Munster huff their way to dream final


Munster 18 Ospreys 11:THEY HUFFED and they puffed, and they huffed and they puffed, and eventually blew the Ospreys down. In the process, Munster ended a run of four successive semi-final defeats to earn the “dream final”, although to say they made heavy work of it would be an understatement.

In mitigation, it wasn’t exactly the most inspiring of backdrops. A capricious wind blew through a cavernous Thomond Park and the official attendance of 13,000-plus looked a tad generous.

Have “The Faithful” deserted the men in red? Or maybe these were the faithful?

To put it in context, the RDS attendance for an Irish derby was scarcely 1,000 more on Friday night, and that despite a strong Ulster invasion.

Perhaps it’s a weariness with rugby in May, and with the prospect of a fifth meeting between Munster and the Ospreys this season and 10th in three seasons. But one imagines it will be an altogether different sense of occasion when Leinster roll into town a fortnight hence, all the more so if they are European champions.

Munster have a clear run at their seasonal finale as well and with mostly positive selection issues to ponder. Tony McGahan has juggled his resources cleverly this season and once again his selections were vindicated. Recalling the old warhorses, Marcus Horan and John Hayes, worked a treat at scrum time, which admittedly was a bit of a mess, but where Munster turned the tables on pretty much all previous four meetings with the Ospreys this season from the moment they earned Ronan O’Gara’s opening three-pointer.

Donnacha Ryan’s inclusion in the backrow ensured options aplenty at lineout time – where Munster also seemed intent on showing him in a good light for the watching Ireland management. Most of all, the retention of Danny Barnes in Munster’s 12th midfield partnership of the season alongside Lifeimi Mafi was richly rewarded, with the 21-year-old Kiwi-born Tralee product augmenting an energetic all-round display with his first two tries for Munster.

Given the half-deserted backdrop, it was an incredibly patient and dominant, if workmanlike Munster performance. Four times in the first half they pounded away through 15, 12, 11 and 14 phases respectively before Barnes’ breakthrough score, which almost sparked relief as much as applause.

Almost devoid of offloading, they worked some clever secondary waves from deep but their game needed more variety. In the second half they did attack the Ospreys’ softer blind side – where they didn’t push up as hard – with some reward, but even so their only try of the second half was when Barnes charged down Richard Fussell’s attempted clearance to gather and round the posts.

That said, Munster created chances galore. Typical of his frustrating season, Mafi again didn’t quite deliver on his evident threat, and assuredly should have backed himself when opting for a pass outside with the line in sight and at full flow. By contrast, David Wallace ought really to have put Keith Earls over rather than back himself when stopped short in one of those interminable multi-phase attacks, although finally – despite slow ball – very good left to right hands and depth by Earls, Doug Howlett and Felix Jones put Barnes over for his first competitive Munster try.

Even then, on the stroke of half-time, Dan Biggar positioned himself underneath the ball when the ever-willing Wallace drove over the line. It wasn’t to be Wallace’s day, as he looked certain to score when snaffling turnover ball following a big hit by Ryan only for Richard Fussell to brilliantly target the ball when tackling Wallace as he dived for the line.

When Howlett was held up short, Denis Leamy picked and went to the blind side when there was no defensive pillar on the open side. Had they availed of one or two of those opportunities, they could well have thrashed Ospreys who brought plenty of willing tackling, if little else.

As the league’s leading try scorers, the Ospreys always carry that threat and Fussell pounced on Biggar’s clever grubber to give them a lifeline, but their creative and cutting edge is seriously reduced without their catalyst, Shane Williams, and once James Hook departed before half-time in his last outing before his imminent nuptials and lucrative move to Perpignan the only threat was Tommy Bowe (O’Gara making one wonderfully brave tackle to deny his Ireland team-mate a breakway try).

One or two of their other departing players looked to be going through the motions, most notably Jerry Collins, and while ridding themselves of their galacticos culture, from the outside the Ospreys look to be a franchise at the very least in transition. Nor, one imagines, would the promotion of co-tenants Swansea City to the Premiership, be of particular help.

Nigel Owens was on top of pretty much everything, but probably could have done the game as well as Munster a favour by following through on repeated warnings of a yellow card before eventually issuing one to Richard Hibbard for coming in from the side and kicking the ball, not once, but twice. His sinbinning was merited if only for stupidity.

Mind you, O’Gara has had cleverer moments than the one over two minutes beyond the 80 minute mark. After Peter Stringer and Donncha O’Callaghan had combined to engineer what seemed a decisive turnover, O’Gara was fed by Stringer for the routine kick dead. Instead, he kicked downfield to the corner, permitting the Ospreys to work themselves upfield for a further three minutes and the almost ridiculous threat of extra time. The end-game master looked a bit sheepish when it was finally all over.

Scoring sequence: 14 mins: O’Gara pen 3-0; 32: Barnes try 8-0; 38: Biggar pen 8-3; (half-time 8-3); 49: O’Gara pen 11-3; 56: Biggar pen 11-6; 57: Barnes try, O’Gara con 18-6; 79: Fussell try 18-11.

MUNSTER: F Jones; D Howlett, D Barnes, L Mafi, K Earls; R OGara, C Murray; M Horan, D Varley, J Hayes; D OCallaghan, P O’Connell capt; D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Replacements: M Sherry for Varley, W du Preez for Horan, P Stringer for Murray (all 56 mins), D Leamy for Coughlan (61 mins), S Archer for Hayes (62 mins), N Ronan for Leamy, S Zebo for Barnes (both 74 mins). Not used: P Warwick.

OSPREYS: R Fussell; T Bowe, A Bishop, J Hook, N Walker; D Biggar, R Webb; P James, H Bennett, A Jones, I Gough, A W Jones (Capt), R Jones, J Tipuric, J Thomas. Replacements: A Beck for Hook (38 mins), R Hibbard for Bennett, J Collins for Gough (both 47 mins), T Isaacs for Webb (54 mins), R Bevington for James (61 mins), M Holah for R Jones (64 mins), C Griffiths for A Jones, T Smith for Tipuric (both 72 mins). Sinbinned: Hibbard (48-58 mins).

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).