damaging statements with the boot, the Lions stand-off guided Munster to a typically resourceful wet-weather victory while planting a nasty depth-charge beneath the European ambitions of his hosts.
His last, decisive penalty in the final minute of normal time was an absolute pearl, propelled sweetly from 18 inches or so inside his own half. More than that, it was a 24-carat O'Gara production in which he directed and starred. With Leicester 19-18 ahead and in complete command of the forward contest, he took it upon himself to attack the Midlanders from deep, slicing through the midfield defence with the cleanest of breaks. Shane Jennings, the Tigers' replacement flanker, hauled him down, but was spotted playing the ball from a prone position after the tackle. Jennings complained bitterly to the referee, Nigel Owens, and was duly marched back 10 metres, just far enough to put O'Gara in range of the sticks. It was precisely the opportunity he had been seeking, and he capitalised in spades.
Everyone was soft-soap diplomacy afterwards. O'Gara went out of his way to apologise to those who had taken offence at his dissing of the game on the red-rose side of the Irish Sea, while Pat Howard, the director of rugby at Leicester, went to similar lengths to avoid criticising the officiating. But make no mistake, this was a furious encounter: a celebration of rugby's dark arts, played out to a blood-curdling soundtrack of bone on bone.
There was a red peppering of violence - Martin Castrogiovanni, the Leicester prop, and Denis Leamy, the magnificent Munster back-rower, fought a running battle throughout the second half - and any amount of sledging. When the two sides meet again in Limerick after Christmas, there may be no rules of engagement at all.
Leicester, less than convincing in the opening tranche of Premiership matches, turned up for this one in full warpaint. Martin Corry, playing for his place in the England side he captained last season, made the biggest impact early on, driving hard off the fringes of the rucks and mauls and clattering sundry members of the Munster pack with his trademark big-hit tackles. Yet it was the Irishmen who made a mark on the scoreboard, where it mattered. Donncha O'Callaghan hoovered up a loose ball after Ian Dowling's tackle on the Leicester scrum-half Scott Bemand, and ran the best part of 50 metres - an unconscionable distance for a lock - to claim a memorable try.
Paul Burke, inexplicably preferred to Andy Goode in the Tigers' pivot role, replied with a penalty, but O'Gara restored the status quo with a drop goal towards the end of the first quarter and then converted a try by David Wallace, who supported some strong running from John Kelly and Trevor Halstead before rolling over to the left of the posts. Burke's second penalty reduced the deficit to more manageable proportions at the break, but it was clear Leicester would have to up the ante by a considerable degree.
This they did, with a degree of ferocity bordering on the savage. Jennings, who replaced a none-too-pleased Lewis Moody with express instructions to give Munster a hurry-up on the floor, got on the referee's nerves immediately, conceding a penalty that O'Gara landed from the 40-metre range.
But the flanker was highly effective in denying the visitors so much as a sniff of possession for increasingly long periods of time, and when Julian White trundled on to demolish what was left of an ailing opposition scrum, it seemed the worm had turned. Leicester were awarded a penalty try as they squeezed Munster's pips in the tight, and then took the lead through Goode's long penalty after more Irish jiggery-pokery at the set-piece.
Yet for all their dominance, the former champions came up short against the current ones, just as Sale contrived to do in Swansea last Friday night. Of the six Premiership contenders in this tournament, only Wasps registered a victory in the opening round - and even they are counting their lucky stars. The Irish provinces nailed three wins from three; the Welsh regions made their best ever start to a Heineken Cup competition. The English teams, by contrast, made their worst start. Was O'Gara on to something, by any chance?
Leicester: Try Penalty try. Conversion: Goode. Penalties: Burke 2, Goode 2.
Munster: Tries: O'Callaghan, Wallace. Conversion: O'Gara. Penalties: O'Gara 2. Drop goal: O'Gara.
Leicester: S Vesty; J Murphy, O Smith, D Gibson (S Rabeni, 71), T Varndell; P Burke (A Goode, h-t), S Bemand (H Ellis, 53); M Ayerza (J White, 49), G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni, L Cullen, B Kay, L Deacon, L Moody (S Jennings, 60), M Corry (capt).
Munster: S Payne; J Kelly, B Murphy (L Mafi, 79), T Halstead, I Dowling; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan, J Hayes (F Pucciariello, 69), D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), D Leamy, D Wallace, A Foley (A Quinlan, 50).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content