Resurgent O'Gara kicks Munster to victory
December 11, 2009
Ronan O'Gara was the hero for Munster once again
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Ronan O'Gara emphatically answered his critics by kicking all of Munster's points in a vital 24-23 Heineken Cup victory over Perpignan at Thomond Park.
O'Gara produced a colossal kicking display, controlling the game from start to finish and landing seven penalties and a drop-goal to defeat the French champions. Perpignan scored opportunist tries through flanker Yohan Vivalda and scrum-half Nicolas Durand in the first-half while a sensational solo effort from Phillip Burger threatened to break Munster hearts in the dying moments.
Munster boss Tony McGahan elected to drop his newly-acquired Springbok centre Jean de Villiers for the game, calling on Keith Earls and Lifiemi Mafi in midfield outside O'Gara. The fly-half has lost his place in the Ireland side to Leinster's Jonny Sexton, but he was every inch the Munster hero that he has been for a number of years as his side scrapped to victory.
Roared on by the capacity crowd Munster started with their trademark intensity. Jerome Porical failed to deal with an early high-ball, allowing Earls to snaffle possession and trade sniping breaks with Mafi before a cross-kick from Tomas O'Leary was well covered by Porical. Advantage was being played, though, and O'Gara stepped up to give his side the lead with an assured strike.
The lead was short-lived as an uncharacteristic flap from skipper Paul O'Connell at a defensive lineout presented Vivalda with the easiest of tries. Munster had taken an early throw to relieve pressure but some slow thinking left Mafi with a hack to touch, handing position back to the visitors. Perpignan's blindside strode clear of a messy Munster lineout and crashed over in the corner, enjoying a rare outing in the first-team due to injuries to Henry Tuilagi, Jean-Pierre Perez, Damien Chouly and Gerrie Britz.
O'Gara's second penalty was a well-struck effort to calm the nerves but some poor execution from Paul Warwick again put his side under pressure. The fullback overcooked a probing kick and play was pulled back to Munster's 10 metre line, where again their lineout faltered. Guilhem Guirado snaffled the ball and offloaded out of the tackle to Vivalda. The flanker found Durand, who broke clear and stepped outside a flat-footed Doug Howlett to score in the corner.
With the conversion added Munster took a stranglehold on possession but found no penetration. Lateral running from Alan Quinlan was rescued by a grubber from O'Gara but the French champions were rarely troubled.
Porical missed an opportunity to extend their lead from the kicking-tee and his profligacy was not matched by the home fly-half. O'Gara clipped over his next penalty attempt to reduce the arrears to three but was wide with an attempt that would have levelled the scores.
Warwick continued to test Porical with a series of arching Garryowens and one produced O'Gara's next shot at goal. The fullback safely collected the ball but was levelled by Howlett, who got beyond the ball to force the turnover. O'Gara's kick was good.
Perpignan started the second-half with a bang, showing some deft handling to drag Munster across field, with Vivalda losing the ball while attempting to offload to Maxime Mermoz on his inside. O'Gara put Munster back in to the lead with his fifth shot at goal, secured after referee Wayne Barnes incorrectly called for a deliberate knock-on against Farid Sid.
Munster loosened their grip on the possession and territory stats as the half wore on, with a towering cross-kick from Gavin Hume falling just short of its target before Porical levelled the scores with a simple penalty. The fullback was handed three points on a plate by his pack, who chewed up the Munster front-row at a scrum, drawing a penalty.
Some sloppy passing on both sides produced a try-scoring chance for Earls, when a looping pass was picked off by O'Connell. Quinlan provided the link play with some soft hands, allowing O'Gara to chip in behind. Earls raced after the ball but the bounce took the ball away from the centre and in to touch.
Munster exacted a small amount of revenge at the next scrum by winning a free-kick, which was quickly taken by O'Leary. Leamy and Quinlan rumbled forward and O'Gara scooped over an excellent drop-goal after O'Leary had become entangled in the Perpignan defence. O'Gara missed a difficult shot at goal soon after but extended his side's lead with his next attempt. A pinpoint high ball from Warwick was snaffled superbly by Quinlan, forcing Durand to concede a penalty in front of the posts.
Replacement David Mele reduced Perpignan's arrears with an ugly penalty after Mafi had been pinged for holding on, and contributed another ugly moment shortly after with an apparent stamp on the arm of Earls.
There was nothing ugly about Perpignan's third try. Another kick from Warwick was picked off by Burger on his own 22, with the former Free State fullback springing clear of the Munster defence, backing his pace and beating Warwick and O'Gara to the corner.
The conversion was wide, leaving the door open to O'Gara. Perpignan failed to control their emotions as Munster poured forward and a high-tackle from openside Bertrand Guiry handed the lead back to the home side as the clock ticked towards the 80 minute mark.
Thomond Park stood to a man to cheer Denis Hurley as the wing broke from a ruck and raced away to score the game-sealing try, only for the tough judge to rule out the score due to a knock-on in the act of retrieving the ball from the breakdown.
The cheers rang out as O'Gara was announced as the Man of the Match and as Perpignan's discipline deserted them a late stream of penalties handed the game to the two-time champions.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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