With the Heineken Cup pool stages finished, the PRO12 campaign just over halfway complete and the international season about to start, now is a great time to take stock of how the four Irish provinces have gotten on so far this season. Starting with Leinster yesterday, we’re reviewing their European and PRO12 campaigns as well as outlining what lies ahead in the coming months.
Who would have predicted it? Munster qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals as top seeds after their comprehensive demolition of the Northampton Saints last weekend. 6 wins from 6 in Pool 1 sees them advance to a home QF against Ulster in April. Seen by many as a side in transition, Munster have proved many of their doubters wrong with the performance against the Saints. Tony McGahan’s side sit 3rd in the PRO12 and their remaining fixtures in that competition should enable them to secure a home play-off.
3rd position in the PRO12 has come courtesy of 8 wins from their 13 games so far. Those losses came against Glasgow, Edinburgh, the Ospreys, Leinster and Ulster. Still, the current holders are only a single point behind the 2nd placed Ospreys. McGahan’s side are the 5th top try-scorers in the league with 24 while they are 3rd in terms of points difference on +63. Meanwhile, their defence has conceded the 2nd fewest tries, 14. Munster said goodbye to the retired John Hayes as he played his last match in a 34-17 win over Edinburgh at Thomond Park.
The Heineken Cup is where Munster have really excelled. 6 wins from 6 is a phenomenal achievement in anyone’s books and they are the only side to have done it this season. Supporters will never forget the dramatic last-gasp drop goals from Ronan O’Gara to secure wins over the Saints and Castres in the first 2 rounds. Workman-like victories followed over the Scarlets twice, then Castres again. Munster saved the best for last as their backline came alive to dismantle the Saints, 51-36. That performance will put Munster back in contention as one of the favourites for the tournament.
The PRO12 champions haven’t had the best of their inter-provincial tussles so far this season. They went down to a superior Leinster by 24-19 in the run-up to the Heineken Cup. A poor Connacht were dismissed at Thomond Park on Stephen’s day by 24-9 but that was followed four days later by a 33-17 loss to Ulster at Ravenhill. Admittedly, Munster had a weak side out that day but they will be looking for revenge in the Heineken Cup quarter-final on the 8th of April.
Unsurprisingly, Ronan O’Gara is the top points scorer in the squad with 135, including those two famous drop goals. He has been brilliant for Munster all season, directing play and often dragging Munster through matches along with captain Paul O’Connell. Back-up outhalf Ian Keatley has contributed a respectable 115 points. After his hattrick against the Saints, Simon Zebo is Munster’s top try-scorer this season with 6 so far. Danny Barnes and Doug Howlett are next best with 4 each.
Mention has to be made of the injuries Munster have sustained this season. Howlett was ruled out for the remainder of the season after an achilles rupture in the loss to the Ospreys on the 4th of December. Felix Jones, David Wallace, Mike Sherry and Jerry Flannery have yet to feature for Munster thanks to their long-term injuries. Niall Ronan ripped his cruciate ligaments in the 26-10 win over Castres this month and has also been ruled out for the rest of the season. Tommy O’Donnell is another currently on the treatment bench. The good news is that Jones, Wallace and O’Donnell are all expected to return in the coming weeks. Mike Sherry has returned to training and is on the bench for the Irish Wolfhounds this weekend. Worryingly, there is no definite news on a return for Flannery.
The fact that Munster have enjoyed such a good season despite these injuries is testament to the belief and determination within the squad. There has been certain games this season that Munster probably haven’t deserved to win, those drop goal games for example. But sheer will power and refusal to give up have seen Munster through. If they can now consistently perform the level they did against the Saints last weekend, that combination be hard to stop. Munster’s defence has been aggressive and solid all season and they will be confident that very few teams can cut them open.
If Munster can manage to negotiate the quarter-final with Ulster, then a home semi awaits them, against either Edinburgh or Toulouse. The stage is all set for a Munster vs. Leinster Heineken Cup final. That would be special. In the PRO12, Munster’s run-in to the play-offs is relatively straightforward, with home advantage in the the big derbies against Leinster and Ulster. Munster have the ability to join Leinster in the latter stages of both competitions. It should be an exciting few months.
Munster’s stats so far this season:
Games played: 19 Won: 14 Drawn: 0 Lost: 5
Points scored: 440 Tries scored: 38 Try-scoring bonus points: 4
Points conceded: 332 Tries conceded: 24 Losing bonus points: 3
Top points scorer: Ronan O’Gara (135) Top try-scorer: Simon Zebo (6)
To finish, here’s a look at some of the highlights of Munster’s season so far, starting with the hardly believable O’Gara drop goal against the Saints:
And highlights of the 2nd drop goal game against Castres a week later:
And finally, all the tries from Munster’s best performance of the season, the 51-36 win against Northampton last weekend: