One more day out secured, a date with destiny in this most remarkable, emotional rollercoaster ride of a season. A certain symmetry to end the Pro12 season as it began, facing the Scarlets. That opening game and the manner of victory gave us plenty of hope. Thirty two games later one of the few defeats since was to the Scarlets in Thomond which will focus the minds as they prepare to meet again, this time at the “neutral” venue of the Aviva. It also provides a chance to show how much has been learnt from the pain of defeat there just last month, some of which was evident in their approach to this semi-final. To secure something tangible as a measure of the progress made by this group of players and their management this season would be wonderful!
However, it was Donnacha Ryan who deservedly earned the most attention before and after the game. After thirteen seasons of dedication, driving on Munster mauls, destructing those of the opposition, dominating lineouts, defending the line, choke tackling or with his death stare trying to cause the opposition kicker to choke, we wanted to acknowledge his contribution for his final home appearance. The cheer he got as he came over to the west terrace to start his warm up was heart warming, as you can see and hear in John’s video link below. The chants of “Donnacha, Donnacha” after the game as the TV interviewers wanted a word, the attempted hoisting to shoulder height as his team mates wanted to give him an even better view of the pitch were no more than he deserved. The IRFU let him and Munster down but we wish him well in Paris.
Several of the A team were on the pitch in Thomond, supporting the senior team with their warm-up, Conor Oliver, Dan Goggin, Darren O’Shea, Kevin O’Byrne plus Angus Lloyd and Darren Sweetnam, ready to step up should there be any late injuries as was the case for Brian Scott who took James Cronin’s place on the bench. Ospreys had their own late injury problems also with one of their four Lions – Rhys Webb – a late withdrawal. Rhys was on the pitch for the warm-up in his tracksuit. Brendan Leonard started while winger Tom Habberfield took over as scrum half when Leonard was substituted in the second half.
There was great heat from the flames to welcome back the team and as the smoke cleared the countdown on the big screen signalled the approach of kick-off. The first half was notable for the strong defensive effort with a great piece of play resulting in the only try of the half. It may be more memorable for the eviction of an attendee from the East Stand! We assumed it was the idiot who had yelled out as Dan Biggar had attempted his second penalty kick at goal and later read that the eviction was due to being “drunk and disorderly.” It is good to see that action will be taken as such idiots ruin the enjoyment for everyone and take from the family friendly atmosphere at games.
A long kick to Dan Evans got a big cheer when he knocked the ball back and then slipped on the wet surface as the rain which had been threatening started to fall early in the game. However, Ospreys got their first and as it turned out last points of the game after Munster accidently played a knocked-on ball from an offside position in the 7th minute.
Munster had an attacking lineout shortly afterwards and Peter O’Mahony jumped well to secure the ball only to be penalised for obstruction when the maul formed which confused players and supporters alike!
Saili and Biggar collided when the former had tried to tackle the ball carrier only for Biggar to come between him and that player. Some of us thought the visitors should be penalised for crossing but instead Saili was penalised.
A turnover was pounced on by John Ryan. Play went out to the backs and Rory Scannell put in a great grubber kick to pin Ospreys back. Biggar kicked it back to just inside the 10m line and Munster deployed their maul to great effect with Niall Scannell at the back, bringing play up to the 22m line before Murray released the backs.
Stander carried, then O’Mahony. Earls found a way into the 22. Kilcoyne carried hard. Saili made progress before Kilcoyne offered himself as carrier again. When he was tackled play went back out to the east wing through Niall Scannell and Saili onto Rory Scannell. Rory was tackled but managed to avoid going into touch. As he had done in Cardiff, Saili picked and went, showing great strength and determination to stretch out and score the try despite the best efforts of the defence. The conversion came back off the post.
Ospreys went wide and when Conway tried to drag Habberfield into touch he was penalised for a high tackle, giving Biggar his second penalty kick opportunity. He tried to make it an easier angle, but the referee made him move the kicking tee back to the correct place. As he lined up the kick the idiot shouted from the east stand and the kick went wide.
I think I heard chants of “out, out, out” as the attention of the stewards was brought to the perpetrator. We could see stewards and a guard approach someone and after some discussion he was escorted away, to chants apparently of “cheerio”.
The Munster front row’s dominance in the scrum won a penalty. While there was a knock-on at the subsequent lineout they were in the right part of the pitch. As the clock ticked down to half-time another strong Munster scrum on the Ospreys put-in yielded a penalty on half-way which Rory Scannell kicked to find a great touch. Donnacha secured the ball and maul drove for the line again.
