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Munster 31 - Sale 9

By pitprop
January 25 2006

"Munster won. Sale lost. Disappointed." This was the verbal report dictated at Shannon airport on Monday, and few Sharks would argue. Now, the disappointment still keen, but with some blood returning to the Guinness stream, pitprop says much the same thing, but using considerably more words...

Ouch! That hurt – a lot. Munster picked their game plan, executed it very well, defended as if their lives depended upon it (and in this season’s HC it did), rode the tide of emotion at Thomond Park well and rode their luck well also. They thoroughly deserved their win. Sale in contrast, were able to get only part of their strategy working, and then only in the second half. They were unable to shake off the defensive shackles of the Munstermen to pose any great threat to the score-board.

And in fact the game went away from them as early as the third minute, when Stringer and Flannery decided to take on Sheri. Sheri’s big enough and ugly enough to look after himself, and in fact was cool enough not to respond to Stringer’s punches. From a situation where we might well have got the penalty reversed because of the punches and because Flannery shoulder-charged Sheri, Nacho waded in with arms wind milling. Result – a yellow card for the hot-headed Argentinian. The momentum in that moment was ceded to Munster, and once that momentum had gone, it was always going to be the devil’s own job to wrest it back again.

While Nacho was taking his early rest, a penalty opened the scoring for Munster. Sale showed their intent shortly after, when kicking for the corner from a penalty after Dowling failed to release. No score came from the lineout, but three minutes later, when Payne held White down in front of the posts, Charlie kicked the goal.

From the kick-off, Chabal was hit as he caught the ball and shunted backwards. Charlie sliced the clearance and Munster were on the attack. O’Connell took the ball at the line-out and Munster drove, right and then left over the line for Foley to touch down. O’Gara converted, and Munster were leading 10-3. Three minutes later, Chabal showed his skills with a delicate chip, making good ground in the centre. When the ball was moved to the right, Cueto found himself slammed into the boards while in a headlock.. Charlie kicked the penalty to reel the home side in a little, and Lobbe rejoined the fray. Munster tried the same tactic as the kick-off dropped towards Chabal, but O’Connell hit him early, and a penalty ensued.

Elvis was taken off injured in the twenty-fifth minute, and Taione took his place at centre. From the following line-out, Munster nicked Sale’s ball and drove first left and then right. Stringer and O’Gara swung it left and swift and accurate passing put Sale’s defence in trouble. Murphy held up the central defenders, Payne was up in the line and Dowling was over. From wide on the left, O’Gara’s kick was good. Munster were now leading 17-6, and hope of match points was leaking away.

Sale came back up the field. From a scrummage, the tension broke into fisticuffs for the umpteenth time and Horan and Jones made their way to the sinbin. Horan couldn’t resist continuing to argue with Jonesy as they left the field. On 36 minutes, the Irishmen got their lucky break. O’Gara kicked to the left and Charlie was quick enough on his feet to get a hand to it. It looped to the right, into the arms of Murphy. He picked a line between Larrechea and Jason and swerving left and right rooted Larrechea to the spot, Jason made a despairing tackle and Munster were three tries to the good. Jason made his feelings on that piece of poor defending abundantly clear to the Frenchman while O’Gara converted.

On 43 minutes Larrechea was taken out by Wallace, and Charlie missed the kick. The respectful silence for the attempt was followed in the North terrace by shouts of “Choker!”. Charlie was able to correct that impression 3 minutes later when Leamy was pinged for leaving his hands in the ruck. O’Gara also missed (high tackle by Taione), with a 50m attempt right on the stroke of half time, the ball dropping just short. Sale looked stunned as they left the field at half-time with the score 24-9, and their supporters certainly were.

PSA must have blistered the paint on the dressing room walls, because the defence tightened up significantly in the second half, in fact the defences held sway throughout the second half. It was only in injury time that Sale’s gave way. Just as their supporters were beginning to think that they would hold on to win the group!

The second half didn’t open well for the Edgeley Park boys, with O’Connell nicking another lineout. But Sale’s tackling was starting to bite, and the Munster defenders were under pressure. Wiggy replaced Martens on 48 minutes, and the speed of delivery improved noticeably. Sale lost another lineout on 60 minutes, prompting the replacement of Bruno and Lobbe by Titterrell and Schoey. Four minutes later Coutts came on for the Bear and on 70 minutes Jonesy was replaced by Mayor. Taione moved up to the blindside flank, and Mayor took his slot in the centre. White went to the second row to complete the reorganisation of the pack.

The two teams were still slugging it out, but the defences continued to dominate. With two minutes to the end of normal time, Munster lost the ball on the Sale twenty-two, and a scrummage to Sale seemed set to lift the pressure. Chabal was caught in possession and turned the ball over for an Irish put-in. Munster whipped it left, Murphy took out a defender on a dummy run (ignored by Jutge) and Payne made inroads. Wallace picked up and plunged through a defensive gap a mile wide. The Pool winners berth was thus wrenched away, and O’Gara converted again. Munster won 31-9, to the massive disappointment of the Sale team and their fans.

The questions must be asked – what happened to the preparation? Why were the team insufficiently prepared to cope with the Thomond Park noise and the intensity of the game? Why were we unable to run or ram the ball over the line? 

The Dragons had shown the way, scaring Munster at TP, and scoring two at EP, both games when their pack was under great pressure. But the signs were there to read, though hardly any of the pundits did. Sale have been on the slide since Christmas, unable to dispatch Saints, Bristol or Dragons cleanly. Meanwhile Munster have been tuning up their game motivated by the sniff of a quarter-final berth.

As PSA said after the game, it’s a “big kick in the teeth”. He also said that the team and coaches would learn a lot. Let us hope so – Leicester away next, and then the 6N league games. Plus a Heineken Cup quarter-final (I’ll say that again!) - a Heineken Cup quarter-final - against Biarritz away at San Sebastien to come.

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