Sunday 24 September 2017

Rampaging Reds save best for last

Munster 38 Edinburgh 6

Peter O'Mahony, Munster, is congratulated by Ian Keatley, right, and Tommy O'Donnell
Peter O'Mahony, Munster, is congratulated by Ian Keatley, right, and Tommy O'Donnell
Paddy Butler, Munster, wins possession in a lineout
Simon Zebo, Munster, is tackled by Willem Nel, Edinburgh
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

No sooner had Peter O'Mahony barrelled over for Munster's fourth try midway through the second-half of this rout of Edinburgh then the province's fans turned their thoughts to events in Clermont Auvergne, calculators at the ready.

Minds switched to the first weekend in April and who would be marking Limerick's year as city of culture with a visit.

How fitting that in what could be the final year of this competition's existence two of the teams to have contributed most to its success will meet at Thomond Park for the first time.

Neither Munster nor Toulouse are at the heights they were when they won four titles in six years between 2005 and 2010 (meeting in the 2008 final), but this remains a clash to set the mouths watering in both rugby citadels.

Rob Penney likes to call it "growth" and certainly Munster's performance in beating Edinburgh showed more signs of that as they ran in six tries, with backs and forwards gelling in a way that has often been tried during the New Zealander's reign, but hasn't always come off.

Top of the Pro12 and with a home last-eight clash in the bag, they break for the internationals in a good place and after arguably their most complete display of the campaign. They were helped by an Edinburgh side whose interest in the tournament was minimal and whose defence was porous at vital stages.

For all the talk of their their recent revival, the Scots are still a pretty average outfit, but Munster still had to put in a performance and score four tries at least to get into the top four seeds. They delivered in spades.

Life was made easier by Zebre's refusal to succumb easily to Toulouse on Saturday and that meant the task ahead was simple. Four tries would mean staying at home.

With Tommy O'Donnell putting in a timely Sean O'Brien-esque display at openside, before reporting for Ireland duty last night, and the exiled Simon Zebo looking fit and giving a reminder of what he can do off the bench, Munster were always dangerous and had two of the tries they needed by half-time through James Coughlan and Johne Murphy.

They lost their way a bit after losing Keith Earls before half-time, but with blindside Cornell du Preez somewhat harshly sent to the sin-bin during the final play before the break, they came out of the blocks to blow the Scottish side away, with Conor Murray and O'Mahony relieving the pressure by scoring the tries needed.

Munster have won 11 of their last 12 games since losing to the same opponents in round one back in October, winning all five of their remaining pool games.

Those wins came from all sorts of different performances, but this was the best of the bunch and Penney was delighted to get so many of his first choice backline on to the field -- even if losing Keith Earls to a knee injury was an unfortunate moment.

CAULDRON

"It's massive, really," the coach said of securing a home quarter-final. "Thomond Park is a cauldron and a difficult place for any team to come and play and to have that opportunity to play one more European cup game on our home ground is great. It's a wonderful reward for the fans' efforts.

"We've got some good boys coming back on stream (from injury), which helps the depth and the understanding and the playing talent level. The ground and weather conditions were conducive, the preparation was really well done and so that's probably what led to the more complete performance. Some good things happened today."

Down 3-0 thanks to Greig Laidlaw's second attempt on seven minutes, Paul O'Connell eased any early nerves by claiming Ian Keatley's pin-point restart and surging into Edinburgh territory. Damien Varley took on the baton and, spotting an overlap, Murray moved the ball left, where Murphy fed Coughlan and he sailed over.

With the bit between their teeth, the Reds pushed on and although a fine piece of back play ended with a Casey Laulala knock-on, Dave Kilcoyne forced a penalty from the scrum and O'Mahony instructed Keatley to kick for the corner.

A clever move saw O'Connell get close to the line and the forwards had a couple of goes before Izak van der Westhuizen strayed offside. Munster went for the scrum, forced a penalty and re-set before failing to control the ball; Murray made the best of it, popping to Murphy, who cut inside David Denton and Roddy Grant to score. With 22 minutes gone, they were halfway there but a wayward Varley pass put Earls under pressure and his knee buckled in Dougie Fife's tackle.

Zebo came on and his most telling contribution was in stopping Laidlaw short of the line, while du Preez saw yellow for a dangerous attempted clearout of O'Connell during the final play.

That gave Munster the opening they needed and O'Donnell led the way, slicing the defence open before feeding Stephen Archer, who moved it wide where Coughlan made yards down the left. Kilcoyne had a nibble, before Murray stepped inside the cover to edge them nearer that bonus.

Then came the pivotal fourth try and how fitting it was that O'Mahony was the one who rumbled through three tacklers to touch down after some sparkling Zebo feet got them moving.

The out-of-favour Ireland wing then got over unscathed in the corner after more brilliant work from O'Donnell, before laying on the final pass for Felix Jones' touch-down. That was the six tries and all that was left was to wait.

As the Irish players headed to camp and those on standby wait for a call, it was a timely reminder of what the players can do and Penney echoed Keatley's comments that the shortage of Munster players in Joe Schmidt's set-up was a motivating factor.

"There's a few boys in this group who probably believe that they should be getting a crack with Joe," he said.

"It's not something we dwell on. We probably talk more individually with the guys about their pathway to their own personal successes on the back of the team success. It's a simple adage.

"It's something that's not new, but if we keep preaching it, then ultimately it becomes part of your culture and something that if you live that day to day and you're performing well and you're getting results, then higher honours will come on the back of that, as opposed to trying to do anything special yourself."

That message earned them a home quarter-final and it should stand to them in April.

MUNSTER -- F Jones; K Earls (S Zebo 25), C Laulala, J Downey (JJ Hanrahan 53), J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray (D Williams 70); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 60), D Varley (D Casey 67), S Archer (BJ Botha 59); D Foley, P O'Connell (Donncha O'Callaghan 67); P O'Mahony (capt) (P Butler 67-77), T O'Donnell, J Coughlan.

EDINBURGH -- J Cuthbert; D Fife, N De Luca, B Atiga (J Dominguez 53-59), T Brown; G Tonks (C Bezuidenhout 60), G Laidlaw (capt) (G Hart 60); A Dickinson (L Blaauw 67), R Ford, W Nel (G Cross 60); G Gilchrist, I Van Der Westhuizen (O Atkins 49); C Du Preez, R Grant (T Leonardi 59) (W Nel 80), D Denton.

Ref -- W Barnes (RFU)

Irish Independent

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