Munster dazed and confused as Thomond breached again
Another home defeat, in front of poor crowd at Thomond Park, keeps pressure on Foley
Munster’s Sean Dougall is tackled by Rhys before Paul O’Connell and Denis Hurley arrive to give a helping hand. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Munster 14 Ospreys 19
Tonight’s defeat, their second in four games this season, leaves Munster at sixth in the Pro12 table, a point below next Saturday night’s opposition at the Aviva, Leinster. The difference is that for Munster this was their second defeat in three league games at what has ceased to be their Thomond Park fortress.
Although a couple of late calls went against them, Munster could not have too many complaints given a penalty count of 14-7 in their favour. The Ospreys were the more polished side and controlled longer stretches of the game, while none too surprisingly Dan Biggar won the kicking duel with a five-from-five haul as the lead changed hands five times.
Anthony Foley had picked his trio of evergreen veterans, BJ Botha, Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell in his tight five and targeted solid set-pieces as an imperative if they were to subdue the high-flying Ospreys - who have long since been better than most at upsetting opposition scrum and line-out ball.
Helpfully for the home side, the Ospreys were forced into a late change in the front-row when tighthead Aaron Jarvis was forced to withdraw due to a tight hamstring. The 25-year-old Moldovan international Dmitri Arhip thus made his first start for the region, with 20-year-old Nicky Smith at loose-head.
Not surprisingly, Foley’s clarion call to the Red Army met with a limited response, though those in another crowd of barely 10,000 at least made themselves heard, at one point breaking into a rendition of Stand Up and Fight. Indeed, on an initially pleasant autumnal evening on a pristine surface, half way through this was a good quality game of rugby, albeit one increasingly influenced by a capricious breeze.
Foley and the Munster brains trust would have been content enough with the opening exchanges, as they kicked and chased into the wind with effect, Gerhard van den Heever countering with his quick feet, and they then marched down the field with four solid line-outs in a row. From the third, in a pre-planned move 30 metres out, Conor Murray chopped deftly for the chasing Andrew Conway to force Dan Evans to conceded an attacking line-out.
Although a cleverly varied line-out maul was repelled by the Welsh pack, Murray pulled the strings as Munster pummelled away close in before Ian Keatley’s double skip pass put the lively van den Heever over in the corner.
However, thereafter the Ospreys lorded the first half, dominating possession and territory. Their response was typical, patiently going through the phases themselves and exposing both a little softness and narrowness in Munster’s defence as first Josh Matavesi took a lovely out-and-in line and then Justin Tipuric did likewise when holding his depth and putting Jeff Hassler over with the deftest of left to right passes pulled across his body.
Dan Biggar, who has hit the ground running this season, landed a superb touchline conversion and, playing with the breeze, the outhalf varied his game beautifully; pinning Munster into the corner with a lovely touch finder and then banging over a scarcely believable 50-metre plus penalty wide to the right on half-way.
With their fast-up defence compressing Munster, who often went wide too early to end up behind the gain line, that was the least they deserved. Hence, while they were the better side for much of the half, the Ospreys would have been disappointed to be only two points up at the break. But that was their lot after first Hassler clumsily hit van den Heever in the air and then Baker came through too early on Murray for Keatley to close out the half by tapping over a penalty.
When Alun Wyn Jones, a miscreant in Munster’s march for the first try, then wrapped his hands around an aerial Paul O’Connell upon the resumption, as the rains arrived, Keatley duly nudged Munster ahead - O’Connell following that up with an important man-and-ball hit on Andrew Bishop.
Akin to the line-out march up the right touchline in the first half, Rynier Bernardo then paid for the sins of his second-row partner and for ill-advisedly grabbing Paddy Butler’s arm in mid-air to be binned for ten minutes and afford Keatley the chance to push Munster further ahead.
Not alone did he stroke the penalty wide in worsening conditions, but Munster failed to press home their advantage as they coughed up the ball and then saw their numerically superior pack penalised by referee Neil Hennessy for Biggar to tap over the penalty and put the Ospreys back in front.
Again Munster reverted to Murray’s box-kicking, Conway again chasing hard to force the spillage from Eli Walker as Sean Dougall latched onto the ball. Munster retained possession through the ensuing phases until Alun Wyn Jones was pinged once more - this time for side entry - and Keatley restored Munster’s one-point lead before Bernardo’s return.
Munster were soon on the back foot, and indebted to CJ Stander for a turnover penalty and James Cronin and Botha for a turnover scrum when holding up Hassler. However, this led to a huge shove by the Ospreys’ pack, re-enforced by Duncan Jones, which resulted with van den Heever being isolated and conceding the penalty from which Biggar pushed the visitors in front again.
Van den Heever was then even more ill-judged in getting ahead of the kicker for Biggar to land a fine penalty into the elements and leave Munster five points adrift. Inspired by a huge hit from O’Connell, and then Murray picking off a box-kick by Webb, they launched themselves furiously through the phases, with the young trio of loosehead Cronin, back-rower Jack O’Donoghue and JJ Hanrahan, confined to a cameo as an inside centre, all adding impact off the bench.
They even resorted, somewhat belatedly, to pick and go in the final throes, but first were denied by Mr Hennessy penalising Dave Foley for rucking beyond the gain line, a very curious call, and then Johne Murphy knocking on after Murray’s pass eluded Stander.
Tiny margins, and a trademark dramatic late win would have done wonders for their morale at a timely point in the season, but instead Munster are left a little dazed and confused after two home defeats out of three.
Scoring sequence: 11 mins van den Heever try 5-0; 15 mins Hassler try, Biggar con 5-7; 33 mins Biggar pen 5-10; 40 (+1) mins Keatley pen 8-10; (half-time 8-10); 42 mins Keatley pen 11-10; 54 mins Biggar pen 11-13; 57 mins Keatley pen 14-13; 66 mins Biggar pen 14-16; 70 mins Biggar pen 14-19.
Munster: Johne Murphy, Andrew Conway, Ivan Dineen, Denis Hurley, Gerhard van den Heever; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray (Capt); Dave Kilcoyne, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha; Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell; Paddy Butler, Sean Dougall, CJ Stander. Replacements: Dave Foley for O’Callaghan (54 mins), James Cronin for Cronin (59 mins), Andrew Smith for Hurley (64 mins), Jack O’Donoghue for Dougall (66 mins), JJ Hanrahan for Dineen (71 mins). Not used: Kevin O’Byrne, Stephen Archer, Duncan Williams.
Ospreys: Dan Evans; Jeff Hassler, Andrew Bishop, Josh Matavesi, Eli Walker; Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Nicky Smith, Scott Baldwin, Aaron Jarvis, Alun Wyn Jones (Capt), Rynier Bernardo, Joe Bearman, Justin Tipuric, Dan Baker. Replacements: James King for Tipuric (27 mins), Duncan Jones for Smith, Morgan Allen for Baker (both 57 mins), Hanno Dirksen for Matavesi (78 mins).
Referee: Neil Hennessy (WRU)