The game was supposed to be a celebration both of the real start to Munster’s season, and of the spanking new stand, which has increased the capacity of the bear-pit otherwise known as Thomond Park to 25,000.
However, celebration it certainly wasn’t.
If the Munster players could be forgiven for noticing the hype that has surrounded them for the past few years, no one ever expected them to believe it. And last Friday, it was as if they did.
Fearing the worst, Montauban left most of their marquee names at home and traveled with what was tantamount to a reserve team. Lambs to the Thomond Park slaughter? That was the way it seemed.
But instead of being patient and painstaking, Munster jumped out of the blocks as if they were intent on finishing the job in the first quarter of an hour, and the more mistakes they made in their haste, the more Montauban grew in confidence.
Far from notching up the valuable bonus point on offer for scoring four tries or more, Munster struggled to score just the one by replacement center, Barry Murphy.
With playmaker Ronan O’Gara out of sorts, the usually fervent supporters grew progressively more silent as unbelievably, as a tenacious Montauban nudged their way into a 17-16 lead with just a few minutes remaining. Fortunately, for the home team, they earned a penalty and with his sang froid restored, O’Gara stepped up to kick the winning points.
The champions now travel to England on Sunday to take on Sale — the 32-15 victors over Clermont Auvergne in France in their first game — knowing that a significant improvement is sorely needed.
Leinster, meanwhile, weren’t exactly convincing either as they came up against Edinburgh in Scotland, but having emerged with 27-16 win including a bonus point, there was relief all round for coach Michael Cheika and his players following back-to-back defeats by Munster and Connacht in the Celtic League.
While Leinster did produce several moments of class courtesy of Brian O’Driscoll, Felipe Contepomi and new Australian recruit, Rocky Elsom, this game was lost, not won. Edinburgh were an embarrassing shambles, especially during the first half when their defense went missing.
Leinster started modestly enough, but were then able to hit their opponents with four tries in the space of 20 minutes. Elsom charged through for the first, Contepomi created a second for O’Driscoll, who then returned the compliment to Contepomi, before Shane Horgan completed the rout just before the interval.
Given that they had lost their two previous European Cup games in Edinburgh, and that this latest installment was supposed to be a 50-50 contest, Leinster got off lightly. “We did some good things, but there’s no way we’d be getting carried away by this,” said Cheika. “There are a lot of things we need to improve for the next match.”
That next match is against London Wasps in Dublin on Saturday, and while the opposition will be of a different caliber to Edinburgh, a second win would put Leinster in with a great chance of qualification for the knockout stages.
Also, in advance of next month’s internationals against New Zealand, Argentina and Canada, Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, will also have taken note of the highly impressive performance of O’Driscoll. Having struggled for some time with injuries, the Irish captain looked to be back to close to his very best.
“I’ve lost a few pounds and I definitely feel quicker than last year,” O’Driscoll told the Irish Times. “I’m still struggling at times in games, but I’m finishing strong which is important.”
The news of Ulster, who have made a depressing start on all fronts, was much less positive. They were predictably outplayed by Stade Francais in Belfast by 26-10 despite a fine display by center Paddy Wallace. Already rooted towards the bottom of the Celtic League table, if Ulster lose in London against Harlequins on Saturday, they can as good as kiss their competitive season goodbye.
Meanwhile, in the Challenge Cup, Connacht continued their good form with an excellent 30-12 away win over French club Dax, and they now take on London Irish in Galway on Friday.
A better organized
Ireland face Cyprus
UNBEATEN following two away games in the World Cup qualifying group, Ireland could make another step in the right direction towards the 2010 finals with victory today over Cyprus at Croke Park.
If the Cypriots hammered a rather large nail in the coffin of the previous Irish coach, Steve Staunton, with an infamous 5-2 win in Nicosia, the chances of something like that happening again are remote.
First, Staunton’s successor, the vastly experienced Giovanni Trapattoni, has added a badly-needed structure to the team, and while the gradual improvements are still very much a work in progress, there is no reason to expect anything other than a win today.
Having defeated Georgia 2-1 and having drawn 0-0 with Montenegro, Ireland now welcome back Damien Duff following injury, which means that Stephen Hunt will step down.
The attacking formation of two wingers in Duff and Aiden McGeady, alongside the twin strikers, Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle, will be complemented by a more defensive midfield duo of Glenn Whelan and Liam Miller, the latter coming in for the injured Steven Reid.
That means that once again, there is no place for the creative talent of Andy Reid who, it was rumored, had a verbal bust-up with Trapattoni after the Georgia game. Having so far been deemed surplus to requirements by the Italian, there are also whispers that Reid is growing increasingly frustrated.
“Until now, he has always played with the team,” said Trapattoni who didn’t deny that he and the player had had a frank exchange of views. “There is no problem except that the game we have is very important for qualifying and I don’t understand why Andy Reid is more important than the other situation. I select in all honesty and thinking about the interests of the team.”
Trapattoni added without Reid, he reckoned the team was sufficiently attack-minded. “We have two strikers, and then with Duff and McGeady, the team is very, very offensive.”
With Steve Finnan also sidelined because of injury, Paul McShane is likely to deputize at full-back against Cyprus who are currently in fifth place in the group after drawing 1-1 in Georgia last weekend. Group leaders Italy, who could only draw in Bulgaria, have seven points from three games while Ireland are second with four points from two matches.
Loughnane gets thumbs down
GER LOUGHNANE was ousted from his post as Galway hurling manager following a narrow vote by the county’s delegates earlier in the week. Loughnane, who was hoping to be ratified for a third year, lost his post by 28 votes to 26 at a meeting in Athenry.
Loughnane had initially been given a three-year term, but he said at the time that he would stand down if he failed to deliver Galway an All Ireland title in the space of two years. Michael Bond, who guided Offaly to All Ireland success in 1998, has declared his interest in the job.
In Waterford, Davy Fitzgerald was reappointed as manager for a further two years after leading the county to the All Ireland final at his first attempt.
On the club front, there was redemption for Navan O’Mahony’s who after losing the last two finals took the Meath football title with a comprehensive 2-12 to 0-7 win over Summerhill at Pairc Tailteann. The Bray brothers, Stephen and David had a major hand in the victory with 0-3 and 1-3 respectively.
While Navan O’Mahonys were celebrating a 17th title, there was a first in Westmeath for Castledaly who edged out favorites Garrycastle by 0-10 to 0-8 in Mullingar.
The Wicklow replay was won by Kiltegan who bridged a 22-year gap with a narrow 0-9 to 1-5 success over St Patrick’s at Aughrim, while a late point from Nigel Dineen earned Castlerea St Kevin’s a 0-12 to 1-9 with Padraig Pearses in the Roscommon decider at Kiltoom.
There was another first time victory in Monaghan where Latton were crowned county champions following their 0-15 to 0-11 win over Carrickmacross in Clones.
In hurling, Birr added another Offaly title to their roll of honor with a 1-15 to 0-15 victory over Kinnitty, who were contesting a first final since 1985, at O’Connor Park, however, they had to fight a lot harder than expected for their 22nd championship title
Brian Whelehan, who collected his 12th senior county medal, is now set to equal former goalkeeper, Damien Martin’s, record of 13 with St Rynagh’s between 1965 and ’87.
A last-ditch free by Alan Delaney was enough to give Rathdowney Errill a desperately close 1-19 to 2-15 win over Portlaoise in the Laois decider.