By Mark Jones
Munster 38, Biarritz 29
DUBLIN — On they go. On to the semifinals of rugby’s European Cup. Munster seem more determined than ever to make up for last season’s crushing disappointment, when they were beaten in the final. This time the victory came at a thronged Thomond Park in Limerick, where match tickets were as valuable as gold dust during the feverish build-up. It wasn’t always comfortable for Ireland’s champion province, but the French side Biarritz weren’t complaining at the end of a riveting game.
With expectation levels "way over the top," according to team captain Mick Galwey, there was always the danger of Munster freezing on the big occasion, and while a 17-point cushion had been worryingly whittled to just 6 going into injury time, Ronan O’Gara stepped up to land an important penalty and the whole of Limerick celebrated another success.
If the composed O’Gara’s kicking had been majestic throughout — 23 points from seven penalties and a conversion — the in-form Anthony Foley made his mark on the occasion with three fine tries. However, it was once again Munster’s collective strength against the reigning French Cup winners that made the difference. Although the winners conceded four tries — two in a nervy closing 10 minutes — they were by far the more focused team.
The draw for the last four includes English clubs Leicester and Gloucester, as well as Stade Francais from Paris. If Munster are one of the teams to make it out of the hat first, their home game will be at Lansdowne Road on either April 21 or 22.
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Typically, Galwey didn’t have any preferences regarding the opposition. "We’re just delighted to be there," he said. "It’s two months away and it’ll be like a new season."
With Munster going into last Sunday’s match as the hottest of favorites, there was justifiable anxiety among the players that they would fail to deliver, as in the 2000 final against Northampton.
"When we arrived at the ground and the crowds gathered to welcome the team bus, it reminded me of last year," O’Gara said. "It wasn’t a sight I liked."
Meanwhile, Galwey reckoned it was the toughest game that the team has ever had in the European Cup at Thomond Park.
That feeling of unease permeated the ground as Biarritz scored two early tries to jump into a 12-8 lead, but three O’Gara penalties left the home side leading by 17-15 at the interval. That advantage was increased almost immediately after the re-start when Mike Mullins, the outstanding Alan Quinlan and Galwey paved the way for Foley to charge over in the corner for his second try, which O’Gara then converted spectacularly from the touchline.
By now Munster were in control and another O’Gara penalty was followed by Foley’s third try — created by O’Gara, who threaded his way through the Biarritz defense — and at 32-15 the game appeared over as a contest.
But Biarritz were far from finished.
"People had written them off, but we realized they had some very good players," Galwey said.
Munster lost concentration and many in the 14,000 crowd lost the tops of their fingernails. The French pounced for two quick tries and the gap was just 6 points.
But as he has done all season, O’Gara soothed thousands of fevered brows with a thumping penalty from near the halfway line to cap a performance that impressed his opposite number, the veteran New Zealand out-half Frano Botica.
"Ronan can kick the ball, he can run, he’s very gifted and he played very well," Botica said.
Neither was Botica fazed by the partisan Limerick hordes. "We had no problem with that," he said. "The crowd was fantastic. It was motivation for us."
As the tournament closes for nearly 12 weeks, with the Six Nations taking center stage, Munster’s motivation to atone for last year’s near miss will continue to burn.