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Magnificent Munster reign in the rain to fire out warning

 

By Tony Ward

A 60th Heineken/Champions Cup win out of 64 European ties played at Thomond Park and a record 17th quarter final from 23 attempts.

I'm still to be convinced they've yet got the totality it takes to go the whole way but let's leave that for another day and concentrate on what was another typical gutsy but equally clinical Munster performance when the heat was on and the sixth round tie had to be won.

There is no better place than Thomond on a European knock-out night or if there is I haven't yet had the privilege.

Supporters make atmosphere but it takes performance to make supporters make atmosphere.

What we witnessed for the umpteenth time was a Munster squad - and here massive credit to Johann Van Graan, Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones and this newly assembled back room staff - seizing the occasion and the day.

We'll not lose the run of ourselves but what we got yesterday was a new batch of Munster players buying into the history and the tradition that has made the southern province the most respected side in Europe bar none.

They may not have as many cups in the locker as Toulouse, Toulon or Leinster but they are the entity more than any other that makes the greatest club competition in global rugby the fantastic yearly spectacle that it is.

I still believe Leinster to be the best equipped in the quest to bring the Champions Cup to these shores for the very first time.

That said I'm not too sure there has ever been a bigger booby prize for finishing top of the Pool and No 1 seed than having to face the reigning champions albeit at home (in the Aviva) in the quarter final. Saracens (in by the skin of their teeth) is the nightmare scenario.

But back to yesterday. I just loved the way Munster went about their business. Bad enough for both sides having to kill three hours before actually getting stuck into each other but there was a calm assurance about this performance from first minute to last.

Even when the early stats showed the percentages in possession and territory at 87 to 13 in favour of Castres, Peter O'Mahony and the rest were always in control.

Bear in mind that solitary Rory Kockott penalty was all they had to show for that early match dominance as over the next seventy odd minutes the home team went on to rattle up forty eight unanswered points.

For sure Castres eventually folded but there was a calm and measured discipline, a real sense of control in a Munster performance, given the context, that ranked up there with the very best. That is some statement but it was that good.

In individual terms there were stand out performances from so many decked in red. Simon Zebo continues to play with that smile on his face and in the process brings out the confident best in so many others around him.

Quite how Joe Schmidt is going to select his wing men to face the French in a fortnight is beyond me as Andrew Conway and Keith Earls were again majestic in everything they did.

Yes we have big men from which to pick to fill the Irish flanks but just how cool is it to have small guys, specifically Earls (playing the best rugby of his life), Conway and Jordan Larmour establishing new parameters.

Continuing that theme of less substantial units is the clearly defined role of Chris Cloete and Conor Oliver in the van Graan way of doing things. Cloete is that bit stronger and that bit more aggressive at the breakdown but the difference he is making is marked.

Again in those early stages when Castres hit the ground running it was Cloete and the equally effective O'Mahony and CJ Stander fighting and turning the tide.

Of course it is a lot easier for the back-row when the tight five are dominating but as of now Munster have in place a back-row capable of operating with amazing impact even when the pack as a collective is under the kosh. Stander is an extraordinary player whether with or without the ball and if there is one man they can ill afford to lose, outside of Conor Murray, it is the No 8.

To that add Ian Keatley's continuing good form.

He was efficiency personified and encouragingly assertive in everything he did with his goal kicking bang on the money again.

While Munster looked so well coached and so well organised, whether winning or defending the ball out of touch, Ulster sadly looked all over the place in that key aspect over in Coventry.

The bottom line sees the best two Irish sides deservedly qualifying for home quarter finals and the possibilities that creates.

Quite whether Toulon is a better alternative to La Rochelle we'll know come April but even at this distance we can take it as read.

Belfast Telegraph

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