Twenty one league games later, Munster’s consistency and ability to close out tight games has been rewarded with a home semi-final. With just three losses – away to Leinster plus at home to Cardiff and Scarlets – to have secured a home semi-final before the final round of the league shows the progress made as the team built on their strong finish (after a disappointing campaign) this time last year. The stats in the table below make for much happier reading and great credit is due to the team and management for their achievement.
After a run of very physical games against Toulouse, Glasgow, Ulster and Saracens, Munster freshened up the team with some players who had impressed for the A team. Before kick-off that number increased to seven after Billy Holland fell ill, with Donnacha Ryan taking his place and Fineen Wycherley being promoted to the bench.
Treviso had won their last two home games against Ospreys and Edinburgh so could not be under-estimated. The prize of a home semi-final was at stake and it was important to bounce back from the disappointment of losing the European semi-final.
The Treviso full-back David Odiete made a super break, counter-attacking from his own half before offloading to Barbieri who was then bundled into touch by Simon Zebo. Munster were able to clear their lines from the subsequent lineout.
Dave O’Callaghan has been in a great form, playing in both the second or back row so it was a real shame to see him limping off after only eleven minutes of action, with CJ Stander taking his place.
After fifteen minutes, an excellent kick by Ronan O’Mahony helped set up a Munster lineout after Tyler Bleyendaal assisted by Francis Saili dragged the Treviso player into touch. Darren O’Shea claimed the ball and a strong maul was established with Rhys Marshall at the back. Side entry by the loose head gave Munster a penalty in the Treviso half which was kicked to touch. However, the opportunity was wasted when the ball failed to find the jumper and Treviso cleared the danger back to the Munster half.
From a lineout Treviso then launched an attack. A kick ahead from half-way was chased by their centre Benvenuti who collided with Ronan O’Mahony as they both went for the ball. After treatment Ronan had to be stretchered off with what looked like a serious leg injury. Alex Wootton took his place on the wing and continued the good form he had shown in the British and Irish Cup final.
From a Munster lineout the ball went over the top and Tyler swooped in to claim it. When he was wrapped up by two defenders Duncan spotted a gap and made a break before offloading to Jack O’Donoghue in support. Jack seemed to bat the ball back to Rhys Marshall who sprinted forward before chipping over the defender from the 22. Unfortunately, the bounce of the ball just beat him to what would have been a super try for any player, never mind a front row! Donnacha Ryan was in support but could not turn to get over the line past the defence. Jaco was next to have a go before Duncan Williams got the ball out to Saili whose long pass found Darren in a bit of space on the wing to score. The conversion attempt was unsuccessful but Munster were on the board, 0-5 after 25 minutes.
A series of kicks back and forth ensued for the following 4 minutes before the second try. Munster went through multiple phases around the Treviso 22m line, looking for gaps to exploit and showing patience in the build up, probing one way and then another through forwards and backs. A lovely pass from Tyler to Zebo – running a great line between two defenders – gave him a clear run through to the line. Darren O’Shea had played a significant role in the build-up to that try as he executed a lovely exchange with Tyler on the loop before the final pass to Zebo.
Tyler converted to make it 0-12 after 32 minutes. He also kicked a penalty just before half time to bring the score to 0-15 at the break. There was no half-time analysis as the game was not on the main TG4 site but it was great that they streamed it on their website and showed the full game on their Saorview channel red button option.
Munster started the second half brightly and were threatening the Treviso line when the referee Ian Davies penalised Munster. The TMO called his attention to some potential foul play by a Treviso player. Davies seemed to loose patience, waiting for it to be brought up on the big screen after several mis-cued attempts. He decided to stick with his decision to penalise Munster and play on. I guess if the foul play warrants punishment the citing commissioner will pick it up but it seemed a strange approach to take.
Donnacha Ryan was taken off just minutes into the 2nd half for a HIA so Fineen Wycherley took his place in the second row. Ian Keatley replaced Jaco Taute.
Momentum turned in favour of Treviso who nearly scored in the 44th minute through their winger Sperandio but Zebo got back to tackle him. Gori tried to pick and go next but CJ Stander won a penalty when the scrum-half did not release to allow Munster clear their lines. However, minutes later a Treviso lineout set up a super try by David Odiete when after a few phases they got the ball wide to him on the wing. Showing great pace he sprinted through a gap between Sweetnam and Zebo. Alex Wootton covering across could not get to him either. Ian McKinley kicked the conversion to bring the score to 7-15.
It was an attritional game for both sides, the Treviso try-scorer was injured and had to leave after 58 minutes and they later lost both their 9 and 10 to leg injuries.
Wootton leaped high to claim a box-kick and took off on a scintillating break, side stepping a few defenders before being taken down. He managed to pop the pass to Keatley after being tackled. Quick passes from Ian to Tyler and out to Saili on the wing gave Munster momentum. Saili kicked ahead and pressured the defender into carrying the ball into touch to give Munster a 5m lineout. Jack claimed the ball but the maul was collapsed so the pack had to take it on through a series of pick and goes.
Fineen carried the ball, driven on by Conor and Rhys. Then his second row partner Darren O’Shea took it on. CJ, Stephen Archer and Tyler kept the pressure on the Treviso line. Fineen had another go, as did CJ who was driven back a few metres but Munster retained possession. Changing direction, Tyler got the ball to Saili who put in another long pass, this time finding Alex Wootton on the wing who scored after 64 minutes to make it 7-20. Tyler missed the conversion.
