THIS must be Munster's year.
Not because of their form ? this, their 18th consecutive win at Fortress Thomond was perhaps their least convincing and you couldn't have begrudged Stade Français had they won. The Munster players, matched on the tryscoring stakes four each and beaten up in the pack, wisely kept their celebrations to a minimum, trudging through the crowd afterwards, knowing this was an escape.
It could be their year because they're getting lucky.
After all those years on the road in the latter stages of the tournament, they finally have a home semi-final (against either Gloucester or Wasps at Lansdowne Road in a fortnight's time). And yesterday, they were paid back for all those bad breaks over the years. Things went for them. Like Diego Dominguez missing his conversion after Christophe Moni's 73rd minute try, or the same player slipping as he approached a penalty in the 78th minute.
And, indisputably, they had the referee with them. Sitting near the press box, Stade coach Nick Mallett was apoplectic at some of Nigel Williams' decisions, and you couldn't blame him. Just when they needed it, Munster got the original homer.
They got a break before the game even started, too. Pieter de Villiers, the Stade tighthead, woke yesterday morning with a bout of gastro-enteritis. Even with that disruption, Stade still gave the Munster pack a ferocious test. The Munster midfield was under constant pressure too ? Ignacio Corleto caused palpitations every time he hit the line, exposing Mike Mullins cruelly on a couple of occasions.
What saved Munster first and foremost was their phenomenal start ? a 17-point buffer in just 12 minutes was truly invaluable and Alan Gaffney's side displayed opportunism throughout.
There was no better example than Marcus Horan's try in the 45th minute. Just before, Brian Liebenberg had brought his team to within seven points, bringing a triumphant yelp from Mallett that pierced the silent air.
Thee was nothing on when Horan received the ball three minutes later ? it was slow ball and the Stade defence seemed well-organised. But the prop looked up to see Diego Dominguez ahead of him and an electrifying sidestep took him past the diminutive out-half. Horan still had 30 metres to run but his phenomenal pace took him beyond the clutched of Corleto and Gregory Mahe.
A match-turning moment?
Perhaps. But this was a different Stade team from the one that ran out the gate here four years ago. This was their last throw of the dice this year ? out of the French championship race, they are now battling to avoid relegation. This was their only opportunity to make it into the Heineken Cup for next season. Accordingly, as Munster ran out to a cataclysmic roar, they were met by the sight of the Stade forwards, fronted by Sylvain Marconnet, shoulders back, eyes rolling in his head. It seemed merely a matter of time before we'd see a scrap.
As it turned out, it wasn't until the 71st minute that we had an extended contretemps involving Frankie Sheahan and Mathieu Blin, but there was lots of malice and plenty of flying studs throughout.
The Stade pack clearly knew they could cause problems for the Munster scrum, while the red maul, so dominant in earlier games, invariably crabbed sideways. It was clear also that Peter Stringer had been targeted and he swung recklessly a few times at his opposite number, Gregor Mahe. Having won the toss and opted to play against the wind, the idea was to keep the damage to a minimum.
They forgot to get the basics of defence right, however, and it meant they had to recover from one of the worst starts imaginable. Alan Gaffney's video analysis showed how Stade's outside backs defend narrowly and twice within the first 12 minutes, they were undone by simple double-miss moves.
For Shaun Payne's secondminute try, there were even two out-riders accompanying the wing home and barely a Stade defender in sight. If you were a Munster fan, you could admire David Wallace's strength in the build-up to Mike Mullins's try but in truth, Stade's first-up tackling was unacceptable. It is this, along with the refereeing , that they will regret most.
As expected, Toulouse swept Edinburgh aside in yesterday's other quarter-final.It looked ominous for the Scottish side when Christian Labit powered his way over for the first try after just 12 minutes and while they responded with a Tom Philip try, it was one-way traffic in the end, Toulouse winning 36-10.
The reigning champions now face Biarritz in Bordeaux next Saturday week, after Biarritz dispatched Llanelli 27-10 at Stradey Park on Friday evening. You suspect Munster would prefer Gloucester to win at The Causeway Stadium this afternoon. Not only do they have a psychological edge over the Cherry and Whites after successive hammerings in Limerick, Wasps are the form team in England at the moment. Warren Gatland fields the same team that put 30 points on Northampton last week. After this, they will just be happy to be still in the competition.