Two tries from Keith Earls and a brilliant defensive effort kept Edinburgh at bay and helped Munster book a place in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals in a close-fought tussle at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Earls struck in both halves to reach the last four for the 14th time and a third season in succession as Edinburgh dominated possession for long periods but could only muster a converted first-half try from Chris Dean and a penalty in either period from Jaco van der Walt.
Munster were on Saturday afternoon awaiting the winners of the second quarter-final of the day between Saracens and Glasgow Warriors with a victory for the Londoners sending the Irish province to Coventry for the semis on Easter weekend while a Scottish upset in the capital will hand Johann van Graan’s side home advantage on Irish soil at Aviva Stadium.
Munster, for the fourth time in Europe this season, were forced into a late selection change as full-back Mike Haley was ruled out with sickness and confined to his Edinburgh hotel room as Johann van Graan reshuffled his travelling squad.
The head coach moved Andrew Conway from the right wing to full-back and brought in travelling reserve Darren Sweetnam to the newly-vacated position.
It was the second time Sweetnam had been drafted in at late notice having replaced Keith Earls in round one of the pool stages at Exeter Chiefs while the round-three visit of Castres was preceded by the withdrawals of Chris Farrell and Joey Carbery, Sammy Arnold and JJ Hanrahan slotting in ahead of that bonus-point victory.
Carbery, Earls and Farrell all made it to kick-off this time around as Munster fielded their strongest available team for the first time in nine weeks following the absence of their internationals for the Six Nations.
Carbery had been declared fit following a hamstring strain but he would not last a first half that saw two Munster players removed for Head INjury Assessments. Lock Jean Kleyn passed his HIA after a knock in the fourth minute but back row Jack O’Donoghue was less fortunate as he failed to return after his 10-minute assessment late in the opening period.
By that time, Munster were trailing 10-7 in a game that was every bit the arm-wrestle Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill had predicted.
The visitors were forced to defend for long periods as the game got underway at a Murrayfield heavily populated by Munster supporters clad in red. And how they roared with delight as their side withstood two lengthy defensive sets, the second of which was completed with only 14 men after lock Tadhg Beirne was sin-binned for a breakdown misdemeanour in the 11th minute as Edinburgh piled pressure on the Munster line.
Not only did the reds hold their line they also stole the lead as relief turned to joy in the 18th minute. It came from Munster’s first visit to the home 22 and reaped an instant reward as Keith Earls and full-back Darcy Graham contested a high ball and helped Munster earn a five-metre scrum.
That set-piece earned a penalty as scrum-half Henry Pyrgos illegally impeded at the base and Earls caught Edinburgh napping with a quick tap and darted over the line for the opening try, Carbery adding the conversion, 7-0 and with Beirne still in the bin.
Yet the home side kept hammering away as Munster were restored to their full complement and finally got their reward when centre Chris Dean took advantage of the first real defensive lapse, getting over from close range as Conor Murray missed his man, Jaco van der Walt’s conversion levelling the scores on 26 minutes.
He would add a penalty on 34 minutes to put the home side in front and there was further concern a minute later when Carbery trudged off with what appeared to be a return of his hamstring problem, ice applied to his left thigh as Tyler Bleyendaal replaced him at fly-half.
Munster’s injury issues continued when O’Donoghue failed his HIA, leaving replacement back row Arno Botha to continue on a permanent basis leaving head coach van Graan with plenty of thinking to do as his side ended the half trailing 10-7.
The interval saw grey skies replaced with bright sunshine on a chilly Edinburgh afternoon and Bleyendaal levelled the scores soon after with a close-range penalty on 46 minutes, only for the concession of another breakdown penalty by the visitors to allow van der Walt an opportunity to put his side ahead once more, his kick from wide left sailing between the posts as Edinburgh went 13-10 up with 30 minutes left on the clock.
The penalty decisions continued from referee Pascal Guazere and Munster were the beneficiaries two minutes later, this one kicked to the right corner. With 12 men in the resulting lineout, Munster built phases and forced Edinburgh to defend patiently.
Sweetnam got close in the left corner before another penalty went Munster’s way. Captain Peter O’Mahony elected to take a five-metre scrum but the plan backfired as tighthead WP Nel and his Edinburgh front row’s strong drive eked a penalty to relieve the pressure on the home line.
It all made for a tense atmosphere as both sides probed with little joy for an opening that would break this game open. When it came, it was at the hands of Gauzere, the French official reversing an Edinburgh penalty and allowing Bleyendaal to kick upfield with a great touchfinder to the home 22.
The lineout throw from Rhys Marshall missed Beirne at the tail but Bleyendaal mopped up the loose ball and moved it back to the blindside against the drifitng Edinburgh line and from where great hands from his backs saw Conway feed Earls for his second try of the game on 70 minutes.
Bleyendaal’s right-touchline conversion was inch perfect and Munster went into the final minutes of the game with a four-point lead at 17-13.
Edinburgh pushed for the winning score to give Munster some nervous moments in the closing minutes and went through the 80-minute mark but the visitors held their line brilliantly to keep their rivals out of try-scoring territory and book a place in the semi-finals for the third season in succession.
D Graham; D Hoyland, J Johnstone (M Bennett, 72), C Dean, D Van Der Merwe; J van der Walt, H Pyrgos (C Shiel, 76); P Schoeman (R Ford, 76), S McInally - captain (A Dell, 76) , WP Nel (S Berghan, 57); B Toolis, G Gilchrist; J Barclay (M Bradbury, 57), H Watson (J Ritchie, 71), V Mata.
A Conway; D Sweetnam, C Farrell, R Scannell (D Goggin, 76), K Earls; J Carbery (T Bleyendaal, 35), C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Loughman, 61), N Scannell (R Marshall, 65), J Ryan (S Archer, 57); J Kleyn (B Holland, 4-14 HIA; 59), T Beirne; P O’Mahony - captain, J O’Donoghue (A Botha, 28), CJ Stander.
Beirne 11-21 mins
Pascal Gauzère (France)