Johann van Graan praised fly-half JJ Hanrahan for stepping up to the plate and securing Munster’s passage to the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals with a late long-range penalty.
Italian side Benetton had been leading 13-12 with four minutes to go at Thomond Park on Saturday, and looking favourites to reach the last four and a trip to Leinster at the RDS on May 18.
Yet indiscipline allowed replacement fly-half Hanrahan, who had replaced Tyler Bleyendaal on 47 minutes with his side trailing 10-6 and kicked two penalties, to take another shot at the uprights with three and a half minutes remaining.
This one was from the halfway line after Benetton had been penalised a further 10 metres for not returning the ball following the initial penalty decision by referee Nigel Owens and Hanrahan had no hesitation in taking the attempt on. It sailed between the posts and put Munster into the lead at 15-13, though they still needed two missed drop-goal attempts by Benetton to go through to the semis.
“Credit to JJ, as a number 10 that's the moment you want,” head coach van Graan said.
“If those moments arise you want to kick it. From the (coaches’ box) I saw that as soon as the penalty came he walked straight forward and wanted the ball. That's what you want from your goal-kicker.
“To actually nail it, that's why you train for years and years for moments like this - to put your team in a winning position even when the performance was below par. All credit to JJ.”
Hanrahan said his confidence was such that thoughts of not going for goal had never crossed his mind.
"Yeah, it's always a nice feeling when you put the ball down and see the grass blowing forward - you've the wind behind you and that makes it a little easier,” Hanrahan said.
"So, we knew we'd a wind. It was probably the limit of my range but it was nice to see it go over."
Munster boss van Graan admitted his side had been below par but denied they had been let off the hook by three wasted Benetton try-scoring opportunities.
“I wouldn't say we got out of jail. We knew these guys were exceptional throughout the whole season, their last two visits to Ireland were draws with Leinster and Ulster.
I thought we started the game pretty well, we didn't take our opportunities which was frustrating when we created them.
“Credit to them for scoring that try before half-time, that gave them a lot of confidence and like I said the performance wasn't good enough.
“But it’s a knockout game and the only thing that matters is at the end of the game is that you've got more points than your opponents.”
Skin of their teeth victory sees Munster into semi-final spot
Munster sneaked into the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals by the skin of their teeth in Limerick on Saturday as Benetton missed two late drop-goal attempts after a game performance in their historic first knockout game.
Conversely, it was a display well below par from Johann van Graan’s Munster, who failed to score a try and needed the goal-kicking of Tyler Bleyendaal and then JJ Hanrahan to see them through to a last-four date against defending champions Leinster at Dublin’s RDS on May 18.
It was a cruel blow to the Treviso side, the first Italian team to reach the play-offs since they joined the 10 Celtic League teams in this competition in 2010-11. They made all the running and scored the only try of the game, through man of the match Iliesa Ratuva, just before half-time.
On a day when the sun shone and a low attendance of just 10,042 gave this fixture the feel of a pre-season friendly rather than a knockout game at the business end of the season, Benetton gave Munster reason to sit up and take notice with that converted Ratuva.
A tight opening period with few standout moments saw the scores level at 3-3 edging towards the interval, Tyler Bleyendaal kicking Munster into a 23rd-minute lead before fly-half counterpart Tommaso Allan tied the game two minutes later.
And it was the Italians who took the initiative just as the game was meandering towards half-time as left wing Monty Ioane took a quick throw on halfway and Benetton moved into the home 22, trucking it up initially before moving quickly wide to the right wing where opposing wing Iliesa Ratuva finished excellently, diving into the corner and grounding the ball in contact as Munster full-back Mike Haley’s tackle failed to prevent the score.
Allan converted from the touchline and Munster were trailing 10-3 at the break, in serious need of a spark with their season in the balance.
Though Bleyendaal closed the gap with a penalty three minutes after the restart, the only fire lit was underneath Benetton, who twice came close to lengthening their lead with try opportunities, both wings, Ratuva and Ioane, causing havoc in the Munster defence but undone by a stray pass or offload. Their only reward was a 59th-minute penalty dispatched by Allan to send Benetton into a 13-6 lead.
To their credit, Munster stayed patient and having worked through their difficulties, used the boot to exploit Benetton indiscipline, replacement fly-half JJ Hanrahan kicking 62nd and 66th-minute penalties.
The home side were still trailing though, and yet to properly test the Italians’ defence while the visitors were making Munster protect their line as the clock ticked past 70 minutes.
With the ball in Munster’s 22 and the home crowd getting nervous, the Reds needed to dig deep but could not break out of their own half, their only relief coming from referee Nigel Owens’ whistle as Benetton’s poor discipline got the better of them, not least when scrum-half Tito Tebaldi cost his side 10 metres by carrying the ball away from a Munster penalty. Hanrahan went for goal from halfway with three-and-a-half minutes to play, a brave decision but the correct one as the ball sailed between the posts to edge Munster in front at last, 15-13.
There was more defending to do, though, as Benetton moved back into Munster territory, with replacement fly-half Antonio Rizzi staying back in the pocket and waiting for a drop-kick opportunity. When it came it looked good but hit an upright and bounced to safety, at least as far as Munster were concerned.
Still time for more drama, Hanrahan’s 22 drop-out finding a Benetton player and back the Italians went, the clock edging past 80 minutes and ful-back Jayden Hayward forced to attempt a drop goal from halfway. It had the legs but was well wide and the ball ran dead to end the game, to Munster’s great relief.
J Hayward; R Tavuyara, M Zanon (A Sgarbi, 70), L Morisi, M Ioane; T Allan - captain (A Rizzi, 77), D Duvenage (T Tebaldi, 41-47 - blood); N Quaglio (D Appiah, 47), L Bigi (H Faiva, 47), M Riccioni (T Pasquali, 62); M Lazzaroni (I Herbst, 50), F Ruzza; S Negri (D Budd, 50), A Steyn, T Halafihi.
Nigel Owens (WRU)