Tuesday 16 January 2018

Zebo try lights up tame affair to seal final berth for Munster

Munster 23 Ospreys 3

Francis Saili of Munster is tackled by Keelan Giles of Ospreys. Photo: Sportsfile
Francis Saili of Munster is tackled by Keelan Giles of Ospreys. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Faced with the prospect of an all-Welsh PRO12 final in Dublin on Saturday, you'd imagine a few of the secret society that is the board of Celtic Rugby didn't sleep too well on Friday night.

As hard sells go, that would be in the category of flogging barrels of sand in downtown Riyadh. Better still, with a woman trying to make the sale. Relax lads, Munster have saved your bacon.

Francis Saili has joined Harlequins
Francis Saili has joined Harlequins

The chances of it were always remote, for the Ospreys brought none of the form to Thomond Park that Scarlets had with them at the RDS. The chief risk however became apparent as the game unfolded: it was so awful you felt anything could happen. Well, anything bad.

In the last quarter however at least the prospect of an empty Aviva was sorted for the good. And, perhaps appropriately, the try that put daylight between Munster and their opponents, on 62 minutes, was a contender for try of the season.

In tight confines first man of the match Francis Saili - playing his penultimate game for Munster - Conor Murray and Keith Earls combined beautifully before Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo got involved for Zebo to finish. It was quite a treat for sore eyes.

The rest of it was mostly garbage: balls put down, balls kicked badly, plans falling asunder before they could be implemented. This was cup rugby though, so for Munster it was all about winning, and the result puts them back on a stage they fell off two years ago in Belfast, against Glasgow.

Stock photo
Stock photo

This time they will have virtual home advantage, albeit with a day less that Scarlets to recover. They may have an issue about the lively Keith Earls who seemed to rattle his left knee, but took a while to go off. On what was a decent weekend on the injury front for Joe Schmidt - Warren Gatland too got good news yesterday on Jack McGrath's X-ray - we'll see if the Munster wing is fit for the final, and the following tour.

It tells you something about the first half here that its highlight was the measured build up Munster brought when with 40 seconds left on the clock they opted to kick a penalty on halfway to touch. They trundled away reasonably well off the lineout, running through a good number of phases and stretching the Ospreys, until finally they knocked forward on an advantage play and Tyler Bleyendaal knocked it over.

What was spectacular about that? Nothing. But at least they hadn't banged the original penalty towards the posts. Eight minutes earlier that's what Ospreys had done when they won a penalty in the wide channel, when Andrew Conway had high tackled Tom Habberfield. With the chance of pushing it closer to the line to chase the try instead Dan Biggar went for goal, and slid it past the post. He may have been put off by a lone heckler - for the second time - who prompted the man on the PA to deliver yet again the line about respect for kickers. The announcement was as tedious as the game itself, and they'd be better off in this part of the world blowing air horns and whistles and not taking themselves so seriously.

As it happened, Bleyendaal's strike was successful, giving Munster an 8-3 lead at the break. The five points bit had come on 26 minutes when they were trailing to a Biggar penalty, and Saili scored. It needed referral to the TMO - Rory Scannell was millimetres from the touchline when he released the ball which Saili used to score in the corner.

By way of salvation we got a bit more tangible action in the second half, with Zebo's try followed by Conway squeezing over in the corner on 75 minutes. In the interim Bleyendaal had knocked over a penalty and Ospreys had been denied a try for Scott Otten after Habberfield had been deemed to have knocked on at the ruck that started the move. It seemed harsh, but of little consequence.

Of greater import for Munster is the departure of Donnacha Ryan, playing his last game on this pitch, and Saili. Ryan has been a trojan, the epitome of a team player. Both will be sorely missed.

Scorers - Munster: Saili, Zebo, Conway try each; Bleyendaal 2 pens, con

Ospreys: Biggar pen

Munster: S Zebo; A Conway, F Saili, R Scannell (J Taute 55), K Earls (I Keatley 71); T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams 74); D Kilcoyne (B Scott 77), N Scannell (R Marshall 68), J Ryan (S Archer 55); D Ryan, B Holland (J O'Donoghue 71), P O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander, T O'Donnell (J Deysel 63)

Ospreys: D Evans; K Giles, K Fonotia, A Beck, T Haberfield; D Biggar (S Davies 69), B Leonard (J Baker 66); N Smith (P James 69), S Baldwin (S Otten 53), R Jones (D Suter 63), B Davies (R Ashley 69), AW Jones (capt), S Underhill, J King, (O Cracknell 36) J Tipuric

Referee: L Pearce (Eng)

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