Harlequins 12 Munster 18: Resurgent O'Connell jumps back into the Lions queue
15:17 GMT, 7 April 2013
21:09 GMT, 7 April 2013
It may have been basic, but Munster strangled the English champions and were led by Paul O’Connell, who jumped and tackled his way back into Lions contention.
The 2009 Lions captain led a second-half charge which left Chris Robshaw and his Premiership men looking stunned in front of a full house of 15,000.
Munster’s pack won the crucial collisions — paving the way for another rejuvenated Irish master, Ronan O’Gara, to kick six penalties — four in the space of 14 minutes after the interval.
Resurgent: Paul O'Connell (centre) produced a dominant performance that must have put him back in Lions contention
Quins’ previous Heineken Cup quarter-final four years ago, ended in the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal and a 6-5 win for Leinster.
The ramifications will not be as seismic this time, but Quins’ season is now in danger of collapse after three successive Premiership defeats.
They had turned around 9-6 ahead to harbour hopes of reaching a first semi-final at the fourth attempt, but that belief was shattered by Munster’s start to the second half.
O’Gara, shaking off the dis-appointment of being dropped by Ireland during the Six Nations, calmly kicked four penalties to follow his two shots before the interval.
Thin red line: The Munster No 8 steals the ball from Quins No 8 Nick Easter at the lineout
O’Connell led the pack to give watching Lions coach Warren Gatland a firm reminder of his class and strength. On this showing O’Connell, who missed Ireland’s Six Nations campaign due to a back complaint, is a candidate to lead the Lions again following his impressive stint on the 2009 tour to South Africa.
For the moment, the 33-year-old refuses to discuss the prospect. ‘I’ve got a little bit to go in terms of match fitness but this was another injury-free day and I’m delighted to be back,’ he said.
Munster coach Rob Penney believes O’Connell will be ‘humming’ by the time of the Lions’ crucial games in Australia.
Quins director of rugby Conor O’Shea was also full of praise for O’Connell and a Munster pack in which back-rowers Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony were outstanding.
Thank Evans: Quins' New Zealand fly-half Nick Evans secures another three points during the home side's rampant start
O’Shea said: ‘Paul was absolutely magnificent. They rallied around him and followed him.’
O’Shea now has the task of re-energising his own team. ‘We didn’t play the way we can play because we weren’t allowed,’ was his blunt assessment.
‘Munster bossed the start of the second half and from then on it was a very big mountain to climb.
‘Our job is to qualify for the Premiership play-offs. We will be written off, no doubt, but we will just have to learn.’
Such thoughts seemed unlikely when Quins took charge at the opening scrums.
Pull the other one: Nick Easter drags back Paul O'Connell by his shirt before bringing himdown
The pressure brought a 6-0 lead through two penalties from Nick Evans and it was Munster who looked likely to crack.
But there were no clear try-scoring chances and the match became increasingly nervy as O’Connell and his gang started to win the crucial decisions from French referee Jerome Garces.
A third penalty from Evans helped Quins limp to a 9-6 lead at half-time and Munster turned to play into a stiff wind.
That handicap looked to make them more focused and a brilliant period of pressure rugby was rewarded by O’Gara’s nerveless kicking. He took Munster to a lead of 18-9 after 56 minutes.
Red riding hood: Munster's famous support were out in force at the Stoop
A fourth penalty from Evans raised Quins’ hopes in the 65th, only for Munster to produce some clinical ‘keep-ball’ rugby and close out the match — much to the delight of their big following.
O’Connell claimed his team had not talked about such tactics, although his smile said something else. ‘The maul worked well and our kicking game was outstanding — you can’t win these tight games without that,’ he said in praise of O’Gara.
O’Shea refused to blame referee Garces for Quins’ demise. ‘Sometimes you have to say that the better team won,’ he conceded.
Smash and grab: England and Quins Mike Brown is wrestled to the ground by Munster's James Coughlan
Sorry, sir: Quins captain Chris Robshaw is lectured by French referee Jerome Garces