The Tony McGahan era came to a disappointing end last night as Munster’s reign as league champions was ended emphatically by a rampant Ospreys in the RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final at Liberty Stadium.
Ospreys, resurgent under new head coach Steve Tandy after a lacklustre European campaign, ran five tries past, through and over a relatively young Munster side with plenty still to learn.
McGahan, the director of coaching who began the difficult job of transforming ageing champions into a new team of contenders, will not be there to see the job through with this game bringing down the curtain on his four-year tenure in charge. He departs for Australia and the Wallabies having blooded a young crop of emerging talent.
Alas, this first taste of knockout rugby for many of them came a little too soon, and a scoreless second half, which saw Ospreys run in three tries to kill the contest with plenty of time to spare, will leave a sour taste in Munster long into the summer.
Munster, already missing captain Paul O’Connell through injury and not prepared to risk fly-half Ronan O’Gara for the full 80 minutes after a severe dead leg injury, lost a frontline player from their starting XV, forcing a late team change following a shoulder injury suffered in training by Felix Jones. Johne Murphy switched to full-back in Jones’s absence with Ivan Dineen coming off the bench to fill the vacancy at wing and Danny Barnes taking his place on the bench.
The switch made a youthful backline even younger but the enthusiasm and ambition predicted by McGahan was quickly evident as Munster took an early lead. Having won a penalty on halfway and then botched the resulting lineout, Munster regrouped and Lifiemi Mafi, the old man of the piece at 29, fed a pass to Keith Earls on halfway. Earls, who has spoke of his intention to become the best outside centre in the world, backed up his ambition by running a great angle onto the pass, evading two tackles before accelerating away from a third, before passing to Ian Keatley on his shoulder. The fly-half still had work to do but caught the last line of the Ospreys defence in two minds and touched down before converting his own try to leave the visitors 7-0 up after just three minutes.
It was a short-lived lead, however, as Ospreys got up to speed. Dan Biggar accepted the gift of a penalty and the home side signalled their attacking intent when they had a try from the soon-to-retire Shane Williams ruled out after the Wales wing put a foot into touch. The resulting lineout was again overcooked from Munster and this time there was no reprieve as Ospreys moved it right and Biggar dived over the line, converting his try to push the Welsh region ahead at 10-7.
Keatley evened matters with a long-range penalty but then Munster were forced into another reshuffle after Murphy went down injured having conceded a penalty on his side’s 10-metre line. Biggar added the points but Murphy could not continue, replaced by O’Gara with Keatley moving to full-back.
It did not disrupt Munster in terms of possession but they failed to make it count and their time inside the Ospreys’ half for the rest of the opening period was fruitless. Ospreys were clinical, punishing a Tommy O’Donnell infringement in front of his posts with Biggar’s penalty goal and, even worse for the visitors, scoring a try just before half-time having turned Munster over on their own 22.
It was full-back Richard Fussell who did the damage, running from deep to bisect two Munster players before taking advantage of Simon Zebo’s slip to advance to the province’s 22, Fussell had great support from No 8 Joe Bearman who in turn found scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i and the Samoan World Cup star skipped over the line to score behind the posts. Biggar converted to end the half and leave Munster trailing 23-10 at the break.
Biggar edged Ospreys closer to the final with a 49th-minute penalty from long range that took the 22-year-old’s points total for the side past 1,000 points. And it got worse for Munster when O’Gara found himself isolated in midfield and on the receiving end of a crunching Justin Tipuric tackle. The ball was turned over and Ospreys were ruthless yet again, Fussell popping up on the right to make the break before offloading to the equally quick wing Hanno Dirksen, who sprinted down the touchline to put the Welsh 21 points up with 25 minutes to go.
Ospreys sniffed blood and scored two more tries as the Munster defence creaked, Andrew Bishop crashing under the posts and then substitute scrum-half Rhys Webb breaking clear to score unimpeded to send his team through the 40-point barrier and into a final against either Leinster or Glasgow.
OSPREYS: R Fussell; H Dirksen (T Isaacs, 71), A Bishop, A Beck, S Williams; D Biggar (M Morgan, 73), K Fotuali’i (R Webb, 56); P James (R Bevington, 56), R Hibbard (S Baldwin, 61), A Jones (A Jarvis, 65); A-W Jones – captain (J King, 69), I Evans; R Jones (T Smith, 69), J Tipuric, J Bearman.
MUNSTER: J Murphy (R O’Gara, 24); I Dineen, K Earls, L Mafi, S Zebo; I Keatley (D Barnes, 69), C Murray (T O’Leary, 56); W du Preez (D Kilcoyne, 74), M Sherry (D Fogarty, 69), BJ Botha (S Archer, 74); Donncha O’Callaghan (Dave O’Callaghan, 53), M O’Driscoll; D Ryan (P Butler, 73), T O’Donnell, P O’Mahony – captain.
Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU).
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