Thank you Connacht! It was an anxious wait after the final whistle in Cork, checking for updates from the other games to see if we would be home or away in the semi-final. I had checked at half-time and thought Ulster might be the province to do us that favour as they had held Glasgow try-less while Connacht had already conceded three but both games must have been the proverbial game of two halves as Ulster and Ospreys both failed to score again! It would have been a real anti-climax to have scored 50 points and not clinched a top two slot so once the word came through that the Connacht game was over there was a great cheer and thoughts turned to getting tickets for the bonus of an extra trip to Thomond Park this season. We will be hoping that the tradition of home advantage in the semis will continue while Ulster will be hoping to be the first team to buck that trend on the previous night. Maybe the week off for some of their front line players will stand to them on their return to Scotstoun next Friday. An all-Irish final would be a great end to the season although tickets would be harder to come by! But first things first, we have lost home and away to Ospreys this season so we owe them one!
It was a bright, breezy afternoon in Cork, the temperature dropped noticeably when the sun disappeared behind the clouds but I was glad I had brought my shades. I should also have brought a shield as three times we had to duck as the ball was kicked to touch very close to our position near the 10m line.
Paul O’Connell got a great reception when he ran on to warm up and an even bigger one when he scored the fifth try just before half-time.
The choir was not there to lead us in “Stand Up and Fight!” The version played over the PA was not very clear but eventually we got into it while awaiting the teams.
With Munster looking for a bonus point win from the outset it was like a Barbarians game at times with both teams making mistakes but there was plenty of excitement and 12 tries! Dragons were first on the scoreboard through an early penalty kicked by Jason Tovey after Andrew Smith was pinged for holding on when he struggled to retain possession of a poor pass after just two minutes.
From the restart Munster responded through Paul O’Connell who got a touch to the attempted clearance kick. Paddy Butler did well to secure possession and quickly offload to Murray. Our newest centurion Ian Keatley took Murray’s pass and made a half-break before popping up the ball to Andrew Smith who showed his strength and pace to score a try, running it in from the 10m line, which Keatley converted.
However Dragons had come to play and their powerful number 8 Toby Faletau collected Murray’s box kick and charged up the east wing despite Keith Earls’ tackle before passing to Hewitt who scored. The referee referred to the TMO before awarding the try to put the Dragons 3 points ahead after 5 minutes.
Keith Earls got out hearts racing as he flew past us but unfortunately Donnacha Ryan could not get onto the end of his pass and it went into touch. However when #6 Crosswell went offside the 3 points were spurned as Munster went seeking their second try. “Heave” we urged as CJ protected the ball at the back of the maul and heave they did, pushing Dragons back over the line for CJ to score.
Earls was blocked as he chased a box-kick from Murray earning another penalty and a lineout in a good position but this time the lineout was stolen by Dragons allowing them to clear the danger.
A great break by Felix Jones with Earls in support also fizzled out when the pass could not be held. However Munster won another penalty from a scrum which was kicked to touch. Paddy Butler claimed the lineout and when he was pulled down the maul went around him. Guinazu got close to the line, next CJ Stander charged, then BJ Botha took them even closer before Conor Murray spotted a gap, he picked and went to make it 21-10 when Keatley again converted.
Another penalty, another maul, this time resulting in a yellow card for side entry by Hugh Gustafson but Dragons defended the next attack and won a penalty themselves to relieve the pressure. However with their hooker in the sinbin their tighthead prop Harris did not throw the ball in straight so Munster opted for the scrum, forcing Dragons to sacrifice Crossman to bring on a replacement hooker. Keatley athletically hurdled BJ Botha who was on the ground before the referee brought play back due to another offside penalty. Munster took it quickly and when Hurley went to ground just a few metres from the try-line Conor Murray darted over for the bonus point try after just 23 minutes! Would it be enough for a home semi?
Dragons responded well and put pressure on Munster, first blocking down a clearance kick by Keatley, winning another penalty when Jones went offside, and another when Smith went offside leading to a warning being issued to captain Denis Hurley. Another penalty for pulling down the lineout jumper kept Munster pinned in the far corner. Eventually a Dragons knock on gave Munster a chance to clear but the referee called the ball was out of the scrum and it was Dragons who responded quickest to pounce on it, reminding us that while the bonus point was secured the game was not yet won!
There were plenty of errors, a block down, a knock on, but there was still time for a fifth try before half time. The scrum continued to be a strength, winning penalties.
Even though Earls chased Murray’s kick to force Jones into touch the referee brought play back for a penalty for not binding in the preceding scrum and you guessed it another lineout. Billy Holland secured the ball but the Dragons initially drove Munster back before they reorganised and moved forward. Paul O’Connell spotted a gap off the back and charged over the line to touch-down despite three defenders hanging out of him, bringing the half-time score to 33-10.
The second half started brightly with a good break by Hurley in the Munster half who offloaded to Smith, who in turn fed Jones with Earls collecting his pass outside the 22 to continue his try-scoring form which was the ideal start to the half. Keatley converted to bring it to 40-10 on 43’.
