Munster reignited their love affair with the Heineken Cup as a storming performance, marshalled by man-of-the-match Paul O’Connell, earned them an 18-12 win over Harlequins and a shot at Clermont Auvergne in the semi-finals.
Ronan O’Gara rifled over six penalty goals to steer Munster through to the semi-final stage for the tenth time, teeing up a fascinating clash with French giants Clermont at the Stade de la Mosson on Saturday, April 27 (kick-off 6pm local time/5pm Irish time).
The province have so much history with the Heineken Cup and they pulled out a huge display at the Twickenham Stoop, getting their season back on the rails after last weekend’s disappointing league defeat in Glasgow.
Paul O’Connell was central to their resurgence, captaining the team in the absence of the injured Doug Howlett and leading by example as the Munster pack got back to their grizzled best.
They never allowed Harlequins get into their stride, the back row combining magnificently in their effectiveness around the pitch and the centre pairing of Casey Laulala and James Downey starring in defence and attack.
Downey, in particular, was a tower of strength and he used his physicality to make as abrasive a statement as O’Connell and company did up front.
The first half was a bruising arm wrestle in the Sunday sunshine with Munster, benefiting from O’Gara’s astute work from restarts and kicks out of hand, more than matching the hosts.
However, Munster came under immediate pressure as Ugo Monye swooped to win the kick-off and a Tom Casson kick to the left corner had Denis Hurley scrambling back.
Conor O’Shea’s men took a fourth minute lead through the boot of Nick Evans, who slotted his first penalty from a scrum infringement on the right.
O’Gara hit the post when given a chance to respond, after speedy full-back Felix Jones showed great commitment to force a turnover from the restart.
Quick lineout ball provided by the immense O’Connell then set up a strong phase of carrying from the men in red, with Peter O’Mahony, so eager to get his hands on the ball, making a half-break.
Evans miscued his second shot at the posts on the quarter hour, referee Jerome Garces siding with the ‘Quins scrum for the penalty.
Back came Munster but they lost control of possession when trying to set up a lineout maul, and ‘Quins countered with vigour to draw another penalty which Evans converted this time for a 6-0 advantage.
The Munster pack mauled forward with intent, getting into scoring range but O’Gara sent a kickable penalty to the left and wide.
With the Munster back row growing in influence, Laulala sparked a break into the 22 and O’Gara landed a subsequent penalty from the left to get the visitors off the mark. However, another harsh scrum call against Munster allowed Evans to restore the six-point buffer.
The kicking duel between the out-halves continued with O’Gara answering back five minutes before the break, rewarding the fiercely determined O’Connell for a leg-pumping carry as Munster headed for the dressing rooms just 9-6 in arrears.
The key to Munster’s rousing victory over the reigning English champions was the third quarter. They dominated all facets of play coming up to the hour mark, erasing the ‘Quins lead and stamping their authority on proceedings.
Messrs O’Connell and O’Gara used all their European experience to bind it all together, with players such as Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo really coming to the fore.
Downey beat the first tackle as Munster began the second period in fine fettle, a long range penalty from O’Gara getting them level within three minutes.
O’Mahony soon inspired another three-pointer for Rob Penney’s side, wrestling a lineout ball away from George Robson and carrying infield before O’Gara kicked Munster in front.
The all-action blindside flanker was to the fore again when launching a kick chase and he followed up to force a penalty that O’Gara fired over for 15-9.
There was an energy and directness about Munster’s play which ‘Quins were struggling to cope with, a superb run and offload from Laulala threatening the defensive line once more.
His centre partner Downey was also growing in stature, a monster hit on the onrushing Mike Brown keeping Munster in the ‘Quins 22.
O’Gara widened the margin to nine points, rewarding David Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and BJ Botha for a strong scrum on the left, as they maintained a stranglehold of possession.
Into the final quarter, a strong midfield burst from Tom Williams got the ‘Quins attacking firing again and O’Donnell was pinged as Evans cut the gap to six.
But Munster maintained their discipline over the remaining 15 minutes to shut out the hosts in relatively comfortable fashion, the O’Connell-led lineout providing a steady stream of possession and the intensity kept up at the breakdown and in the collisions.
It was as defiant and as ruthless as the Munster title-winning teams of old and with their RaboDirect PRO12 hopes gone for another year, this current crop will throw everything into that semi-final showdown with cup favourites Clermont.
Speaking after the game, O’Connell admitted: “There wasn’t a lot said at half-time, but we got the bounce of the ball at the start of the second half, a few decisions went our way and a number of players put up their hands.
“Casey Laulala had some good carries, Peter O’Mahony stole one of their five-man lineouts, our choke tackles were excellent and we played a very good pressure game. The plan was do to whatever was required of us at any particular moment and that’s what we did.
“The maul went well for us and we did things that put them under pressure and built pressure on them. This is a very important day for this young group of guys.
“There have been people doubting them for a while and it was very important they got a day like this to realise their hard work is worth it. I am really happy their hard work has paid off.”