Munster power to home quarter-final as they hit Edinburgh with six of the best
Rob Penney’s men secure bonus-point win which gives them home advantage in Heineken Cup last eight in April
Srumhalf Conor Murray’s feed sends Simon Zebo over for a simple finish in the left corner in yesterday’s Heineken Cup game at Thomond Park. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
This bordered on a rout. The whiff of vengeance for the events of Murrayfield and the sniff of a home quarter-final at their Thomond Park citadel ensured Munster had the bit between their teeth, and they reached their objective with over a quarter of the game and two tries to spare.
For sure there were lulls and mistakes, but once again there was a much better mix to Munster’s game, with Paul O’Connell, James Coughlan and Tommy O’Donnell to the fore in a fired-up forward effort which pummelled Edinburgh with their scrum, maul and direct running.
Behind them, Conor Murray was generally quick to the breakdown and passed quickly through the air, Ian Keatley gave further evidence of an increased confidence and composure and an exciting glimpse of how he and JJ Hanrahan could operate in tandem. The continuing good form of Johne Murphy, having his best season with Munster, and Felix Jones was spoiled by a knee injury to Keith Earls, although Simon Zebo made the most of his hour on the pitch with some lively running and a few reminders of his big left boot.
Edinburgh had a Challenge Cup quarter-final to play for, though you’d hardly have guessed it. They brought little ambition and their defence was surprisingly porous at times, especially early on.
By contrast, with only a bonus-point win making any tangible difference for Munster, they eschewed three-pointers in the search for tries. It could be a risky strategy with a team prone to impatience, but it made utter sense compared to Toulouse the day before and along with a policy of restarts aimed at regathering possession, reaped a rich reward.
Initially, with Munster conceding some cheap penalties, the brunchtime crowd had little reason to become involved save for one choke tackle by Casey Laulala and Jones on Jack Cuthbert. But even that that resulted in David Kilcoyne being pinged for slipping his bind for Greig Laidlaw to open the scoring.
Within 40 seconds Munster had struck and were up and running, and the crowd were in the game. As has so often been the case, the talisman was O’Connell, charging on to Keatley’s restart and gathering cleanly, two-handed, to continue his charge and maintain the tempo with an offload to Murray.
Keatley took the next two recycles flat, as first Varley put them on the front foot again, and when Murray and Varley went back left, Coughlan straightened onto Murphy’s pass with an impressive turn of foot to beat feeble tackles by Douglas Fife and Jack Cuthbert, with Laidlaw also unable to stop him.
Keatley hit the post with the conversion, and Munster briefly lost momentum with a Varley overthrow and a forced offload by Laulala. But that proved beneficial, as Kilcoyne and co turned the screw at scrum time, and a lineout maul and close-in drives having been repelled, opted for a scrum off another penalty.
On course for a pushover try when Barnes pinged the Edinburgh scrum again, a quick feed seemed to surprise the visitors as Murphy took Murray’s pass to step inside Roddy Grant and David Denton with an ease that would be chided on the training ground. It was the only scrum of seven first-half put-ins which yielded playable ball as opposed to a penalty in one of Wayne Barnes’ customary whistle fests.
Steal in contact
Earls, of all people, was soon wrestling a steal in contact and Jones took a good line for O’Donnell to link with Murray, but when Varley stepped in at scrum time, Earls was forced to retrieve his wild pass. In doing so, his left ankle was trapped painfully under Fife’s tackle and he was helped off in huge discomfort.
Laidlaw tagged on another penalty, and the scrumhalf was only denied a try by the double tackle of O’Connell and Zebo. On half-time, Barnes went to the TMO to review an incident of foul play which showed Cornell Du Preez “recklessly leading with his head” at the target of O’Connell’s pate. The South African was yellow-carded.
Munster went for the jugular upon the resumption, the coaching staff having clearly identified the potential for passes back inside to runners going against the grain. Coughlan gathered a 22 restart on half-way and when Munster went wide, O’Donnell took a pass inside to gallop into the heart of Edinburgh territory, Coughlan then straightening through out on the left before Murray plunged for the line.
Zebo was involved three times in one exciting phased attack, nearly gathering his own chip, swivelling out of a tackle to release Downey in a counter, then cutting through off an inside pass to link with Kilcoyne. The increasingly influential O’Donnell, Varley and Coughlan executed one of three choke tackle turnovers and after an O’Connell lineout steal, a cruel bounce off Laulala’s deft grubber into space eluded Jones, although it did lead to a penalty and attacking lineout. Although O’Donnell was stopped off a clever blindside variation, after a couple of close-in rumbles Murray moved the ball out to Peter O’Mahony. Clearly having been playing through the pain barrier, he bounced Laidlaw and went through Tonks and the distinctly unimpressive Denton to score.
Barnes checked for a double movement but a pumped O’Mahony and raucous crowd knew, merely delaying confirmation of Munster’s home quarter-final. Cue the introduction of a voraciously hungry Munster bench, which only accentuated Edinbrgh’s grief.
The JJ Hanrahan-Keatley 10-12 axis, as they inter-changed positions, worked seamlessly. Granted, Edinburgh wanted to be beamed outta there, but there was notably more pace and width on the ball, as well as pack power plays, yielding run-ins out wide for Zebo and Jones to provide the coup de grace.