However Dragons were not ready to go on their holidays yet and seemed to be helped by the referee who found lots to penalise Munster for in the 2nd half! The stats below show the Dragons had 50% possession in that half. Offside in the midfield first and then when Dragons failed to find touch there was another penalty, a few minutes later another for holding on in the tackle, all of which gave Dragons momentum. Earls nearly had a great intercept but could not hold the ball giving Dragons a scrum in a good position. From it they had a great break and the offload from Dorian Jones put Tyler Morgan in for a try under the posts, converted by Tovey to make it 40-17.
Shortly afterwards Dave Kilcoyne and Niall Scannell replaced John Ryan and Eusebio Guinazu in the front row before Ian Keatley was replaced by JJ Hanrahan.
Dragons came looking for more and after a penalty for wheeling the scrum there was another for pulling down the maul which resulted in a sinbinning for Paddy Butler. Munster defended the maul and phase after phase of attacks close to their line. A knock-on led to a scrum in front of the posts. Another penalty for collapsing the scrum, another scrum, another reset helped Munster use up some of the time they were down to 14. The Dragons backline couldn’t find a way through and Munster eventually turned over the ball.
Niall Scannell won a super turnover and quick hands in the midfield released Hanrahan and then Earls, who skipped out of tackles as he made a lot of ground before offloading to Jones. Dragons went offside and CJ Stander took it quickly, charging upfield. Munster were pressing hard and won another penalty. Hanrahan kicked to touch, Scannell found his jumper (Holland), the maul drove forward with CJ Stander at the back and when it was stopped short of the line Murray saw his opportunity to complete his hat-trick while Munster were still down to 14!
Munster emptied their bench with an eye to the semi-final. Archer and Conway replaced Botha and Earls, followed a few minutes later by Conor Murray as Butler returned to the action. CJ Stander and Paul O’Connell also left the field to great applause.
A pass from Hurley was intercepted but Hanrahan did well to get back and drag Morgan into touch. From the maul Duncan Williams fed Ronan O’Mahony who made a great break down the wing in front of us. There were plenty of mistakes on both sides as the game got a bit scrappy.
Hands in the ruck gave Dragons another penalty and a lineout on our 5m line. From the maul they scored their third try on 74′ through Rhys Buckley, one that will not make for enjoyable viewing at the video review sessions next week!
A super break by Ronan O’Mahony energised the crowd after Sean Dougall had intercepted a pass and gone to ground. Duncan Williams got the ball quickly to Jack O’Donoghue who fed Ronan a great inside pass on his own 10m line, from where he wove his way through and around defenders all the way to the far try-line.
From the restart Dragons secured their own try bonus point with the final play of the game when after laying siege to the Munster line, Jack Dixon broke through a tackle to score their fourth try and that was the end of the game but not the wait.
Phones were anxiously being checked for the latest updates from Glasgow and Galway. Glasgow had secured a bonus point win so we knew our fate rested on Connacht. It was an unusual end to a game, supporters and players alike waiting around for the announcement. Munster clapped off the Dragons, they returned the favour and still we waited, barely daring to dream that Ospreys did not score anything don’t mind a try in the second half. A large crowd remained in the ground, supporters in the west stand were getting autographs and photos until finally the announcement came through the PA – home on Saturday against the Ospreys! Big smiles all around!
Munster: Felix Jones; Keith Earls, Andrew Smith, Denis Hurley – capt., Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; John Ryan, Eusebio Guinazu, BJ Botha; Billy Holland, Paul O’Connell; Donnacha Ryan, Paddy Butler, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Sean Dougall, Jack O’Donoghue, Duncan Williams, JJ Hanrahan, Andrew Conway.
Newport Gwent Dragons: Jason Tovey, Tom Prydie, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos, Dorian Jones, Jonathan Evans; Boris Stankovich, Hugh Gustafson, Brok Harris, Cory Hill, Rynard Landman (c), Nick Crosswell, Nic Cudd, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Rhys Buckley, Phil Price, Lloyd Fairbrother, Matthew Screech, James Benjamin, Richie Rees, Ashton Hewitt, Geraint Rhys Jones.
Despite scoring 8 tries there are plenty of areas for improvements which will focus the minds for next week. I expect a much tighter game requiring clinical execution and cup mentality. Hopefully more players will be passed fit for action including Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo as Ospreys will travel in confidence after their victory in Thomond at the start of this season. Hopefully we will have a big crowd there, getting behind the team and driving them on to the final. Tickets on the terrace are just €20 which is great value for a semi-final game.
Match stats in full can be viewed here.
Another interesting aspect to the semi-final is the duel between Ian Keatley and Osprey’s Dan Biggar for the most points scored in the league this season. Keatley is currently two points ahead of Biggar, see the table here
Prematch TG4 showed an interview with CJ stander – view the video here!.
TG4 player link to the game: http://nasc.tg4.tv/1A7kVGN
Best of luck to Ulster away in Glasgow on Friday night and to Connacht whose European dream continues in Gloucester next Sunday.
Last Sunday I was delighted to pass the 30,000 view mark and to receive so many positive comments, especially from some Ulster rugby supporters. Maybe we’ll get a replay in 2 weeks but for now the focus is on the semi-final. Hard to believe it will be only our third game in Thomond Park in 2015. The Red Army will need to do it’s part to ensure we ContinueTheJourney for another week this season!