FROM Dublin to Toulouse to London, they can hear the footsteps of the Red Army on the march again. Munster have won six out of six pool games and tonight sit atop the European standings. Are they the best team in Europe? Probably not; you are unlikely to win Heineken Cups while your pack coughs up two penalty tries to save themselves the indignity of being pushed over their own line.
But still, the conviction is evident among the Munster brave and faithful, for arguably the first time this season, that their side are gathering the kind of momentum that can see them to Twickenham in May; see them into the final fight for a third Heineken Cup.
A home quarter final awaits after they detonated Northampton in Milton Keynes.
The Saints came seeking redemption; revenge for Thomond Park last November when Ronan O’Gara’s drop-kick at the death denied them victory.
Instead, last season’s finalists stepped into a cyclone in MK Dons’ soulless stadium in the middle of a retail park.
Simon Zebo was Munster’s prime weapon. The 21-year-old ran in a hat-trick of tries. Ronan O’Gara kicked 24 points; the near-flawless, ageless out-half slotted all but one of his shots at goal.
Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony led a superb forward effort. Despite being dominated in the scrum, Munster got the better of every other area of the contest – a point made by Northampton coach Jim Mallinder.
Mallinder seemed a mite shell-shocked afterwards. Well he might be, considering his team were level at half-time.
It was a ding-dong first half. When you get into the opposition’s 22 you must come away with points. That’s been the rugby mantra since a schoolboy named Webb Ellis first picked the ball and ran during a game of football in a private school not far from Milton Keynes.
Rarely, though, in the 189 years since that has there been an example of a game where nearly every attack resulted in a score. The first half, though, was one of those rare spells where every chance was seized. Well, Ryan Lamb hit the post with a fourth-minute penalty. He kicked four from his remaining four first-half penalties and dropped a sweet goal.
O’Gara nailed four from four penalties and converted Botha’s try. 19-19 was a just reflection on an open, rip-roaring half.
Munster would certainly have accepted level terms if they were offered it at most stages of that 40-minute spell.
Saints’ first try, on 15 minutes, followed a hospital pass from O’Gara to Lifeimi Mafi which resulted in the Kiwi knocking on. Saints walked Munster’s eight toward the line. The ball was booted out of the scrum and a penalty try was awarded.
Munster’s first of five five-pointers came from BJ Botha on 32 minutes – a pick and drive off the base of the ruck after concerted pressure. Phil Dowson’s spill from a restart had given Munster the possession to attack the Saints’ line.
Into the second half and a blistering opening 10 minutes from Munster put an 11-point gap between the teams. First Johne Murphy on the right and then fellow-winger Simon Zebo on the left ran in tries.
Saints refused to bow and kicked a penalty to the corner. Five minutes of green and gold waves crashing against the red barrier culminated in a scrum and another retreating Munster pack and, astonishingly, a second penalty try.
Both scrum-halves, Conor Murray and Lee Dickson, were sin-binned for starting a fight in the aftermath of the decision.
Munster stemmed the English side’s momentum in the following minutes and enjoyed a period of sustained possession, the net result of which was another O’Gara penalty – kicked from just outside the 22, a shot that put more than a score between the sides. However, from the restart, Munster infringed and Lamb clawed back three points: 29-34 with just under 15 minutes remaining.
Munster edged clear again after Samu Manoa took Peter O’Mahony out in the air. Penalty to Munster and O’Gara put a vital eight points difference on the board once more.
On 71 minutes, Zebo intercepted a James Downey pass and ran in unopposed from 50 yards, sparking triumphant roars from the red hoards.
With the bonus point already secured, Zebo completed his hat-trick with four minutes left. A last-act consolation try from Scott Armstrong did little to deflate the visiting fans’ mood. In the cold light of the following week those supporters might wonder what needs to be done to shore up their retreating scrum. On Saturday night, though, the massive Munster contingent in the 22,220 crowd had every right to stand up and party.