Munster 6 Leicester 13: White's black arts put an end to myth of Munster superiority

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The Independent Online

And to think this may not be happening next season. As Leicester broke new ground in the Heineken Cup by breaking into the old ground of Thomond Park and making off with treasures accumulated over more than a decade of uninterrupted success, the latest and most serious threat to the long-term future of this wonderful tournament invaded the mind's eye with a terrible clarity. No more of this? Really? If the French boycott of the 2007-08 competition goes ahead - and Derek McGrath, the chief executive of the administrative body, is under no illusions as to the extent of the crisis - rugby union will indeed cast the best of itself to the winds that raged around Limerick on Saturday evening.

Those who had witnessed at first hand earlier events in Castres, where Wasps reaffirmed their European credentials with a performance bordering on the epic, or in Stockport, where Sale and the Ospreys fought each other to a standstill, must have felt the same way. Yet it was in southern Ireland, in the land of the reigning champions, that the pain of potential dispossession was most acute. Leicester, twice winners of this trophy, won something history had assured us was even harder to come by. They won a victory where no team - not Biarritz or Stade Français or Perpignan, not Bath or Gloucester or Sale - had won before. And by doing so in a manner connoisseurs of the union game will cherish for many a long year, they provided a devastating account of what may be about to go missing.

This was rugby in the raw, red in tooth and claw. Munster, playing their last game here before the bulldozers rumble in and the wrecking balls start swinging, were utterly determined to defend an unbeaten run stretching back to 1995. Paul O'Connell, their captain, had often been heard to say that the thought of being a member of the team that finally let things slip was too much for flesh and blood to stand, and sure enough it was the Lions lock who did most to defend the local honour. O'Connell was born in Limerick; he has traces of Thomond Park in his DNA. This mattered to him, and mattered deeply.

Yet there was no stopping Leicester, from the moment Dan Hipkiss, their excellent young centre, ran 50 metres upfield from the kick-off to the time Julian White, the veteran England prop, made mincemeat of Marcus Horan one last time with 86 minutes on the clock. Pat Howard, their coach, described it as the finest moment of his tracksuited career; Martin Corry, who led them with characteristic wholeheartedness from No 8, settled for the phrase "incredibly special". Ditched as England captain earlier this month, Corry had endured a rough time of it for as long as anyone could remember. Here, at last, was welcome confirmation that honest endeavour still counts for something.

Munster are not out of this year's running by any stretch of the imagination, but their weaknesses were there for all to see against visitors who could not afford to lose and were therefore ready and willing to absorb every last intimidating element of the Thomond experience: "Fields of Athenry", "Stand Up and Fight", the running of the gauntlet of Munster flags on the steps leading to the pitch, the unparalleled ferocity of their opponents' pressure game. The champions' all-international front row, some way short of true Test quality, was exposed in all its inadequacy; their lack of invention out wide meant the two outsized Pacific islanders on the Leicester wings, Fiji's Seru Rabeni and Samoa's Alesana Tuilagi, were never asked to defend outside the boundaries of their respective comfort zones.

Instead, it was the Midlanders who offered glimpses of creativity on a wet and howling night. Their first try, straight from a scrum of driving power, saw Harry Ellis (the form scrum-half in England) and Martin Castrogiovanni (one of the form props in the world) send Lewis Moody haring into the Munster 22 early in the second quarter. Moody's round-the-corner scoring pass to Geordan Murphy was a gem - the kind of thing Twickenham regulars saw all too rarely from him during the autumn internationals. Another rib-rearranging Leicester set piece allowed the visitors to work the short side and manufacture a second-half try for the centre Ollie Smith.

Munster offered nothing as potent as this. They did not possess the raw materials of front-foot possession and clean delivery.

To a significant degree, this was down to White, who played a full 80 minutes for the first time in almost two months. "I can't see him doing it too often - he's almost 34, after all," Howard said. "But if you're going to pick a day to ask him, let's make it one like this. Look, he's very good technically and he's extremely important to this side in the emotional sense. He prefers actions to words, but he does what he does with great intensity. I thought he was outstanding out there."

Howard's side were outstanding, in every direction and for as far as the eye could see. Had O'Connell, apparently seduced by one of the few half-decent scrums the Munster pack managed to put together, not spurned a simple penalty opportunity around the hour mark in favour of a futile attempt to put the heat on Leicester a second time, the champions would have gone into the final quarter 9-8 ahead and might have kicked on. Yet it is more likely the visitors would simply have switched up the blowtorch a few notches and stripped another layer from the Irishmen in retaliation.

Two enduring myths were exploded in Limerick at the weekend: the assumption that Munster were unbeatable at the most forbidding of European rugby theatres and the notion, popular among Twickenham types, that the stresses and strains of Premiership rugby render English clubs incapable of summoning the furies at cross-border level and undermine the performance of the national team. What the game does not need, especially in light of the majesty of this occasion, is a third thing to come to an end. The Heineken Cup itself.

Munster: Penalties O'Gara 2. Leicester: Tries Murphy, Smith; Penalty Humphreys.

Munster: S Payne; J Kelly (T O'Leary, 20), B Murphy, L Mafi, I Dowling; R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, F Sheahan (J Flannery, 48), J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt), M O'Driscoll (A Foley, 48; J Coughlan, 80), D Wallace, D Leamy.

Leicester: G Murphy; S Rabeni, D Hipkiss (L Lloyd, 71), O Smith, A Tuilagi (S Vesty, 78); I Humphreys, H Ellis; M Castrogiovanni (M Ayerza, 65), G Chuter, J White, L Cullen, L Deacon, L Moody, S Jennings, M Corry (capt).

Referee: J Jutge (France).

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