Friday 24 November 2017

O'Gara hits form but Munster let chance slip

Munster 13 Ospreys 13

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It didn't feel like a make or break game, but that's what this was for Munster on a lovely night in Thomond Park. Defeat by the Ospreys, who were missing 17 through Wales call ups, injuries and suspensions, would separate Munster so far from the pack as to make the rest of their Pro 12 campaign academic. In the end they had to settle for a draw, which leaves them in sixth place – seven points off the leading pack – with just five rounds left. Is that too much for them to make up?

 

It didn't feel like a make or break game, but that's what this was for Munster on a lovely night in Thomond Park. Defeat by the Ospreys, who were missing 17 through Wales call ups, injuries and suspensions, would separate Munster so far from the pack as to make the rest of their Pro 12 campaign academic. In the end they had to settle for a draw, which leaves them in sixth place – seven points off the leading pack – with just five rounds left. Is that too much for them to make up?

"Who knows?" said Rob Penney. "I'm no good at maths. I had all this thrown at me in the Heineken Cup. I don't have a crystal ball. All I can do is prepare the group as best I can for the next game. I was really proud of the effort out there and the way they went about their work."

On nights like this, Munster needed their key men to stand up. And comparatively they had, between the returning Doug Howlett, who looked well off the pace, centres Casey Laulala and James Downey, Ronan O'Gara and James Coughlan, a fair wedge of experience through the middle of the team. It wasn't enough to make the critical difference.

Of course it would all revolve around the outhalf. When you watch O'Gara play for Munster it's as if he's struggling to find a balance between what the coach wants and what his own instincts tell him. For half an hour it looked as if he had got that just right.

By the time they got to the third quarter, however, Munster were struggling. When they get to the five metre channel it's as if they run into a brick wall, dust themselves off again, and then run into another one on the far side of the field.

Penney was unhappy about the Ospreys' defensive line – they set themselves ahead of the back foot, he maintained – but if that was the case and Munster were getting no change out of the referee then they needed to change their point of attack. It didn't happen.

It was an interesting call by Penney to give UL Bohs scrumhalf Cathal Sheridan his senior debut, and he won't have had any complaints from O'Gara, but that was about the only positive on a night when Munster needed full points.

O'Gara got Munster off the mark after just four minutes with an excellent penalty from out wide, and would have had the chance to double the advantage a few minutes later had referee Nigel Owens not let a penalty advantage play out when Munster got precious little gain from it.

By half-time, those sort of calls had taken on greater significance with the scores tied at 6-6 – twice O'Gara had nudged his side ahead, twice Matthew Morgan had reeled them back in. Just after the break, however, the home side got the breakthrough they needed after repeated pounding close to the Ospreys line saw Damien Varley barge over, assisted by Ian Nagle who was doing a decent job of relaunching a career that has stalled.

O'Gara's conversion put Munster 13-6 clear and for a short while it looked like they would build on that. O'Gara was getting a decent balance between allowing the play to develop wide and getting some go-forward. Their problem was an unwillingness of players to cut back and keep the Ospreys defence honest when the east-west stuff was too easy to read.

That may not have led directly to the equalising try from Jonathan Thomas, from a lineout maul on 52 minutes, rather that was after Stephen Archer was binned for a charge rather than a tackle, and the penalty to the corner ultimately gave Thomas the platform to score.

Penney brought BJ Botha on when that sentence had been served, but while it gave extra impetus to their scrum, that wasn't what they needed. Rather it was a case of engineering a situation where the Ospreys didn't have numbers equal to Munster's attack, or to take advantage of it when the home team had the extra men. They couldn't do it though, and the closest they came was a drop goal attempt from O'Gara, with the last kick of the game, which was well off target.

Scorers – Munster: D Varley try; R O'Gara 2 pens, con. Ospreys: J Thomas try; M Morgan 2 pens, con.

Munster: F Jones (I Keatley 71); D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Sheridan (D Williams 60); D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 63), D Varley (M Sherry 60), S Archer (yc 50; BJ Botha 60); I Nagle (D Foley 61), B Holland; P Butler, J Coughlan, T O'Donnell.

Ospreys: R Fussell; T Habberfield, J Spratt, A Beck, T Isaacs (D Arhip 60); M Morgan, K Fotuali'i; D Jones (M Thomas 56), S Baldwin, C Griffiths; AW Jones, L Peers; J King, J Thomas, S Lewis.

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

Irish Independent

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