For the third season in succession, Munster turned on the style in round six to complete their pool campaign with a resounding bonus-point victory and reach the knockout stages.
Northampton Saints and Racing Metro had been put to the sword in the past two seasons, this time first-half tries from man-of-the-match James Coughlan and Johne Murphy and further scores from Conor Murray, captain Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones, four converted by Ian Keatley, ended Edinburgh’s hopes of grabbing a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup last eight as one of three pool runners-up.
The win in front of a sold-out Thomond Park crowd of 26,500 which generated a pulsating atmosphere that gave lie to the Sunday 12:45pm slot as the competition’s graveyard shift also avenged a dismal opening-day defeat to the Scots at Murrayfield. Five European wins in a row, including away victories at Perpignan and Gloucester, followed that stinging loss as Munster wrapped up the group a week ahead of schedule. Yesterday’s dismantling of Alan Solomons’ side even allowed Rob Penney to joke that the round-one setback was all part of the plan. “It was probably a strategic loss, that first one,” Penney said. “I understand that no side has gone through with six pool wins and ended up winning it. So we’d like to think that maybe we’ve given ourselves a better chance by going that way.”
Penney has earned the right to smile for Munster have lost just once in league and Heineken Cup since that October defeat 13 weeks ago, sit three points clear atop the RaboDirect PRO12 and, following this success, are one of the four best sides to have emerged from the European pool stage. Yet it was not until the start of the second half of this encounter that Munster put some breathing space between themselves and their dogged visitors.
Edinburgh had come into the game with genuine ambition to win in Munster for the first time since Octber 2006 having themselves won at Gloucester and beaten Perrpignan at home in the successive rounds. And they broke out into an early lead when captain Greig Laidlaw slotted a penalty with his second shot at goal in the seventh minute. That only seemed to rile the home side, who were jarred into an immediate response, Coughlan slicing through some passive defence less than a minute later and Murphy doing the same in the 22nd. Yet Edinburgh were not going away and a Laidlaw penalty saw the visitors hanging in there at 12-6 at the interval.
That would have been an acceptable scoreline to Solomons had he not lost his dynamic flanker, and fellow South African, Cornell Du Preez to the sin bin on the stroke of half-time for what referee Wayne Barnes, on advice from the television match official, deemed the reckless use of his head in charging into Paul O’Connell at a ruck.
Suitably fired up by that affront to their talisman, Munster, who had lost their wing Keith Earls after 24 minutes to a bang on his left knee, exacted appropriate revenge on the 14 remaining Edinburgh players when the second half resumed. They bludgeoned their way to the Edinburgh line courtesy of a break from the excellent Tommy O’Donnell into the visitors’ 22, from where Coughlan and then Kilcoyne carried it towards try-scoring territory. As Kilcoyne went into contact, Murray snatched the ball from his prop and went over the top for the third try.
From then on, with or without Du Preez, the question was when rather than if Munster would grab the fourth, bonus-point try. It came in the 56th minute, with Edinburgh back to their full complement but just as porous in defence and this time it was O’Mahony, appropriately as skipper, who finished the deal from close range, bursting through two tackles to seal the home quarter-final.
By that stage, JJ Hanrahan had entered the fray for the injured inside centre James Downey but rather than acting as a straight replacement, Penney sent the youngster into fly-half, with Keatley moving into midfield. It was intriguing move but Penney was instantly rewarded with a new attacking dynamic. Hanrahan not only combined instinctively well with Keatley, the pair sparked the Munster backline into their most fluid period of the game. It also brought the best out of Zebo, who having come on for Earls, added an x-factor to Munster’s play that they had missed during his 12 weeks out with a cracked bone in his foot, the injury that added to the insult of that bad day at Murrayfield.
With Zebo’s feet dancing again and the Hanrahan-Keatley combination adding some zip, more tries followed and the wing was at the heart of them both. First he received a flat pass from Murray on the Edinburgh line to dive over in one corner and then he supplied the pass for Jones to score in the other. It was an exciting way to complete the rout and Penney was proud to have his much-maligned backline in the spotlight for the right reasons.
“They’ve probably not been given the credit that they should at times get,” he said, noting that last week at Gloucester he had been impressed by “the interplaying and the ability to build pressure and offload and so forth.
“There are just some glimpses of it starting to unfold at a really nice time of year and hopefully the weather improves and we can keep playing multi-faceted attack.”
Having Hanrahan at fly-half and Keatley at 12 for those final 27 minutes added a “massive dimension” to that attacking play and Penney added: “I thought they functioned beautifully together... I think it’s a big element to where things can go to with this group in the future.”
As Munster take a two-week break and the focus switches to the Six Nations, that should be just one reason for Penney to breath easy at least a little bit before his thoughts turn to a date with Toulouse.
MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls (S Zebo, 24), C Laulala, J Downey (JJ Hanrahan, 53), J Murphy; I Keatley, C Murray (D Williams, 70); D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 61), D Varley (D Casey, 67), S Archer (BJ Botha, 57), D Foley, P O’Connell (D O’Callaghan, 67), P O’Mahony – captain (P Butler, 67, O’Mahony, 77), T O’Donnell, J Coughlan.
EDINBURGH: J Cuthbert (C Bezuidenhout, 50-59); D Fife, N De Luca, B Atiga (J Dominguez, 53), T Brown; G Tonks (C Bezuidenhout, 61), G Laidlaw – captain (G Hart, 61); A Dickinson, R Ford, W Nel (G Cross, 61), G Gilchrist, I Van Der Westhuizen (O Atkins, 50), C Du Preez, R Grant (T Leonardi, 56; Nel 79), D Denton.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
The yellow card for Edinburgh flanker Cornell du Preez came on the stroke of half-time and Munster took full advantage with a converted try straight after the break that opened up a 19-6 lead. There was no looking back after that, with the fourth, bonus-point try following in the 56th minute.
When JJ Hanrahan replaced James Donwey after 52 minutes it was starting fly-half Ian Kealtley who went to inside centre with the replacement slotting in at out-half. And what a 10-12 combination it proved to be, the duo forming an instinctively positive partnership.
Munster 8 Edinburgh 13
There were plenty of candidates but while Johne Murphy was excellent on both wings in defence and attack and Tommy O’Donnell put his hand up to replace the injured Sean O’Brien in Ireland’s No.7 jersey, James Coughlan sent a big message of his own to Joe Schmidt having been omitted from the national squad in midweek.
Wayne Barnes can often be the villain of the piece in the eyes of Munster supporters but his yellow card for Cornell Du Preez swayed the momentum in favour of the home side and he rightly rewarded the province’s set-piece and breakdown dominance.
Keith Earls was the unfortunate once again, suffering a bang on the knee which forced him to hobble off after just 24 minutes. The Ireland wing will have a scan tomorrow having reported for Test duty at Carton House. Paul O’Connell suffered a stinger to his shoulder but will not give the medics any cause for concern, Rob Penney said.
“This team is getting better and better all the time and more confident and I’m just so pleased for the lads that they’re able to come away from what could have been a potential disaster at Edinburgh and win five in a row and get themselves into the top four of the championship. No mean feat really.” — Rob Penney praises the turnaround after an opening-round setback.
Munster’s next games is against Cardiff Blues in the Rabo Pro12 at Thomond Park on February 8, the same day Ireland host Wales in Dublin. There will be Munster players on duty for the Irish Wolfhounds against England Saxons at Gloucester next Saturday before Paul O’Connell is due to lead Ireland into the RBS 6 Nations opener at home to Scotland on February 2.
– Simon Lewis