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JACKSON COLUMN: Munster miracles becoming commonplace

George Bernard Shaw once defined a miracle as ‘an event which creates faith,’ writes Peter Jackson. The renowned Irish playwright and novelist considered that to be ‘the purpose and nature of miracles.’


Munster have now produced enough of their own to justify having the great man’s thoughts on the subject emblazoned across their dressing-room wall:

‘Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive. Therefore it is not a fraud but a miracle.’

That may be no consolation to a valiant Northampton, their English victims in the opening round of the European Cup at Thomond Park who felt they had done enough to justify the narrowest of victories.     

The Saints now know better, that some Munster miracles give every appearance of being more impossible than others.

The Red Army has witnessed a few in Europe since the turn of the century but not even they imagined they would see their team go through 41 phases over a period of some five minutes and keep their heads until Ronan O’Gara called for the drop.   

No matter how long the distance, how tricky the wind, he does not tend to miss when the chips are down.

Munster have been working miracles in this competition since the second weekend of the 21st century, when Keith Wood’s eleventh-hour try and O’Gara’s conversion sent Saracens back to London wondering how they ended up losing 31-30.

The ‘Miracle Match’ followed three years later, a 33-6 trouncing of Gloucester when Munster needed a bonus-point win to avoid elimination from the quarter-finals.  

Their critical fourth try arrived with immaculate timing in just about the last minute by which time Gloucester were in such a disorientated state they had lost the whole plot.

A simple penalty awarded to them late in the game would almost certainly have put them right had their dead-eyed French fly half, Ludovic Mercier, been instructed to go for goal instead of punting towards the corner in the mistaken belief that Gloucester needed a try.

For the benefit of anyone who thought it all a flash in the pan, Munster repeated the feat in identical circumstances in January 2006 when again they had to see English opponents off with four tries to boot.   

Sale, then bristling with World Cup stars like Jason Robinson, Sebastian Chabal and Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe, duly subsided.

The finale which undid Northampton at least ensured that John Hayes reached his historic century of European ties in suitable style.   

Introduced immediately after an O’Gara penalty had been blown off course by the wind, the venerable tighthead had nine minutes in which to ensure that the first centurion in the Heineken Cup played his part which he duly did in helping edge Munster close enough for The Executioner to take aim.

O’Gara’s goal was one of many during a weekend when teams from the RaboDirect Pro 12 won almost twice as many of the twelve opening round ties as the French Top 14 and English Aviva Premiership put together.   

A gripping weekend for Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams ended with Glasgow Warriors conjuring up something which Munster have yet to get round to, the seven-point drop goal.

In attempting to emulate his Irish counterpart with the last kick against Bath at Firhill, Duncan Weir saw his drop from around 40 metres slice away to the right, hopelessly short and wide, until it landed.    

All that remained was for Nick Abendanon, the covering Bath full back, to pick the ball up and hoof it towards the back row of the stand.

It then bounced at right angles back towards the posts and sat up for the galloping Richie Gray to plunge over beneath the cross-bar.   

The formality of Weir’s conversion meant the Warriors completed a magnificent Scottish double 24 hours after Edinburgh’s stirring recovery to beat London Irish at the Madejski Stadium.

Scotland 2, England 0 was not the only emphatic result of the weekend.    

Wales, their players and fans still smarting over their World Cup semi-final defeat by France, responded to the advent of a tournament they have yet to win with a clean sweep of French clubs.

Cardiff Blues, despite the early disruption caused by injuries to James Down and Jamie Roberts, set the tone by outplaying Racing Metro in Paris, a win which put them in immediate control of Pool 2.   

The Scarlets and Ospreys took up where the capital region left off to secure home wins over Castres and Biarritz respectively.

Ben Morgan scored arguably the try of the round in the finest Scarlets’ tradition while Dan Biggar’s prodigious goalkicking proved too much for the Basques but only just.   They felt hard done by when the English referee, Andrew Small, denied Iain Balshaw what would have been his hat-trick try for a knock-on when the ball appeared to bounced off the Ospreys skipper, Alun-Wyn Jones.

The Celtic teams can seldom have had a more rewarding weekend in Europe’s leading competition, let alone a better one.   

Seven of the eleven starters won – Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh, Scarlets, Ospreys, Munster, Glasgow Warrors and Ulster.  

One drew – Leinster at Montpellier thanks to Jonathan Sexton nailing an eminently missable penalty with the last kick of a riveting contest.

For a while it looked as though Connacht would mark their debut in fairytale fashion with a win over the unbeaten Harlequins at The Stoop.    

In the end, the English leaders needed two late penalties from Nick Evans to secure an eleventh straight win and leave Ireland’s western province without as much as a losing bonus point for their heroics.

Aironi, home to Leicester, and Treviso, away to Saracens, both lost but they were in good company.   

Four of the six French qualifiers – Clermont as well as Racing, Castres and Biarritz – also lost.  

So, too, did the majority of England’s seven despite Gloucester matching Toulouse try-for-try with Mike Tindall standing out during an impressive collective effort.

Going into the second of the six pool rounds this weekend, RaboDirect teams are out in front as many prepare to face challenging tests on the road.

How they stand in the Heineken Cup:
1. RaboDirect Pro 12: Played 11, won 7, drawn 1, lost 3.
2. Aviva Premiership: Played 7, won 3, drawn 0, lost 4.
3. French Top 14: Played 6, won 1, drawn 1, lost 4.