Paul O’Connell inspired Munster to an 18-12 Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Harlequins and was immediately tipped to make a big impression on the British and Irish Lions tour.
Scorers: Harlequins – Pens: Evans 4. Munster – Pens: O’Gara 6.
O’Connell was man of the match as Munster produced a devastating second-half performance to down the English champions, with veteran fly-half Ronan O’Gara kicking all the points.
O’Gara landed four penalties in the first 16 minutes of the second half – and six in total – to overturn a 9-6 deficit and seal Munster a semi-final against Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier.
O’Connell, hailed by Harlequins director of rugby Conor O’Shea as arguably the greatest Ireland lock ever, only returned to action from back surgery two weeks ago.
Munster coach Rob Penney expects him to be back to his peak just in time for the Lions Test series against Australia.
“He hasn’t played a lot recently and he will get better with more game-time. I suspect that by late June and early July, he will be humming,” Penney said.
“He is great isn’t he? Everyone speaks about him in glowing terms and so they should. First and foremost he is a wonderful man.
“He has this empathetic outlook on life, he sees things through other people’s eyes, and he has this understanding that makes everyone feel good to be around him.
“You couple that with his rugby ability and he is just a really complete man. Munster have fed off him for a long period of him.”
The Lions management team of Warren Gatland, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell were at The Stoop to witness O’Connell’s performance and a classic Munster European effort.
Last week, Munster shipped 51 points to Glasgow in the Rabodirect PRO12 to all but end their play-off hopes, but their relationship with the Heineken Cup is special.
Munster have now reached ten semi-finals and their victory yesterday was due to a dominant second-half performance, in which Harlequins were overpowered and suffocated out of the game.
“They are a proud bunch of boys and there are some talented footballers amongst them. A couple of world class guys stepped up,” Penney said.
“People had given them no hope and no chance. There was something special around the group, their ability to overcome adversity. We would like to have it a bit more often but our big players stepped up as did some more unheralded players.”
Harlequins led 9-6 at the interval after enjoying early dominance in the scrum but they began to lose shape and composure in the second half as Munster turned the screw.
“The better side won,” O’Shea admitted. “They won the breakdowns and the collisions and we are bitterly disappointed.
“We have to take a bit of time but I said to the guys that they have to learn from the journey that Munster went on [before winning their first Heineken Cup title]. Sometimes you are driven by that hurt.
“We did not play the way we could today. We were not allowed to play because Munster bossed the second half.
“I thought Paul O’Connell was absolutely majestic. The whole team was physical but he was the totem that the whole team just rose around.
“He is arguably one of the greatest second rows if not the greatest second row that Ireland has ever produced.
“He was absolutely magnificent and as the team rallied around him you could see he was the focal point.”
Harlequins: Brown; Williams, Lowe, Casson, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Buchanan, Johnston, Kohn, Robson, Fa’asavalu, Robshaw, Easter. Replacements: Hopper for Casson (76), Gray for Buchanan (51), Guest for Fa’asavalu (52).
Munster: N Jones; Hurley, Laulala, Downey, Zebo; O’Gara, Murray; Kilcoyne, Sherry, Botha, D. Ryan, O’Connell, P. O’Mahony, O’Donnell, Coughlan. Replacements: Varley for Kilcoyne (76), du Preez for Sherry (76), Archer for Botha (76), D. O’Callaghan for D. Ryan (69), Butler for P. O’Mahony (79).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)