Glasgow 16 Munster 15
This one will hurt Munster physically and mentally. It’s not losing, it’s not principally the one-point margin, but rather the manner of the defeat. It would be wrong to say that Munster should have won this match but they could have and that will smart.
They were brave, they were faithful to the patterns they have adopted over the past two seasons but the weaknesses that occasionally pockmark their performances once again surfaced in this RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final at Scotstoun. The lateral movement, touchline to touchline, the handling errors, periodically the game management, saw them come up a whisker short.
There was no faulting the application, the character they displayed was immense buy they couldn’t produce that continuity, the cold-blooded accuracy often enough when the chances arose to inflict serious damage on a teetering home side.
Glasgow Warriors had never won a play-off game in the RaboDirect Pro12 until last night and that anxiety was obvious as they struggled to close out the match. The Scottish side called time on Rob Penney's tenure as Munster coach in what will be remembered largely as a brutal, muscular contest.
This was a ninth consecutive victory for the Scottish franchise, elongating a club record sequence of wins.
Winning energises a team mentally and physically and there was a bristling intensity and confidence in the manner in which Glasgow discharged their patterns. The home side were slightly more precise in possession and aggressive at the contact points of tackle and breakdown in particular. They carried the ball ferociously and thundered into tackles yet could so easily have lost this game. They survived by tiny margins, none more so than Simon Zebo's try that wasn't, something to which Munster coach Rob Penney alluded afterwards.
There were a number of monumental performances from Munster players, James Downey, CJ Stander, Zebo's work-rate, Ian Keatley's line kicking, Damien Varley and Paul O'Connell's willingness to take punishment to get their side going forward.
They were matched by Glasgow players, the back five in the pack was immense, particularly in contact where Rob Harley and Jonny Gray stood out, while Leone Nakarawa and Niko Matawalu made a huge impact when introduced.
A record crowd just shy of 10,000 played their part, a screaming, blue faced presence that railed against every decision that didn’t go their way. They almost dragged the team over the finishing line by sheer willpower, as Munster threatened to pen yet another of those improbable victories. Luck is a precious commodity on occasions like these.
Munster lost Casey Laulala and Felix Jones inside the first half hour – Glasgow also lost a brace of players in that first half – and were also denied a try when Zebo’s lunge and grounding didn’t satisfy the television match official Carlo Damasco.
He had a pivotal influence on the opening 40 minutes, awarding Damien Varley a try as the Munster captain wriggled under sundry Glasgow defenders from a couple of yards, improved upon by Ian Keatley. The footage on the big screen wasn’t conclusive one way or the other but the fact the Glasgow players were huddled close to the posts suggested they feared the worst.
Zebo’s near miss was the end product of the most cohesive and precise snapshot of rugby that Munster mustered in the first half, the genesis of which came from clever lines taken and good decisions taken by CJ Stander, Felix Jones and Sean Dougall, in that order, to break the Glasgow defence wide open.
The visitors battered away before Zebo tried to burrow over. At that point the Irish province led 7-3 but a failure to heed Italian referee Marius Mitrea at the breakdown, saw them consistently penalised for not releasing in the tackle and later in the half BJ Botha was adjudged to be going in on the angle.
Glasgow’s young outhalf Finn Russell kicked three penalties from four attempts to nudge his side into a slender 9-7 lead at the interval.
The next score was important in terms of setting the tone for the second half and it went to Glasgow on 45 minutes. Russell’s gorgeous grubber to within metres of the Munster line, established the field position and the home side then turned over a lineout, to win a scrum.
The pack did a little softening up before replacement prop Gordon Reid squeezed over. Russell’s conversion was a beauty.
At 16-7 down the home side threatened to kick on but Munster’s courage and sheer bloody-mindedness ensured they would not buckle. For the second time in the match on 50 minutes they produced a wonderfully accurate passage of play; Downey and Stander crashing through blue line and Sean Dougall forcing his way over. Keatley failed with the conversion but added a penalty on 64 minutes to make it a one point game at 16-15.
They key was to replicate the direct manner which has led to their two tries but even when they made territorial inroads, a handling error or being isolated in possession would cost them the ball and territory.
A loose pass almost allowed Glasgow wing Tommy Seymour a try but Zebo got back to make a despairing tackle. Munster rallied for one final assault but their progress was largely lateral as they threw themselves against a line of blue clad jerseys, until the visitors had nowhere to go but the touchline, finishing as they started.
Scoring sequence 9 mins: Varley try, Keatley conversion, 0-7; 16: Russell penalty, 3-7; 35: Russell penalty, 6-7; 38: Russell penalty, 9-7. Half-time: 9-7. 45: Reid try, Russell conversion, 16-7; 50: Dougall try, 16-12; 64: Keatley penalty, 16-15.
Glasgow Warriors: P Murchie; S Maitland, M Bennett, A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell, C Cusiter; R Grant, D Hall, J Welsh; J Gray, A Kellock (capt); R Harley, C Fusaro, J Strauss. Replacements: G Reid for Grant 25 mins; L Nakawara for Strauss 30 mins; P McArthur for Hall 52 mins; G Cross for Welsh 52 mins; T Swinson for Kellock 57 mins; N Matawalu for Cusiter 65 mins; R Jackson for Bennett 65 mins; S Lamont for Fusaro 71 mins.
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), BJ Botha; P O'Connell, D Foley; CJ Stander, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Replacements: A Conway for Laulala 9 mins; JJ Hanrahan for Jones 37 mins; P Butler for Dougall 61 mins; D O'Callaghan for Foley 65 mins; J Cronin for Kilcoyne 65 mins; Q MacDonald. Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)