Victory secured but Munster left to rue bonus chance that got away
Pool One: Edinburgh 17 Munster 26Munster came away from a predictably hollow Murrayfield, which was one-tenth full, with a decidedly hollow feeling. Although their destiny is still largely in their own hands, they’ll know the bonus point they left behind would have left them feeling considerably better about life.
The Munster contingent in a 6,220 crowd appeared more numerous but for all their encouragement, and for all their team’s huffing and puffing, they couldn’t blow Edinburgh’s house down. The morning snow and sleet made for a cloying, energy-sapping pitch and Munster couldn’t be faulted for effort and desire.
More direct in response to last week’s dismal defeat at home to Cardiff in the league, they carried hard and recycled ad nauseam, but having elected to kick five of six kickable first-half penalties at goal, they failed to close out that period with a try.
Having failed to add a third soon after Conor Murray pounced just past the hour when Felix Jones couldn’t put Doug Howlett away, Munster left themselves too much to do, although two late Edinburgh tries could be taken as vindication for their decision to put points on the board in the first half.
A number of unplanned alterations changed the landscape significantly, but although Stephen Archer and then, in the warm-up, Mike Sherry were forced off the Munster bench, Edinburgh’s loss of loosehead Alan Jacobsen from their starting line-up had a bigger impact.
Another change had seen their sometime bugbear Romain Poite replaced by English referee Greg Gardner, who had understandably incurred their wrath in the opening defeat to Racing, not least in one key scrum decision against David Kilcoyne. Yesterday, Michael Bradley was incensed by the manner in which Kilcoyne scrummaged across and under Willem Nel as the Munster scrum wreaked untold carnage and ultimately was a source of 16 points.
That apart, along with some sleeves-rolled-up driving play by the pack, for all their collective effort, and some willing carrying by Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell – who also defended well – in particular, they lacked a little potency in their carries on a heavy pitch against obdurate opponents. The backs, though they threatened on occasion, couldn’t deliver and they may rue not having opted for Simon Zebo at full-back, with Casey Laulala in midfield and Keith Earls on the wing.
In all of this, while a bonus point win was eminently desirable, a win was the priority. Besides which, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. So, an eager kick-chase game having been undone by a mistiming between thrower, lifters and jumper to cough up a five-metre line, despite polite entreaties to kick to the corner, Doug Howlett repeatedly told Ronan O’Gara to point to the sticks and he augmented an early penalty to land three successive scrum penalties to sandwich one by Laidlaw for a 12-3 lead.
The first had been the reward for a prolonged, 30 metre bout of pick-and-go after James Downey had set a midfield target, the second after another Donncha O’Callaghan choke tackle with Donncha Ryan.
Approaching the break, an attacking Edinburgh scrum actually got a left-sided shove on but when David Denton lost control at the base O’Donnell marked a highly effective all-round first-half display by pouncing for the steal.
Finally Zebo was worked into the game other than through Rees box kicks, albeit from an O’Gara cross kick, and Munster then went up the line from a penalty.
Murray was launched off the tail in a trademark line-out move, with O’Donnell in support to instigate a sequence of close-in forward drives. A try then would have made it a good first-half’s work, but Botha lost control of the ball when reaching out for the line and the half ended with Zebo knocking-on O’Gara’s pass from Murray’s tap penalty in overtime.
Munster renewed their offensive on the resumption, again launching Downey up the middle as a prelude to a pick-and-go drive by the forwards mixed occasionally with the backs through 23 phases. But after a turnover penalty for not releasing, Dave Kilcoyne stopped Greig Laidlaw in his tracks after a quick tap and was binned.
However, a deplorable forward pass by Denton under his own posts gave Munster an attacking scrum. When Murray opted for a chip for Earls, it looked a curious option, but after recourse to the TMO Laidlaw was binned for palming the ball over the dead ball line. The seven-man Munster pack, supplemented by Doug Howlett, engineered the penalty try.
Quite how the touchjudge missed Dougie Fife deliberately slapping the ball down to prevent Earls from completing a try scoring pass to Zebo was beyond belief, but in any event, after Varley and Ryan peeled off a lineout maul to make the initial inroads, Murray pounced from close-range for the second try.
With over 17 minutes left, Munster looked well placed to go and complete a bonus point but soon after Jones broke through but didn’t offload for Howlett’s typical trailer on his inside shoulder when he would have scored under the posts.
That would have left them 15 minutes or so to get the fourth try.
An angry free-for-all seemingly instigated by O’Gara kicking Cox ensued, with Zebo also outraged by something that happened subsequently, and when Munster went to their bench with a pair of double substitutions, it merely seemed to stymie their momentum.
Instead, there were a couple of consolation tries for the home side by Fife, as both Matt Scott and Fife exposed chinks in the rejigged Munster midfield.
Fife’s opener was the first by last season’s semi-finalists after 391 minutes and 45 seconds in the competition this season. They were utterly immaterial.