By Malachy Clerkin
DUBLIN — The 14,000 or so who jammed themselves into Thomond Park on Saturday came curious to see which Munster side would turn up for this European Cup rugby match. Would we see all the fever and fury we’ve come to expect over the last few years? Or would they be cowed, their wings clipped by the way Leinster put them back in their box in the Celtic League final a month ago?
Silly us. Munster trampled Harlequins with barely a whimper and although the scoreline was beefed up a touch by three tries in the final 20 minutes, the 34-point margin was just about deserved. By that stage, the crowd had their dander up and Harlequins were yearning for it all to be over.
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Munster had made it into their stride with reasonable ease early on. The galloping Jim Williams — who was fantastic throughout — collected off the back of a line-out and surged clear. Mick Galwey joined in and two phases later, the ball squirted out for Williams, who made a bee-line for the try line. His decision to ignore the overlapping Anthony Horgan on his outside looked like serious misjudgment when he was tackled just short of the Harlequins’ line, but he showed admirable presence of mind to flip it up for Jason Holland on his inside. The center had to do little more than fall across the line.
Ronan O’Gara missed the conversion as well as two of his next three kicks. With Irish hopeful Paul Burke slotting home everything down the other end for Harlequins, the Cork Constitution man must have been feeling a little edgy. If he was, he redeemed himself with a huge kick from inside his own half after 21 minutes. For the rest of the day, he was steady enough with the boot, eventually amassing 21 points.
With five minutes to go until halftime, Munster were leading by 13 points and cruising, aided by a rare Frankie Sheahan try. Or so it seemed. Then, from a seemingly innocuous line-out, Harlequins mauled their way across the Munster line and England international Tony Diprose emerged with the ball. Burke’s inch-perfect conversion made it 16-10 and all off a sudden, it appeared the game was back in the balance.
Enter Mick Galwey. His team were in a somewhat precarious position and his players could have been forgiven for having been spooked by what happened to them against Leinster in the Celtic League final. But no, Galwey gathered them round him, told them to calm themselves and organized the next move up the field. Two minutes later, Anthony Foley was crashing over for a try, O’Gara was slotting the conversion and Thomond Park was happy again.
The second half turned out to be nothing more than a matter of how much Munster wanted to win by. Harlequins could claim poverty, having been shorn of Jason Leonard and Keith Wood through injury, but even allowing for those absentees, they were still pretty woeful. As it turned out, they were exactly the kind of opposition Munster needed to get back on track.
They did offer brief resistance eight minutes into the second half when Diprose went over again. Burke converted to leave 9 between the teams and for shortest second, there appeared a chance Harlequins might make a game of it. But then hit another two penalties and Dominic Crotty crossed for a try and with 20 minutes to go, all business for the day was done and dusted.
Or just about. There was still time for Peter Clohessy, playing in his 100th game for Munster, to get the biggest cheer of the day while he was being substituted. And there was also time for his old buddy Galwey to rumble across the line for a try.
On a day when the talk was of getting the show back on the road, it was fitting that the two old stagers took the most applause.