Munster copper-fasten Champions Cup rugby with impressive win over Scarlets
Munster 31 Scarlets 15
Published 07/05/2016 | 17:20
In the end, results elsewhere allowed Munster to breather a sigh of relief but there was something about doing it by their own steam that mattered.
A five-try bonus point win did that much and, although it may not have always convincing, there was a quiet desperation about Munster's elemental desire where for much of the season there has been just desperation.
Oddly enough, three of their five tries came against the run of play but stout defence when it was required and clinical finishing when it was necessary backboned this triumph.
Their three Irish rivals will battle for title honours but Munster, who finished level with Scarlets - albeit sixth having won one game less - will not play another game this season.
They will begin the campaign next season with a new coach, a new approach and, their supporters hope, a renewed determination to be at the cutting edge of things in May.
Munster led 14-12 at the break, scoring two tries, the first an audacious length of the field effort finished by Keith Earls - the second came from Rory Scannell - from just two attacks as the visitors dominated territory and possession from which their three Steven Shingler's three penalties derived.
Despite losing six players to injury in the opening hour - including Simon Zebo and Conor Murray - Munster played much better in the second-half but their third try just before the hour came against the run of play too, through one of their replacements, Ronan O'Mahony.
They secured the bonus point try from their player of the season, CJ Stander, with ten minutes left and the extra four required from the win was all but inevitable at that stage; Scannell would add a second in injury time.
With results elsewhere also aiding their cause, their Champions Cup qualification, which had in reality never seemed so certain for much of this season, was all but confirmed.
The final whistle at once signified relief that this season had ended and that next season may, perhaps, provide something a bit more glorious than an undignified scrap to the final day in an attempt to avoid ignominy.
Munster have lamented mistakes all season and just to remind us they committed hat-trick of them in the opening minutes, Conor Murray kicking poorly, Tommy O'Donnell missing a tackle in the case before Andrew Conway knocked on while taking an innocuous high ball.
And so Scarlets owned the ball for the opening ten minutes, taking quick lineouts and making yardage easily; the day as down and dirty, spitting with rain and the visitors, backed by the breeze, were prepared despite their garish jerseys.
Munster lost Duncan Casey and Tommy O'Donnell for early HIA assessments; then Johnny Holland was guilty of over-indulging with his exit strategy, forcing Dave O'Callaghan to become isolated at a subsequent ruck.
Scarlets led 3-0 with Steve Shingler's penalty and Thomond Park dipped into eerie silence.
The visitors won the restart and started all over again, working multiple phases towards the home 22 and looking like they were in perfect control of their strategy.
Then, from nothing, a glorious exhalation of relief; Jack O'Donoghue, O'Donnell's replacement, thumped a front-row as the visitors probed and suddenly the ball was free; with a gaping blindside, so too were Munster.
As the crowd exhorted them to play, they did; Francis Saili found the ball in his hands and Keith Earls outside him but, he felt, too close.
With the defence splintered, but still in his 22, he dinked a beautiful little chip to his right and the Moyross man collected it and, in the next movement, sidestepped past two defenders and scooted home for a try beneath the posts, converted by Holland, settling his nerves for an unlikely 7-3 lead.
Scarlets almost regained the lead in even more unlikely circumstances when Nigel Owens failed to notice, as everyone else in the ground had, that Hadleigh Parkes' attempted try-scoring pass to Steffan Evans was a yard - at least - forward.
Mercifully, as the crowd hooted derisively, a word in his ear and a belated TV replay encouraged Owens, in the two minutes available to him, to scratch the try almost as Shingler was timing is run to add the extras.
Freed from this latest scare, Munster mounted their second attack of the afternoon in the 26th minute and promptly scored their second try; Rory Scannell finishing from close range, Holland converting from close range.
Shingler's penalty brace sandwiched the scores but this was quite the exercise in efficiency from a home side who were being forced to play almost the entire game within the confines of their 22.
Scarlets were at least getting occasional reward for their territorial domination and, when Saili was trapped beneath a maul after an attempted choke tackle - how could he possibly emerge? - Shingler narrowed the margin to the minimum.
But with the wind, and the increasingly vocal support behind them, one expected a starkly different narrative to emerge after the break.
From the restart, Munster immediately declared their intent, Earls smashing Gareth Owen in the tackle and forcing the first kickable penalty chance of the day for his out-half. Unfortunately, Holland's connection was poor and the kick was dragged wide to the right.
His next action was to bravely take a high ball but he crumpled to the turf in despair, his right ankle seeming to give way on impact.
Munster had another let-off from Owens when the Welsh whistler perused a video replay, when Shingler attempted a cheeky chip and chase in trying to score a try, before adjudging that Stephen Archer had not tripped up his opponent.
Scarlets were still dominating the possession but Munster's line speed was far more impressive than it had been and their first-up tackling and efforts to slow up opposing ruck ball stemmed much of the visitors' momentum.
With Ulster hacking up in Wales, Scarlets knew their hopes of a play-off spot were dwindling and, all the while, Munster were increasing their foot-hold in the game.
Deep in the third quarter, they mauled their way to within inches of the Scarlets' line before a penalty gave them another chance to drive close in but Mike Sherry undid his positive impact a a replacement by skewing his throw.
Munster were caught between playing territory and playing football; they would have been better advised to stick to the former.
The sight of Conor Murray with what looked like a damaged lateral ligament in his left knee, which he tried to run off before succumbing just before the hour, invested more anxiety as if the occasion wasn't already brimful of the stuff.
In keeping with the theme of the day, though, Munster scored their third try out of absolutely nothing on the hour.
When a Scarlets move broke down on half-way and looking dangerous, Johnny Barclay dithered and in stepped Rory Scannell to gather, off-loading to Ronan O'Mahony who scampered hard by the right touch line to score the second breakaway try of the day.
The casualties were rising all the time, though, and Simon Zebo and Dave Foley both limped off, meaning Munster had used six of their replacements in 63 minutes.
A scrum penalty gave Scarlets their opening score of the second-half, reducing the margin to 19-15 in the 65th minute.
It was fitting that one of the final words of a difficult season should go to their player of the season, CJ Stander, who buried the ball on the try-line after a maul that reminded one of some racuous old days at this ground.
And he delivered the final pass for Scannell's third, and Munster's fifth, as the clock went dead and his side's Champions Cup hopes stayed alive.
Munster dearly hope that some semblance of those glory days can return sooner, rather, than later. At least they are dining at the top table next term, rather than scratching around for scraps.
Munster - S Zebo (I Keatley 64); A Conway (R O'Donoghue 38), F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray (D Williams 58); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 56), N Scannell (M Sherry 5), S Archer (J Ryan 71); D Foley (R Copeland 62), B Holland; D O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell (J O'Donoghue 8), CJ Stander (capt).
Scarlets - L Williams; G Owen, S Hughes, H Parkes, S Evans (A Thomas 73); S Shingler, A Davies (G Davies 53); R Evans (D Evans 76), K Owens (capt), P Edwards (R Jones 69); J Ball, D Bulbring (M Allen 55); L Rawlins (T Price 64), J Davies, J Barclay.
Ref - N Owens (WRU)