Out-of-sorts Reds make heavy work of seal­ing semi-fi­nal trip to the RDS

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

IT’S not of­ten the Thomond Park ex­pe­ri­ence is one you en­joy in short sleeves. A crowd of 10,205 — an of­fi­cial fig­ure that seemed well re­moved from the ac­tual at­ten­dance — must have got an inkling how­ever that while the re­sult might go Mun­ster’s way the win­ning of it would be like some­thing from mid-win­ter. So they stayed away.

The ef­fect of this win gives Mun­ster a Guin­ness PRO14 semi-fi­nal away to Le­in­ster in the RDS in a fort­night. A place in the last four is some­thing they and their fans would have tar­geted at the start of the sea­son, but hardly play­ing like this. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how many sup­port­ers travel for that one on May 19.

In the end — in the 83rd minute — they threw Peter O’Ma­hony up at the front of a li­ne­out Ed­in­burgh needed to keep the game alive. He got a hand to it and Conor Mur­ray got him­self and the ball over the touch­line.

This was the last game in red at this venue for a tri­umvi­rate of Si­mon Zebo, Robin Copeland and Ger­brandt Grob­ler. Zebo is the box of­fice num­ber in that lit­tle group and it’s unimag­in­able that this is how he wanted his Lim­er­ick exit to play out. It was truly aw­ful stuff. Ed­in­burgh, with 12 per cent more ball and ter­ri­tory, tried to play more rugby but of­ten that served only to high­light their poor skill lev­els.

A good kick­ing game is not only im­por­tant to Mun­ster but also fur­ther up the line with Ire­land. A bad kick­ing game — and Conor Mur­ray kicked badly, com­pounded by a poor chase — be­comes more costly the higher you go up the food chain. Some­times you have to play with some am­bi­tion. And as in Bordeaux, Mun­ster didn’t to that.

“That’s a dif­fi­cult one to an­swer,” Jo­hann van Graan said af­ter­wards. “I thought we did some good things out there to­day — pos­si­bly one or two things we could ex­e­cute bet­ter but cer­tainly in a semi-fi­nal away from home com­ing up against Le­in­ster we might have to look at one or two things dif­fer­ently.”

Mun­ster were dis­rupted by the loss of Stephen Archer but Ed­in­burgh’s prob­lems started be­fore they left home, with open­side Jamie Richie a late with­drawal. It meant putting Lewis Carmichael, pri­mar­ily a lock, into num­ber six as part of the back-row shuf­fle. And then con­ced­ing a try on nine min­utes, en­tirely of their own mak­ing, only made things worse.

JJ Han­ra­han had given a good po­si­tion with a lovely punt un­der pres­sure to the cor­ner, but whether Ed­in­burgh got the move­ment or the throw wrong it un­did them. Rhys Mar­shall was on sen­try duty at the tail of the line, gath­ered the ball that sailed over the jump­ing pod, and did well to fin­ish de­spite the ef­forts of a hud­dle of de­fend­ers on the line. Han­ra­han’s con­ver­sion gave Mun­ster a 7-0 lead and they looked happy.

There wasn’t a lot to im­prove fur­ther their mood af­ter that. It was as if they were op­er­at­ing to an al­go­rithm which cal­cu­lated im­me­di­ately the num­ber of Ed­in­burgh play­ers on their feet af­ter a break­down. And if that num­ber was in dou­ble fig­ures the ball was kicked in the hope that the next roll of the dice might present a pret­tier pic­ture. If it did it was hard to spot.

The first half got worse the longer it went on, and by its end the home team hadn’t added to their seven points. A lot of ef­fort from Ed­in­burgh had yielded two suc­cess­ful penal­ties for Sam Hi­dalgo-Clyne, both cour­tesy of James Cronin — the first will make the loose­head wince; the sec­ond seemed harder to avoid.

Over­all, it was so bad it beg­gared be­lief. And af­ter the break? A try from man of the match Keith Earls threat­ened to raise the tone. Good scrum ball had given them the at­tack­ing plat­form and the ef­fect of Mur­ray’s pass to Zebo go­ing to ground was to frac­ture Ed­in­burgh’s de­fen­sive line. He chipped and gath­ered won­der­fully and then threw a great pass wide to Earls who fin­ished well.

Han­ra­han — he would fin­ish with four from five off the tee — kicked a fine con­ver­sion and added another three points when around-the-cor­ner rugby won Mun­ster a penalty on 51 min­utes.

But 17-6 quickly enough be­came 17-9 when Hi­dalgo-Clyne pulled back three points, fol­lowed by a good try from his re­place­ment, Nathan Fowles — all within four min­utes. Fowles’ try started with a Bill Mata counter off a poor Zebo kick.

“To push this side so close in this sta­dium is some­thing we should be proud of,” coach Richard Cock­er­ill said af­ter­wards. “We could have won that game and we were play­ing to win it. We were good enough to win it but the tiny mar­gins went against us.”

With seven min­utes left Han­ra­han added another three points but they were still vul­ner­a­ble. That vul­ner­a­bil­ity is not go­ing to go away in the next cou­ple of weeks. Scor­ers — Mun­ster: Mar­shall, Earls try each; Han­ra­han 2 pens, 2 cons. Ed­in­burgh: Fowles try; Hi­dalgo-Clyne 3 pens, con.

Mun­ster: S Zebo; A Con­way (D Sweet­nam 31-40 HIA; 41), S Arnold, R Scan­nell, K Earls; JJ Han­ra­han, C Mur­ray; J Cronin (D Kil­coyne 61), R Mar­shall (M Sherry 70), S Archer (C Parker 17), J Kleyn (G Grob­ler 52), B Hol­land, P O’Ma­hony (capt), CJ Stander (R Copeland 61), J O’Donoghue. Ed­in­burgh: B Kinghorn; D Fife, M Ben­nett, C Dean (J John­stone 76), D van der Merwe; J van der Walt (D Weir 64), S Hi­dalgo-Clyne (D Fowles 56); J Lay (A Dell 52), S McI­nally (capt)(N Cochrane 70), S Berghan (WP Nel 52), B Too­lis, G Gilchrist, L Carmichael, B Mata (C du Preez 64), M Brad­bury. Ref­eree: N Owens (Wales)

Keith Earls scores the cru­cial try for Mun­ster in the Guin­ness PRO14 semi-fi­nal play-off against Ed­in­burgh at Thomond Park yes­ter­day. Photo: Sam Barnes

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