Ospreys disrupted and Munster had to go wide. Phase after phase of carries by forward and backs, thirteen in total, nearly resulted in a second try until unfortunately there was a knock-on. A penalty was awarded instead for an earlier advantage. With no time to kick for touch Tyler Bleyendaal took the kick at goal to extend the lead to 8-3.
It was not a “comfortable” lead but for all their possession Ospreys had not shown any great threat. There was no significant change in strategy in the third quarter as the sun shone on the east side. The red defensive line held firm, the scrum continued to dominate and the maul came into it’s own. From such a platform Niall Scannell burst forward and the support arrived to keep Munster driving onwards. Keith Earls nearly scored but was driven into touch just short of the line. Munster pinned Ospreys inside their 22. Surely they would score from this period of pressure? Another lineout secured by Tommy, another maul drove through the Ospreys defence but a missed pass allowed Ospreys to kick clear and bring play back into the Munster half.
Ospreys indeed made a great break down the wing only for their player to be hauled down by Peter O’Mahony. A few minutes later they had a lineout on the Munster 5m line but their attempted maul was penalised for the same offside offence for which Munster had been penalised in the first half, allowing Munster to clear the danger.
There was no break in the deadlock as the hour mark approached. From a scrum on halfway for Ospreys a grubber kick ricocheted off Bleyendaal. The ball bounced kindly for Murray and the backs raced forward. After a few pick and goes CJ Stander thought he had scored but the TMO review decided that there was no clear evidence that the ball had been grounded so they had to settle for a 5m scrum.
The next few minutes are surely up there for try of the season as attack turned into defense from which a sumptuous attack was launched. CJ picked and went from the back of the scrum. After a few phases Taute had the ball ripped and Tipuric kicked the ball downfield. Keith Earls had to race back to his own half to beat Keelen Giles to the ball. He managed to get up after securing the ball but could not get away from the tackler. He managed to turn, finding Saili in support. Super interplay between Saili, Murray, Earls, and Conway put Munster on the front foot. Conway’s pass found Zebo who demonstrated excellent ball handling and juggling skills to finish off a super backline score and Munster finally had daylight between the sides when Tyler converted to make it 15-3. That try was worth the admission price alone!
Tommy O’Donnell joined John Ryan and Rory Scannell on the bench as the impact subs were launched – Jean Deysel following Stephen Archer and Jaco Taute into action.
Deysel won a penalty when the Ospreys player did not release. Donnacha secured possession at the resultant lineout on the 10m line. When Munster won another penalty Tyler Bleyendaal put it between the posts to ensure Ospreys would need to score twice to take the lead after 66 minutes. Rhys Marshall replaced Niall Scannell and Sam Davies came on for Dan Biggar. Andrew Conway chased another box kick and won back possession. Unfortunately, the kick by Tyler bounced the wrong way and went dead. There was no let up in the intensity levels or defensive duties despite the scoreline.
Jack O’Donoghue replaced Billy Holland while Ian Keatley moved to full back with Zebo switching to the wing when Earls was withdrawn.
Scott Otten, the replacement hooker for the Ospreys must have seen Rhys Marshall’s cheeky chip from a few weeks ago as he replicated it, chipping Conway and beating Jack to the line to touch down. However there had been a knock on in the build-up and the try was disallowed.
“The Fields of Athenry” rang out as Munster kicked a penalty to touch from halfway to the Ospreys 22. Deysel secured the ball and the maul formed around him.
Murray blocked down a clearance kick from Davies who was behind the try line, giving Munster a 5m scrum. It was Conor’s last action as Duncan Williams replaced him for the final 7 minutes.
From that scrum Williams fed Conway who powered over in the corner, with three defenders hanging out of him. He hurt his shoulder in the process and was replaced by the only remaining player on the bench prop Brian Scott. The conversion was unsuccessful but with the score at 23-3 Ospreys were limited to a consolation score. Credit to them they went for it, first on one wing and then spreading the ball to the other but the defence held firm. Applause and cheers range out as the clock went past 80 but the Ospreys kept coming. Credit to man of the match Francis Saili whose last gasp tap tackle in the corner on Keelan Giles kept the visitors tryless. Great commitment from a player who will be moving on to a new team at the end of the season. His energy, enthusiasm and infectious smiles will be missed. It is a pity he had some injury challenges during his two years at Munster but he has left a mark and some wonderful memories including his try at the Glasgow European game which has been nominated for European Cup try of the season!
