Gerry Thornley: Munster hold their nerve for dramatic win

Anthony Foley’s side ensure Champions Cup destiny remains in their own hands

Munster’s Simon Zebo scores a try during the Guinness Pro 12 game against Edinburgh. Photograph:   Billy Stickland/Inpho

Munster’s Simon Zebo scores a try during the Guinness Pro 12 game against Edinburgh. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho


Munster 27 Edinburgh 19

The faithful turned up and Munster’s bravery was rewarded. Playing with more ambition and cutting edge, Munster were full value for their win, as four tries to one would suggest, although ultimately they had to hold their nerve in a second half so taut that at times you could almost hear the air snap.

With their scrum again persistently incurring the disapproval of the officials, Munster had failed to add to their three first-half tries in seeing a 20-10 lead trimmed to a point. Whereupon they rolled up their sleeves as the pack resorted to their rolling maul, and a 77th-minute try by Francis Saili secured a bonus point and in the process denied Edinburgh one, thereby opening up a five-point gap over their Scottish opponents. A victory, of any hue, against the Scarlets in Thomond Park on Saturday will ensure Champions Cup rugby next season.

At scrum time, particularly, the officials only had eyes for Munster, and it needed the belated introduction of John Ryan to steady matters. Their clearing out was generally good and CJ Stander, as usual, provided some ball-carrying ballast and was particularly sharp off the base of the scrum when charging at the Edinburgh midfield, while Tommy O’Donnell appeared to be everywhere – tackling, clearing-out, carrying, counter-rucking and making steals.

Andrew Conway set Munster in motion with try-scoring passes for their first two tries and neatly dotting down the third himself. Johnny Holland provided plenty of assurance, as well as a sharp running game. Against all of that, Munster’s defence didn’t always inspire confidence, as it was far too passive and at times porous.

On a largely perfect evening for rugby Munster also had the perfect start. Niall Scannell made a fine steal on the deck inside Munster’s 22, and Conor Murray’s box kick was on the money for Conway to time his run and leap and outmuscle Blair Kinghorn for the ball in the air.

O’Donnell carried from the recycle and offloaded to Stander, before Keith Earls chased Holland’s ensuing kick into open territory for Billy Holland to claim the ball on the deck. From another O’Donnell carry, the Munster halves worked the ball to Conway, who offloaded out of the tackle for Rory Scannell to score. Holland, with his 14th successful kick in succession, landed the touchline conversion.

However, chinks soon began appearing in the Munster defence, as Dougie Fife (on early for Kinghorn) beat Saili’s flailing tackle in the build-up to a penalty by Jason Tovey, who soon after stepped between Niall Scannell and Stephen Archer and then sidestepped Simon Zebo to convert his own try. A hushed silence greeted Edinburgh taking a 10-7 lead.

To their credit, Munster re-grouped. A catch on the run by Stander, beating one man and bouncing another, led to Holland calming nerves with a 45-metre penalty, before Munster were rewarded for their ambition when attacking wide right off a scrum on their own 22.

When the ball reached Conway, he bounced Tom Brown before chipping Fife and Zebo showed a sharp turn of foot to gather the bouncing ball one-handed and finish one-handed by the corner flag.

Holland finally missed one with the conversion before making a break from deep. Although Stander was forced backwards off a retreating scrum, they worked their way through the phases, with strong carries by the Scannells, before Billy Holland gave the try-scoring offload to Conway, who stepped Brown. Again though, Johnny Holland missed the conversion.

Soon after Conway’s score, a rainbow arced over the ground, as if the €500,000-plus pot of gold that comes with qualification for the Champions Cup was looming more into view. Alas, no sooner had Tovey made it a one-score game from a scrum penalty than the heavens opened, and Munster were far from safe at half-time with a 20-13 lead.

After Edinburgh, buoyed by a double substitution, worked their way through multiple phases, Tovey made it a four-point game, and when Archer was penalised for a third scrum in a row Sam Hidalgo-Clyne made it a one-point game.

The Munster put together a monumental 40-metre lineout maul, but when it came down on the Edinburgh line, referee Ian Davies awarded the Scots a scrum, before Murray missed a penalty to touch and Zebo put a kick out on the full.

But their defensive maul won a turnover scrum and counter-rucking by James Cronin earned a turnover which turned into a penalty when Matt Scott didn’t roll away after a carry by Johnny Holland. Stander opted to twice go to the corner and Earls went into the back of the maul to claim what he believed was an unorthodox first try of the League this season. But the TMO didn’t concur.

Perhaps it worked out for the better. Ryan helped secure a steady scrum, and a few phases later Saili came onto the ball at serious pace to then be mauled over the line by Cronin, Ryan and others under the posts.

A taut night ended unusually when Billy Holland gathered Edinburgh’s 22 metre drop out, ran at Edinburgh, then thought better of it, swivelled and hoofed the ball dead.

Munster’s team and crowd alike could breath a little easier, the two applauding each other to the night’s final rendition of Stand Up and Fight. The Cork leg of the double completed, now it’s over to Limerick.

SCORING SEQUENCE: 7 mins R Scannell try, J Holland con 7-0; 15 mins Tovey pen 7-3; 19 mins Tovey try and con 7-10; 22 mins J Holland pen 10-10; 27 mins Zebo try 15-10; 34 mins Conway try 20-10; 38 mins Tovey pen 20-13; (half-time 20-13); 44 mins Tovey pen 20-16; 65 mins Hidaglo-Clyne pen 20-19; 77 mins Saili try, J Holland con 27-19.

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Johnny Holland, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Dave Foley, Billy Holland; Dave O’Callaghan, Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander (capt).

Replacements: James Cronin for Cronin (55 mins), Mike Sherry for N Scannell (58 mins), Robin Copeland for Foley (63 mins), John Ryan for Archer (69 mins), Jack O’Donoghue for O’Callaghan (75 mins). Not used: Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, Ronan O’Mahony.

EDINBURGH: Blair Kinghorn; Damien Hoyland, Matt Scott, Andries Strauss, Tom Brown; Jason Tovey, Sean Kennedy; Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford (capt), WP Nel; Anton Bresler, Ben Toolis; Jamie Ritchie, John Hardie, Cornell du Preez.

Replacements: Dougie Fife for Kinghorn (10 mins), Stuart McInally for Ford, Chris Dean for Brown (both half-time), Magnus Bradbury for Ritchie (53 mins), Sam Hidalgo-Clyne for Kennedy (55 mins), Rory Sutherland for Dickonson (58 mins), John Andress for Nel, Alex Toolis for Bresler (69 mins).

Referee: Ian Davies (Wales).

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