Kevin O’Byrne came on for man of the match Rhys Marshall. Jack O’Donoghue made a tackle and as he got up, the offload from the player he had tackled fell into his arms. He showed a nice turn of pace to score the bonus point try under the posts. Tyler converted to make it 7-27.
More replacements were sprung from the bench with Angus Lloyd on for Duncan and Rory Burke replacing Stephen.
With ten minutes to go, Darren Sweetnam was in for his 2nd try. Receiving the ball in his own half from a Treviso kick, he then chipped the defender to bring play up to half-way. After competing to reclaim the ball with some Treviso players it fell for him to kick ahead. He then won the race to the line. The TMO was asked to confirm whether the ball had come off his knee (OK) or his hand (knock-on) when he was competing to reclaim his chip ahead. The TMO agreed with the referee that it had been his knee. The locals did not agree and were whistling in protest as Tyler lined up the successful conversion attempt.
Brian Scott showed his versatility as he replaced James Cronin on the loose head side even though he had played tight head for the A team. Indeed, as the clock ticked down the front 5 was entirely comprised of players from the victorious A team from the B&I Cup, along with Conor at #7 and Alex on the wing.
Treviso did not give in though and their perseverance was rewarded at the death when a lineout gave them a good launch pad for a final attack in the closing minutes. The clock went red before #19 Jean-Francois Montauriol dived over a ruck to score. The TMO indicated to the referee that the player was on his knee as he picked up the ball but the referee was happy that he had gotten back to his feet first. “OK, Fine” was the response of the TMO. The successful conversion left the final score 14-34.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Francis Saili, Jaco Taute (Keatley 43), Ronan O’Mahony (Wootton 18); Tyler Bleyendaal – capt., Duncan Williams (Lloyd 67); James Cronin (Scott 71), Rhys Marshall (O’Byrne 66), Stephen Archer (Burke 67); Darren O’Shea, Donnacha Ryan (Wycherley 42); Dave O’Callaghan (Stander 11), Conor Oliver, Jack O’Donoghue. Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Brian Scott, Rory Burke, Fineen Wycherley, CJ Stander, Angus Lloyd, Ian Keatley, Alex Wootton.
Treviso: D Odiete (A Pratichetti 59); A Esposito, T Benvenuti, A Sgarbi, L Sperandio; I McKinley (T Tebaldi 63), E Gori (G Bronzini 70); F Zani (A Porolli 68), L Bigi (D Giazzon 50), S Ferrari (T Pasquali 58); M Fuser (JF Montauriol 48), D Budd; F Minto (M Lazzaroni 48), B Steyn, R Barbieri.
So maximum points were secured and with it the valuable home semi-final. The cost in terms of injuries won’t be known for sure till early next week but it did not look good for Dave or Ronan. (Update May 1: Ronan fractured his fibula and Dave has a knee injury) For the knock-out stages teams will need strength in depth so it was good to see the A team players get an opportunity while also giving a rest to some of the front-line players. Scarlets and Ospreys showed good form in their wins at the weekend and will be hoping to prove that an away team can win a semi-final in three weeks time. There are no fairy tale endings guaranteed but Munster have their eye on the prize and hopefully they will achieve their goal. I’ll be there to cheer them on every tackle, turnover, try, maul and score on the way. The Red Army will mobilise again in Thomond on Saturday May 20th to support Munster in their efforts to overcome their semi-final opponents and if they are successful, the demand for tickets for the final in the Aviva on May 27th will be huge.
I love these video highlights with the excited Italian commentary on the Pro12 YouTube channel.
TG4 showed half an hour of highlights and you can find them on their website here
The unsocial side this week
Best laid plans don’t always work out. Looking at the schedule of Munster games and the rota for spending the weekend in Tipperary with Dad I had hoped to watch this game with the MRSC Dublin gang. However, Dad ended up in Clonmel hospital with a chest infection, so I headed home on Friday. He is coming on well, thankfully and should be back in Thurles next week. As a result I ended up watching the game on my own.
The previous Friday on my way to Cork to support Munster A in the British and Irish Cup final I had stopped off for a few hours with Dad – he had been fine then! He was busy entertaining the Chairman of Thurles RFC who was interested in a copy of an old team photo which Dad had from the 1940s. Dad was telling him who was who in it and how only 13 players were included as the other 2 also liked to line out for their local GAA team and at that time there was a ban to prevent players lining out in both codes! Those two gentlemen did not want any evidence of them being involved in rugby to disrupt their GAA involvement! Many of that team have passed away since then but Dad has happy memories of playing despite the basic facilities at that time.
I see CJ Stander has won another accolade – best cake decorator at the Alzheimer fund raiser during the week – to show that there is nothing at which he cannot excel! Will Greenwood also had these words of praise for him recently in a Lions preview from The Telegraph: ““[Stander is] a force of nature. Incredible willingness to carry the ball, to run himself into the ground. CJ Stander would empty the tank in a five-a-side pub football match. He gives total commitment, energy and desire to win games for his team.” Good luck to CJ in the poll for European player of the year and Irish player of the year.
I was delighted last week to see that he had chosen my photo from the semi-final defeat to post on Instagram along with his heartfelt message of appreciation for the tremendous support in the Aviva – thanks for adding the credit CJ / JM: