Thursday 26 April 2018

Saili sparkles as Zebo's wonder-try helps Munster ease into PRO12 final

Munster 23 Ospreys 3

20 May 2017; Simon Zebo of Munster celebrates with team-mates after scoring his side's second try during the Guinness PRO12 semi-final between Munster and Ospreys at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
20 May 2017; Simon Zebo of Munster celebrates with team-mates after scoring his side's second try during the Guinness PRO12 semi-final between Munster and Ospreys at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It has been a long and difficult season for everyone involved in Munster Rugby but next week at the Aviva, they will get a chance to end it in the most fitting way possible.

The Ospreys generally don't like playing at Thomond Park and they endured another Guinness PRO12 semi-final defeat as Munster outfought and outsmarted them all over the pitch.

For all the possession that the Welsh side enjoyed, the Munster defence, which has been excellent this season, soaked up the pressure and struck for two killer blows in either half.

Francis Saili bade a fond farewell to Thomond Park in stunning fashion with an electric performance that again highlighted just what he is capable of on his day.

It was the All Black centre's 25th minute try that ensured Munster ended a scrappy first half 8-3 in front but his contribution to Simon Zebo's second half score was just as important. Zebo ran clear to score a stunning breakaway try that began with Saili making a break deep inside his own 22.

For all the flashes of brilliance from the backs, it was the Munster pack that provided the platform for victory. The front-row in particular put in a huge shift while Donnacha Ryan bowed out of the Limerick venue with a typically excellent performance.

After Leinster were ripped to shreds by the Scarlets last night, the real value of finishing top of the table was seen as they avoided the only team to have beaten them in Limerick this season.

If they are to end their six-year wait for a trophy, they will have to win at the Aviva, something that they have failed to do in their two attempts this season, against a quality Scarlets side.

Andrew Conway sealed the win with a try in the corner late on but by that stage, the Ospreys had thrown in the towel and Munster minds were already turning to the decider.

The home side were slow out of the traps and when they were pinged for offside, Dan Biggar's sweetly struck penalty from wide on the left flank put the visitors in front after seven minutes.

Saili is a player who clearly thrives on the harder surface and although the rain bucketed down in Limerick, he again showed flashes of what he is capable of. Munster supporters never consistently saw the best of Saili and while there is no doubting his quality, he enjoyed his final try at Thomond Park.

Conor Murray's clever reverse pass was brilliantly read by Keith Earls who had the Ospreys defence scrambling to cover. The ball was worked out wide and Rory Scannell did brilliantly to keep the ball alive for Saili who powered over from close range.

It was a rare moment of quality in an otherwise poor half that will not live long in the memory. Tyler Bleyendaal's conversion came back off the upright as the stadium PA reminded the crowd of the tradition to respect the kicker. But what followed was bizarre.

Conway was penalised for a high tackle on Tom Habberfield and as Biggar struck the resulting penalty, another attempt to put off the kicker sounded out from the East Stand.

Again, the PA announcer stressed the tradition but with the crowd furious with the offender, he was pointed out to the relevant authorities and then appeared to be led out of the stadium by a member of An Garda Siochana. Certainly a new one for us.

Anyway, back to action on the pitch and the Ospreys continued to dominate possession without every really troubling the Munster defence, which Jacques Nienaber must again take huge credit for.

The home side's front-row slowly began to gain the upper-hand and when Biggar's sloppy knock-on resulted in a scrum, the Munster trio got the shove on and won the penalty. It felt like a big moment.

Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan have all enjoyed fine seasons and could yet line out together for Ireland next month. Joe Schmidt will have been pleased with what he saw.

The Ospreys lost their No 8 James King to injury as Muster continued to go after their scrum. Just as the drab half was drawing to a close, Munster injected another level of intensity and were rewarded for it.

Zebo was stopped short of the line before Donnacha Ryan was denied his farewell Thomond Park try but when the Ospreys failed to roll away, Bleyendaal, without any distracting voices from the crowd, kicked Munster into an 8-3 half time lead.

Bleyendaal's influence was beginning to grow and a lovely left footed dink in behind the defence 10 minutes after the restart pinned the Ospreys back deep in their own 22.

To their credit, they repelled the Munster wave and they might have scored a try of their own shortly after had Ashley Beck's wild pass not floated straight into touch with a two-man overlap.

Just before the hour mark, CJ Stander thought he was over for that crucial second try. Bleyendaal blocked down an attempted kick through and when the rebound fell kindly for Murray, he went haring deep into Ospreys 22.

Bleyendaal linked well with Earls and Stander was sure he was over the line but after consulting his TMO, referee Luke Pearce ruled that he was held up.

Munster didn't have to wait long for that second try however and it was certainly one worth waiting for. Again, it was Saili who sparked the Munster attack into life.

Rather than take the easy option from inside his own 22, Saili cleverly worked enough space to release Earls down the left wing. Earls fed Murray who had Conway outside of him and he in turn found Zebo who did brilliantly to collect the ball and finish off a quite stunning team try.

Bleyendaal added the extras for a 15-3 lead as the Ospreys looked all out of ideas. The Kiwi added a penalty for good measure before they ran in the third insurance try.

Munster's back three caused problems all evening and Conway's dancing feet did so again as he somehow got over in the corner with five minutes left on the clock.

Keelan Giles thought he got over for a consolation try in the dying stages but Saili did just enough to force him into touch. It was a fitting way to end what was another remarkable defensive shift from Munster.

The Scarlets are now the only ones who stand in Munster's way as they look to finish a hugely testing season on a perfect note.

 

Munster - S Zebo; A Conway ((B Scott 76), F Saili, R Scannell (J Taute 55), K Earls (I Keatley 70); T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams 74); D Kilcoyne, N Scannell (R Marshall 67), J Ryan (S Archer 55); D Ryan, B Holland (J O'Donoghue 70); P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell (J Deysel 63), CJ Stander.

Ospreys - D Evans; K Giles, K Fonotia, A Beck, T Habberfield; D Biggar (S Davies 63), B Leonard (J Baker 65); N Smith (P James 68), S Baldwin (S Otten 53), R Jones (D Suter 63); B Davies (L Ashley 68), AW Jones (capt); S Underhill, J Tipuric, J King (O Cracknell 36).

REF - L Pearce (England)

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