Quins find Munster too hot to handle

Harlequins 8 Munster 24
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The Independent Online

Harlequins' coach, John Kingston, disappeared into the losers' dressing room deep in conversation with his Irish-as-they-come hooker, Keith Wood. All their accumulated knowledge – King-ston from spending the last two seasons coaching Galwegians in the All Ireland League, Wood almost since birth – had not been enough to upset Mick Galwey's magnificent Munstermen.

Munster's fearsome reputation up front has not come about by accident, and Quins found out the hard way as they followed an opening Hein-eken Cup win in Bridgend with a damaging defeat. Munster have left a trail of destruction across Europe these last few years, among opponents who have seen the eight red jerseys forged into one flaming mass as if in some raging Irish furnace. Only the very brave take the game to Munster in the tight although, as Northampton showed in the low-scoring final over the road at Twickenham 18 months ago, and as Stade Français did in last season's semi-final in Lille, it can be done. Quins are not yet of the standard required to tilt at such lofty windmills.

Munster had been this way before, losing 48-40 at the Stoop four autumns ago, when such a fixture would not even half-fill the ground. Times have changed, literally so in the case of the kick-off. A 5pm start, dictated by the BBCto follow the football, did not put off a capacity crowd of 9,000, many of whom went straight to their seats from watching events unfold at Old Trafford.

Munster had seven survivors of the previous meeting in their 22, but Harlequins only two, including Wood, and he had spent a season with his native province in the meantime. Wood summed up the mutual warmth surrounding the reacquaintance when he warned beforehand: "I expect to have the living lard kicked out of me." He was not wrong. Anyone daft enough to lie on the wrong side in the first, fiery exchanges was liable to some serious shoe.

Munster's openside flanker, David Wallace – like Galwey, tipped for an Ireland recall for Saturday's Six Nations date in Wales – suffered the studs of Jason Leonard, Quins' other veteran of 1997.

Harlequins started the better with Will Greenwood, making a timely first appearance of the season two weeks before England travel to Dublin, twice ghosted through the Munster cover. The visitors' handling was initially hesitant; so too their defence at a close range ruck, which allowed Dan Luger to bounce off Anthony Horgan for a try after 14 minutes.

But Ronan O'Gara quickly cut into Quins' lead with a penalty goal for a ruck offence, and when Luger's next dashing surge came to nothing, Munster's confidence and control grew in equal measure.

O'Gara put over his second penalty when Quins killed a ruck, then, just before half-time, Jason Holland charged through a midfield gap – in retrospect, with significantly more force than Greenwood had been managing – to create the platform for Munster's first try. Holland was tackled a few metres short, the ball went loose, and when Peter Stringer hacked on, Mark Mapletoft at full-back spilled the ball to O'Gara, who had only to twist his body through 180 degrees to make the line.

O'Gara's conversion made it 13-5 to Munster at half-time, and the outside-half, supposedly under pressure for his national jersey but an author- itative force here, added a dropped goal to complete his full house of scoring six minutes into the second half. Quins' European Shield triumph last May suddenly seemed a long time distant.

Certainly, this competition is a different proposition. Munster conceded a penalty goal to Paul Burke on the hour, with a hand in the ruck, but squeezed the life out of the rest of the game.

Holland sent over a dropped goal from 30 metres, straight into the laps of the delighted Munster contingent. Then Scott Bemand's attempts to get Quins going on the short side of a ruck backfired, the scrum-half's pass going nowhere in particular until Holland plucked it out of the air and ran it in for the match-clinching try. Maximum points so far for Munster, and a fresh European odyssey beckons for their peerless, tireless supporters.

Harlequins: M Mapletoft; M Moore, W Greenwood, N Greenstock (N Burrows, 77), D Luger; P Burke, S Bemand; J Leonard, K Wood, A Olver, G Morgan (capt), S White-Cooper (A Codling, 74), R Winters (P Sanderson, 59), T Diprose, T Tamarua.

Munster: J Staunton; J Kelly, M Mullins, Holland, A Horgan; R O'Gara, P Stringer; P Clohessy, F Sheahan, J Hayes, M Galwey (capt; D O'Callaghan 80), M O'Driscoll (P O'Connell, 51), J Williams, A Foley, D Wallace (C McMahon, 85).

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).