Sunday 22 April 2018

Keatley steers kids to victory

Munster 19 Scarlets 7

24 March 2018; Ian Keatley of Munster is tackled by Tadhg Beirne and Aaron Shingler of Scarlets during the Guinness PRO14 Round 18 match between Munster and Scarlets at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
24 March 2018; Ian Keatley of Munster is tackled by Tadhg Beirne and Aaron Shingler of Scarlets during the Guinness PRO14 Round 18 match between Munster and Scarlets at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

For openers, Munster coach Johann van Graan didn't have to dwell too long on the selection of his side to play Scarlets in Thomond Park last night. With an entire backline missing - Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Jaco Taute, Chris Farrell, Tyler Bleyendaal and Duncan Williams - his options were limited. In their absence Ian Keatley, less than a week away from his 31st birthday and with seven Tests to his credit, was the grand old man surrounded by kids. There are doubts now over Rory Scannell and Tommy O'Donnell after this contest.

So when he looked across at the Scarlets, and six of their players back from the Six Nations campaign, he might have wondered if this was going to be a long night. And for fully 40 minutes it looked to be just that.

Tom Williams of Scarlets in action against Alex Wootton of Munster. Photo: Sportsfile
Tom Williams of Scarlets in action against Alex Wootton of Munster. Photo: Sportsfile

Typically Scarlets came to play, and that means wide rugby. Not crazy stuff, but a bit of chess - dragging opponents out of position and then making them run. Had they carried a bit more edge about the way they did their business they might have finished in profit. Instead they went home with not even a losing bonus.

It was bizarre stuff, with the TMO working flat-out to keep up with the referrals from referee Marius Mitrea. Four Munster touchdowns were sent upstairs - two came back positive. Never mind turning the game around in the second half with the grunt of their forwards, they will probably rue missing the bonus point.

So it was thumbs down for Alex Wootton; thumbs up for James Hart; then down again for James Cronin; and up again for Wootton. Those four incidents were neatly split into each half. But it was the try from man of the match Robin Copeland that was the critical intervention.

Munster, despite falling off the edge of the earth on territory and possession in the first half - where Scarlets went ahead after seven minutes through Aled Davies - trailed by only 7-5 at the break. Maybe the Welsh side figured it would all work out in the end so comfortable did they look on the ball, and how uncomfortable Munster appeared trying to close down the wide channels.

Alex Wootton of Munster scores his side's second try despite the efforts of Scott Williams and Tom Varndell of Scarlets. Photo: Sportsfile
Alex Wootton of Munster scores his side's second try despite the efforts of Scott Williams and Tom Varndell of Scarlets. Photo: Sportsfile

But something was lost in the translation from possession to points, and when Rhys Patchell hit the post with a penalty late in the half it summed up their imbalance. It was Copeland who had coughed up that penalty, with a daft challenge on Aled Davies at the base of a ruck, but the number eight atoned eight minutes into the second period.

First he broke up a threatening Scarlets attack in his own 22, and then he got on the end of aggressive and direct carrying by the home forwards to score at the far end. Keatley added the points to give his team a lead they would never lose.

Gradually Munster's control up front increased, and when they got a scrum penalty just before changing their front row it threw light on the road ahead for them.

Losing Scannell and O'Donnell, the latter with a serious-looking shoulder injury didn't help, though Dave O'Callaghan came on and did very well at flanker. Scannell didn't look too bad but O'Donnell might be in more serious bother.

"I'm not a doctor but I'm sure he's going to be out for a long time," Van Graan said. "Credit to the players on the field. They found solutions and did very well in the second half."

Cronin was another man to come off the bench and leave his mark. His disallowed try on 66 minutes summed up the difference between the teams. With two men outside he couldn't get the pass away, carried instead, and got the touchdown only to be done for a borderline double movement. Had it been Scarlets they would have expected to score wide.

And then it was width that made the game safe for Munster. A terrific pass from replacement Stephen Fitzgerald put Wootton free with a few minutes left. Of course it went upstairs. And came back positive.

Scorers - Munster: Hart, Copeland, Cronin try each; Keatley 2 cons. Scarlets: Davies try, Patchell con.

Munster: JJ Hanrahan; C Nash (S Fitzgerald 73), S Arnold, R Scannell, A Wootton; I Keatley, J Hart (J Stafford 79); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin 54), R Marshall (N Scannell 54), J Ryan (S Archer 54), J Kleyn (G Grobler 69), B Holland (capt), J O'Donoghue, R Copeland, T O'Donnell (D O'Callaghan 48).

Scarlets: T Williams (D Jones 63); T Varndell, S Williams (capt), P Asquith, S Evans; R Patchell, A Davies (J Evans 60); D Evans (P Price 54), R Elias (E Phillips 54), S Lee (W Kruger 54), T Beirne (L Rawlins 63), D Bulbring, A Shingler (J McLeod 54), W Boyde, J Davies.

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)

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