Zebo’s moment of magic a diamond in the rough for Munster

Munster 23 - Ospreys 3: Sometimes it takes a little magic to make a difference and when Munster needed it most, their backline delivered to keep alive hopes of a first trophy in six seasons.

This Guinness PRO12 semi-final at Thomond Park had been a humdrum affair before the stardust was sprinkled on the hour mark that would break Ospreys’ resistance and put the home side within 80 minutes of the silverware that would be a fitting climax to a remarkable and emotional campaign.

Of course fellow finalists Scarlets, the destroyers of Leinster hopes Friday night at the RDS, will have something to say about that at Aviva Stadium next weekend but for a province that looked lost at sea 12 months ago having scraped into the top six of the PRO12 on the last day of last season, reaching the Champions Cup semi-final and the PRO12 final this time around has been nothing short of miraculous.

As much as the galvanising force behind the resurgence can be attributed to the tragic passing of head coach Anthony Foley, the credit should also go to the belief and confidence restored in the players by incoming director of rugby Rassie Erasmus. It is hard to imagine Munster scoring the game-changing try they did without it and in doing so breaking open a semi-final which had been on a knife-edge to that point.

Munster had failed to build on their 8-3 half-time lead but were gathering momentum midway through the second period. They had laid siege to the Ospreys line and been denied a try, with no clear evidence amidst a sea of bodies that CJ Stander had got over the whitewash. The onslaught continued until Munster replacement Jaco Taute turned it over in front of the posts and Justin Tipuric hoofed the ball downfield, the pressure off, or so Ospreys thought. Keith Earls and Francis Saili had other ideas.

What emerged from there in a game that had for the most part been a dour arm-wrestle was a moment of shining excellence, the engagement of creative, instinctive brains and sharp, agile bodies that gave us the kind of put-a-smile-on-your-face rugby that lasted just 15 seconds from start to finish but was talked about long after the final whistle. Not only that, it transformed the game from finely balanced at 8-3 to Munster with 20 minutes to go into a contest with only one winner.

It was Earls who scrambled back from the Ospreys 22 to the edge of his own 22 and slid in to collect the loose ball ahead of Keelan Giles. He rose to his feet and was quickly enveloped by his opposing wing but managed to get the pass away to Saili. The Kiwi powered forward and jinked past Brendon Leonard and Ashley Beck before running into Alun Wyn Jones who could not prevent Saili offloading to Conor Murray. With great hands, the scrum-half moved the ball quickly back to Earls on the left touchline. Earls advanced from his 10-metre line to over the Ospreys’ equivalent and, drawing Dan Biggar in, passed inside to Andrew Conway, who with Simon Zebo had a two-on-one with full-back Dan Evans. When Zebo received the ball inside on the 22, he was at top speed yet still had to juggle the ball into his grasp before racing over the line.

It was a standout passage of play to grace the most high-end of matches. It was certainly the highlight of a game that will leave Munster with plenty to build on heading into this Saturday’s final against the red-hot Scarlets.

For now, though, director of rugby Erasmus was delighted with the verve of Zebo’s score, the sandwich between a first-half try from man of the match Saili on his final home appearance and 75th minute Andrew Conway five-pointer as Ospreys were kept pointless for 72 minutes following Biggar’s eighth-minute penalty.

“You look at a defence and you can see if a team is tight, are they buddies, are they playing for one another,” Erasmus said. “Attack is confidence, attack takes self-belief because there are so many variables and when you get attack right like Earlsy did with Zeebs, everybody that was involved like Francis, that shows confidence.

“Confidence always takes a bit longer. With defence you can fix it immediately. The system, you don’t really have to have talent, you just have to believe in the system. The nice thing about those attacking things is the team are starting to believe in one another, and hopefully next week we can do the same.”

It will be all business when Munster return to training today and continue to attempt to figure out how to stop a Scarlets outfit that surgically dismantled Leinster in Dublin last Friday having turned around a 21-point deficit to win at Thomond Park in March. Yet Erasmus knows his players have already done themselves and him proud in this best and worst of seasons that has coincided with his and defence coach Jaques Nienaber’s arrival last summer.

Donnacha Ryan and Francis Saili say goodbye to the Munster faithful after their last home game at Thomond Park, claiming victory over Ospreys in the PRO12 semi-final. Pictures: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Reaching a final in their first campaign was definitely not an expectation back then, he admitted.

“I didn’t really know how the Pro 12 totally worked. I didn’t even know what teams were in the Pro 12 when I arrived,” Erasmus said. “I just knew Munster because I followed them when it was still the Heineken Cup. It was on television in South Africa.

“To be honest, when I arrived here, I wasn’t even sure how the tournaments are intertwined and how you play over Christmas and you are eventually going to be in week 47. I didn’t really have an expectation when I came here, I came here with an idea to learn about the players, learn about the potential, learn about Axel and Jerry (Flannery) and Felix (Jones) and let’s maximise it and let’s see what comes out on the other side.

“I guess that’s the nice thing about the first season is that you can sum up and try and improve. Yes I am surprised we are in a final after all the other stuff that we went through. There was a lot of other stuff we went through that wasn’t nice and was difficult. I am surprised and I am proud.

“Saying so will probably bite me next week or in a month’s time... to be honest, the players deserve it. They worked hard, they went through tough times, they went through things before matches and they went through things last year, even in Ireland, to qualify.

“I just looked at a press conference two weeks ago, old clips just before they played Edinburgh and the pressure that must have been on this team last year just to qualify for Europe. The team has been through a hell of a lot before I came here in the last 18 months. So, you know, that’s satisfying, they never give up and want to give back to the fans, that’s satisfying for them.”

MUNSTER:

S Zebo; A Conway (B Scott, 75), F Saili, R Scannell (J Taute, 54), K Earls (I Keatley, 70); T Bleyendaal, C Murray (D Williams, 74); D Kilcoyne, N Scannell (R Marshall, 66), J Ryan (S Archer, 54); D Ryan, B Holland (J O’Donoghue, 70); P O’Mahony, capt, T O’Donnell (J Deysel, 62), CJ Stander.

OSPREYS:

D Evans; K Giles, K Fonotia, A Beck (J Matavesi, 71), T Habberfield; D Biggar (S Davies, 68), B Leonard (J Baker, 65); N Smith (P James, 68), S Baldwin (S Otten, 53), R Jones (D Suter, 62); B Davies (L Ashley, 68), AW Jones, capt; S Underhill, J Tipuric, J King (O Cracknell, 36).

Referee:

Luke Pearce (RFU)


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