Thursday 26 April 2018

Munster flirt with danger before embracing victory

Scarlets 14 Munster 17


Watching Munster these days is an adrenalin-pumping sport all of its own. For the third Heineken Cup match in succession, they flirted with danger before edging to a narrow victory that was yet another testament to the flinty character of this team.

"It's a hell of a win for us and we are absolutely thrilled with it, but we are fully aware it's only half-time," admitted Munster captain Paul O'Connell. "From our point of view there is nothing like a loss to focus the mind so I'd imagine next week will be an incredibly tough game."

It must have been a roller-coaster ride for Munster's fans. Their team overcame a terrible start to seemingly take control of the match before almost having it snatched from their grasp in the dying minutes of the match. Once again when their need was greatest they came up trumps to just about hold on, but this precious away victory didn't look likely after a fairly shambolic opening quarter.

The Scarlets are a young, exciting team that thrives on confidence, and they were allowed to build some early on because Munster simply didn't play with the necessary intensity in the opening exchanges of the match. This gave the home team the initiative, and the Welsh side made the most of it by scoring a try after just five minutes.

That early setback was surely all the more frustrating for Munster coach Tony McGahan because it was a self-inflicted wound. It was centre Will Chambers who was clumsy with the razor, flipping a desperately poor pass under little pressure to the feet of Simon Zebo who knocked the ball on. Scarlets winger Liam Williams hacked the ball into the gaping space behind the Munster defensive line, and flanker Aaron Shingler was quickest to follow it up and dive over for the softest of tries.

Rhys Priestland missed the conversion, but made amends shortly afterwards when he kicked a penalty that eased his team into an 8-0 lead. Munster were lucky that Llanelli also seemed afflicted by the contagion that made the match such a frantic, messy affair. The home team too were making plenty of handling errors and playing with little composure or direction.

The match finally settled down when O'Gara kicked a penalty for Munster, and from that first finger-hold the visitors suddenly took a firm grip on the game. Three minutes later, they were level thanks to a cracking try. O'Gara started the move and the ball moved swiftly through the hands of Peter O'Mahony and Johne Murphy before it was flipped to flanker Niall Ronan who roared past Rhys Priestland and Matthew Rees to touch down in the corner.

Another O'Gara penalty gave Munster a three-point half-time lead, and his steady boot put even greater daylight between the teams in the second half as Munster eased 17-11 ahead. The home team responded by introducing three substitutes who immediately brought a new energy to their cause. Stephen Jones was one of them, and his introduction meant Priestland moved to fullback where he made an instant impression with two slashing runs that cut the Munster defence to ribbons.

His second incursion deep into enemy territory earned a penalty when Munster transgressed at the breakdown, and when Jones slotted it, Scarlets were within three points again at 17-14. The Scarlets had their tails up now, and it looked like they would surely score a game-breaking try when they set up camp in the Munster 22, but some desperate defending kept them at bay for phase after phase until eventually the four-minute siege was lifted when Stephen Jones knocked the ball on.

From the resulting scrum Munster once again smashed the Scarlets set-piece to smithereens, and when O'Gara kicked a booming penalty to touch past the half-way line, you could see Welsh heads drop all over the pitch.

Munster weren't going to lose it from here. They stuck the ball up their jumper for the remaining five minutes and got out of Dodge with a victory that represents a massive step on the road to the knockout stages.

"It was a really hard-fought win," said O'Connell. "We started really poorly and when you start like that against a team like the Scarlets, with the calibre of player they have, you get punished and that's what happened.

"They scored an early try and a penalty and we were probably lucky they missed two kicks at goal, but we settled down then. I thought our pack was excellent. We got a lot of yardage from our scrum and some points from our scrum.

"It's massively important we have got a home game next but it's not like we are running away with any games.

"Every game is a fight to the death at the moment and every game is a battle. There is no danger of us getting ahead of ourselves. We know how close the games are and we will be fully focused against the Scarlets next week."

Scarlets head coach Nigel Davies rued his side's failure to take their chances but said they would look forward to the return encounter at Thomond Park.

"It's a tough place to go but we will go there all guns blazing as we did against Northampton," he said. "We have got the team to beat them. We will go out there and give it a crack but we have to be sharper and more accurate."

Scarlets: D Newton (S Jones 57); L Williams (V Iongi 76), S Williams, J Davies, S Lamont; R Priestland, G Davies (T Knoyle); I Thomas (K Owens 62) M Rees (P John 62), R Thomas (D Manu 75); S Timani (K Murphy 62), D Welch; A Shingler (J Edwards 45), R McCusker, B Morgan.

Munster: D Hurley; J Murphy, W Chambers (D Barnes 55), L Mafi, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray (T O'Leary); W du Preez (M Horan 75) , D Varley, BJ Botha (J Hayes 76); D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 55), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (D Leamy h-t), N Ronan, J Coughlan.

Referee: R Poite (France)

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