Saturday 18 January 2020

Munster face tough task to end on a high

Munster's Paul O'Connell attempts to break through the Scarlets defence
Munster's Paul O'Connell attempts to break through the Scarlets defence

Munster have made it into the Pro 12 play-off semi-finals, but if they are to successfully defend their title they are going to have to do it the hard way.

A dogged defensive display, especially in the second half when the Scarlets threw the kitchen sink at them, earned them a share of the points and ensured they cannot finish lower than fourth.

The only question left to be answered is whether they travel to play the Ospreys or Leinster in the semi-finals.

A big finish against Ulster at Thomond Park in two weeks' time could be the key to avoiding a trip to Dublin to meet table-topping Leinster. If Munster have to go to the Liberty Stadium, it will be a repeat of last season's play-off assignment in Limerick.

Losing home advantage is a big blow and, in all likelihood, it will mean two away games if Tony McGahan's side are to end on a high before the head coach heads home to Australia after four years at the helm.

"We are really pleased to be in the semi-finals, although we would have liked to have been in a position to chase down first or second place because we know how important that is," said McGahan.

"But it's a semi-final and the group wants to make sure it finishes in the right style and make up for our Heineken Cup exit. We still have a lot to play for and we want to make sure we get the right send-off for the players who are leaving at the end of the season.

"We have played quite a lot against the Ospreys over the previous four years and I think we will be two evenly matched sides if we end up playing them. We certainly have a lot of history against each other.

"They are a tremendous side and the way they have regrouped and refocused after not making the quarter-finals in the Heineken Cup is testament to them and their new coaching team."

Munster showed clinical finishing in the first half at Parc y Scarlets, scoring tries from Donnacha Ryan, who simply ran through Rhys Priestland, and Simon Zebo, who took an inside pass before racing past four defenders, to lead 17-10 at the break.

They then demonstrated tremendous grit to defy a spirited home fightback in the second half. Ian Keatley kicked 10 points, but opposite number Priestland converted an Aaron Shingler try, and then landed a 45-metre penalty to level the scores and keep alive the Scarlets' faint hopes of reaching the top four.

"We showed a lot of true Munster grit and a lot of fight for each other and it was great to hang on -- it was pure determination," said Ryan.

Munster will have a week off now, and the sight of both Leinster and Ulster, their conquerors in the quarter-finals, playing in the Heineken Cup semi-finals this weekend is bound to act as a catalyst for them to finish strongly.

Scarlets -- L Williams; G North, A Warren, S Jones, S Lamont; R Priestland, G Davies (T Knoyle 61); R Jones (S Gardiner 74), M Rees (capt, E Phillips 61), D Manu (P John 65); S Timani (K Murphy 55), D Day; A Shingler, J Turnbull, B Morgan.

Munster -- F Jones (I Dineen 65); L O'Dea, J Murphy, L Mafi, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray (T O'Leary 61); D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 52), M Sherry, BJ Botha (S Archer 71); M O'Driscoll (D O'Callaghan 67), P O'Connell (capt); D Ryan, T O'Donnell (P Butler 37), P O'Mahony.

REF -- A Rolland (IRFU).

Irish Independent

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