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