Somehow the European vets get job done

Munster's CJ Stander shares a moment with team manager Niall O'Donovan after beating Edinburgh in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final. Picture: Gary Carr and Dan Sheridan.

By their very nature, European semi-finals should be difficult to reach, something Munster and Leinster would surely attest to after both were stretched to the absolute limit to secure a passage through to the last four once again.

It may have been by the skin of their teeth, in two captivating quarter-finals where Edinburgh and Ulster left nothing in the tank in their efforts to down their more fancied opponents.

Munster and Leinster live to fight another day in what will prove to enormously challenging semi-finals, especially for Munster who will meet Saracens in Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.

Leinster will be thrilled that Toulouse did a number on Racing 92 in yet another one-point humdinger in Paris as it hands them a home semi at the Aviva Stadium against a side they have met twice already at the pool stage.

With one win apiece, both sides will fancy their chances.

Both Irish provinces will be better for being pushed so close last Saturday and, with three uninterrupted weeks of preparation, should be far more cohesive without any distractions.

They will have to be given the quality of their opponents after two performances that left both teetering on the edge of European elimination. Ulster, and Jacob Stockdale, in particular, have every reason to rue a golden opportunity on a day when Leinster, short a number of key performers, were vulnerable.

That they prevailed is due in no small measure to their capacity to regroup after a stunning Ulster try from Luke Marshall. A missed conversion by the otherwise excellent John Cooney left the sides tied at 18-18 but from that moment, with 16 minutes left to play, Leinster showed their pedigree and took ownership of the game.

Protecting a three-point lead over the final minutes, the holders gave a masterclass in ball retention through a remarkable 40 phase finish that wound the clock down to red. They knew instinctively how to win tight games and, with Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner and possibly James Lowe back in the mix for the semi-final will be better next time out.

A bit like Edinburgh in Murrayfield, Ulster will look back on this one with deep regret but Dan McFarland has done a magnificent job after the difficulties encountered on and off the field last year. The reaction of the respective coaches in Murrayfield, captured by the television cameras on the final whistle, said it all.

For Edinburgh’s Richard Cockerill, a thump of the desk in desperation, for Johann van Graan, arms and eyes raised to the heavens. If ever there was an “Escape to Victory” then this was it.

When you’re contesting your 18th Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final, the experience gleaned on the journey has to count for something. By way of contrast, Edinburgh were dipping their toes into this phase for only the third time in the club’s history.

As a result, despite dominating so many key facets of the game for long periods, they just couldn’t find a way to close it out. In some respects, they didn’t even know where to look.

How fitting that the player who did most to deliver a third European semi-final on the trot for Munster, the only survivor from the matchday squad that secured their last European success 11 years ago, proved the difference between the teams.

When the need was greatest, Keith Earls was the one with ice in his veins. Ten years after making the Lions tour to South Africa, Earls is playing the best rugby of his career and has been doing so, consistently now, over the last two years.

When the teams emerged from the tunnel, Munster captain Peter O’Mahony couldn’t contain himself and sprinted onto the hallowed Murrayfield turf, leaving his Edinburgh counterpart Stuart McInally in his wake. A man on a mission, his pumped-up team-mates followed in hot pursuit. Last out, at the rear of the bunch, Earls jogged nonchalantly, like a man out for a Saturday stroll.

When clear thinking and a calm head was required, the Limerick stalwart was the one to the fore, not least with his opening try, scored completely against the run of play. Yet, when the match clock turned 20 minutes,

Munster were leading 0-7 despite the fact that Edinburgh had made all the running.

Earls delivered the try at a time when Munster were reduced to 14 men, with Tadhg Beirne sin-binned after Munster conceded a hoard of penalties within ten metres of their line. Having spent the majority of the opening half on the back foot, the fact that Munster somehow found themselves only three points in arrears at the break was a minor miracle.

By that stage, they had lost Joey Carbery, who was struggling from the moment he was called on to tackle the rampaging Viliame Mata, who came steaming down his channel off an attacking lineout. Worryingly however, Carbery’s departure after only 36 minutes appears to be more related to his hamstring than the rampaging No 8.

To make matters worse, by that stage, Jean Kleyn had been subjected to a Head Injury Assessment and Jack O’Donoghue was replaced after taking a physical pounding.

This phase of the Champions Cup always proves problematic for Munster and Leinster given the numbers they contribute to the national squad on Six Nations duty for two months.

While several of the Edinburgh players were similarly engaged, Cockerill took the decision to reintroduce most of them against Leinster in the PRO 14 the previous week in a morale-boosting win while their Irish counterparts were resting up.

The cohesion, intensity and physicality that one normally associates with Munster was lacking and they struggled to keep in touch. Yet somehow they found a way to prevail despite a miserly ration of 39% possession and 36% territory.

Given that Munster normally dominate those charts, the scope for improvement before meeting Saracens is not only sizable but absolutely necessary. A big focus before that decider will have to be placed around their ability to protect the ball in contact.

On far too many occasions, the Munster carrier found himself cut off from his support, enabling the outstanding McInally, Hamish Watson and John Barclay compete for turnovers. Munster conceded multiple penalties in this sector alone, with the carrier failing to release after the tackle.

Against a back row as ravenous as Saracens, that has to be eradicated.

Not only that but the on-field decision-making process also has to improve. Quite why Munster opted for a scrum after winning a penalty in the Edinburgh twenty two in the third quarter, as opposed to a line out or a kick at goal, beggared belief.

Three points in arrears and having just failed narrowly to convert a 12 man line out maul a minute earlier, it was a baffling call given Munster hadn’t shown any evidence of scrum dominance to that point.

The resultant scrum penalty for Edinburgh should have been a game-decider but to Munster’s credit, they never panicked and stayed in the fight. When their moment to strike finally arrived, courtesy of a reversed

penalty call by referee Pascal Gauzere against Pierre Schoeman for a silly off the ball charge which Beirne, theatrically made the most of, Munster were not found wanting.

From the subsequent lineout Conor Murray and Chris Farrell combined magnificently to put the mercurial Earls over in the corner. Of huge importance, Tyler Bleyendaal, who slotted in seamlessly for Carbery, struck a magnificent touchline conversion that stretched Munster’s lead to four points.

That meant Edinburgh had to chase a try rather than manufacture a penalty or a drop goal. That proved beyond their capability against a defiant Munster defensive wall that wasn’t prepared to yield an inch or concede a penalty.

Some things never change even if van Graan, O’Mahony and all the other key figures in the Munster brains trust will appreciate that the scope for improvement is enormous if they are going to stress a rampant Saracens outfit on April 20 in Coventry.

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