Everyone wanted a piece of Donnacha Ryan after the final whistle! Marcus Horan interviewed him for TG4 as the crowd chanted his name. He was in great form and offered to conduct the interview in Irish or French! He paid tribute to the new generation of Munster players and looks forward to supporting them in the years to come. He then went back to his teammates and there were smiles and playful moments as they tried to lift him up shoulder high. Peter was there with his daughter in his arms, Daddy on the back of her jersey, while Keith Earls carried his on his shoulders. Simon’s son also made an appearance to soak up the atmosphere. A large crowd waited as the players saluted the crowd and we smiled to see Donnacha and Simon go over to the Sky cameras – Simon paying his own tribute to Donnacha.
The crowd were in no rush to leave and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to give Donnacha a proper Thomond farewell. It is a regret of mine that we did not have that opportunity with other long term servants of Munster like Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer or Donncha O’Callaghan. There was no fairy tale ending for Paulie’s career at Munster either with a heavy defeat in that Pro12 final but hopefully there will be a better conclusion this season.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway (Brian Scott ’77), Francis Saili, Rory Scannell (Jaco Taute ’55), Keith Earls (Ian Keatley ’71); Tyler Bleyendaal, Conor Murray (Duncan Williams ’74); Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell (Rhys Marshall ’67), John Ryan (Stephen Archer ’55); Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland (Jack O’Donoghue ’71); Peter O’Mahony (captain), Tommy O’Donnell (Jean Deysel ’63), CJ Stander.
OSPREYS: Dan Evans; Keelan Giles, Kieran Fonotia, Ashley Beck (Josh Matavesi ’72), Tom Habberfield; Dan Biggar (Sam Davies ’67), Brendon Leonard (Jay Baker ’66); Nicky Smith (Paul James ’69), Scott Baldwin (Scott Otten ’53), Rhodri Jones (Dan Suter ’63); Bradley Davies (Lloyd Ashley ’69), Alun Wyn Jones (captain); Sam Underhill, Justin Tipuric, James King (Olly Cracknell ’37).
Match Stats are on ESPN here and show how much possession Ospreys “enjoyed” and the huge defensive effort entailing 197 tackles.
Sky have highlights on their website here and on the Pro12 YouTube channel.
Sky also had the player microphone on CJ whose energy tank seems bottomless.
Newspaper coverage from The42.ie is here with post match thoughts here and here. The Irish Independent report is here. Peter’s post game thoughts are in this article while Rassie’s reaction is included in this semi final report from the Examiner
More of my photos are available on the blog facebook page.
Conor Murray’s interview shown before the game on TG4 is moving as he reflects on the season and the Glasgow game in particular.
Some of the “regulars” were away but there was a good crowd on the terrace, with a queue to enter already formed by the time I arrived about 4.40. Before the game Dave O’Callaghan was interviewed pitch side. Jean Kleyn and John Madigan had been meeting supporters in the MRSC bar before the game and came down from there through the tunnel beside us. Mark introduced them to some of the west terrace early arrivals. Given they were down in the lower seated section in front of us we did not get the full sense of their height! Jean would have been happy watching the game from there but was sent on his way after a few minutes.
After the game it was fun to hear from Hilary and Rob that I had made an appearance on TV during our rendition of The Fields of Athenry! Thoughts turned to securing tickets for the final. I had taken the risk of buying one a few weeks ago so will not need to enter the MRSC lottery. I told Kevin I can help with distributing flags if required along with my friends in MRSC Dublin. Lots of tickets were sold in advance, some of those may come available during the week now that the finalists are known. I am sure there will be a good number there from the Red Army to be red, loud and proud, giving the team the lift they need to go once more into the breach, to dig deep and find the energy to put in another massive performance and finish the season on a high. They will put their bodies on the line again and leave nothing behind on the pitch. Playing with pride in the jersey, team spirit and belief we can ask no more of them as they “carpe diem”. Munster won the toss for the home dressing room but Scarlets won the right to wear their home jersey so Munster will be in blue, as indeed they were when they won in Llanelli in September. A good omen perhaps!
Check out the post match interview with Saili and the dressing room scenes:
John’s video of the atmosphere captured from the East terrace:
Thanks Donnacha, your warrior spirit has graced many a special occasion at Thomond and around the rugby world. Best wishes for the future.